The Funky Rhythm's Comin' Back Atcha
I never was able to get my hands on a copy of the original Jet Set Radio (nor a Dreamcast, for that matter), but ever since I saw the case for its sequel on the Xbox at my cousin's house I've always wanted to get my mitts on either one. I wasn't even sure what the game was about when I had first discovered it then, and the only way to find out was to put it in the Xbox and try it out for myself, but, as luck would have it, my relatives had gone and lost it somewhere within the confines of their mansion of a house. I ransacked their lounge room in pursuit of the CD but it was to no avail. Now, nearly a decade later, having all but given up hope on finding a copy, I browsed through the Steam store and, lo and behold, SEGA had the good graces to at least grant me a remake of the game's prequel. It should come to no one's surprise that I jumped on the deal lightning quick, and after spending a good plenty of hours trying to figure out what the deal is with this goofy little title...
...I still have no idea what the deal is with this goofy little title, but in a good way. It's a lot like Katamari Damacy in that the outrageous premise and unique gameplay overrides the thin coherency of the plot. Basically, Jet Set Radio is a skating game where your objective is to find and tag enough spots throughout the city to claim the turf as your own. It was hard for me to believe that a skating game could cut itself off from the standard Tony Hawk formula and still be enjoyable in its own right, but Jet Set Radio sought to prove me wrong and now I'm meeting the challenge.
Are the GG's still kickin' strong, or has their graffiti been washed away? Only time will tell as we hit up the streets of Tokyo-to and check out the PC port of Jet Set Radio.
For the new kids, I do my reviews in separate categories based on what's good and what's bad. I usually start with the good and I'm not making any exceptions today. Let's see what I enjoyed about the game first.
Good: The first thing you'll probably notice about Jet Set Radio (besides the legendary soundtrack, which I'll get to in a bit) is its radical personality, for lack of a better descriptor. Jet Set Radio boasts a vibrant palette of spectral landscapes that are very pleasing to look at and are even more fun to shred around in. The lads doing the shredding in turn are all unique in appearance and provide their own graffiti art as they're unlocked. You'll notice an ongoing 'feel-good' vibe throughout this game, even with choppers and coppers chasing you down the boulevard.
Speaking of feel-good vibes, you haven't experienced pure bliss until you listen in on the sound styles that Hideki Naganuma composed for the game. Every track is upbeat and urbanized just enough to keep the mood hanging and it's hard to rule out any one song as weaker than another. My personal favorites are That's Enough and Sneakman, although the rest of the OST is booming with fantastic works. The songs are mostly available on iTunes if you wish to own high-quality renditions of them, but even if you are strapped for cash I strongly suggest you search them up and have a listen.
The story of Jet Set Radio is about as fruitful as most other arcade-style SEGA games of its era, which is to say, the plot isn't very important. Your character, a red-haired delinquent named Beat, decides to form a gang called the GG's and oust rival factions around Tokyo-to's districts to claim them as your own by spray painting over their art around town. Officer Onishima, the head chief of Tokyo-to's police force, however, does not take very kindly to his city being vandalized by graffiti and will stop at nothing to drive out any punk that stands in his way, even by sending tanks and attack choppers after them. All of these obstacles come into play when you make your rounds through each district and every succeeding level introduces a new enemy type to keep the game feeling fresh.
A centrifugal part of Jet Set Radio's gameplay involves evading the cops and tagging over your rivals logos through a series of control-stick sliding movements. This is where the PC port falls apart, but I'll get more on that on the 'bad' section. What I will agree to is that when the game plays well on your side you'll have copious amounts of fun perusing the streets and pulling off twisted stunts. There are half-pipes littered throughout the subways and sewers and rails to grind everywhere you go, which really complement the game's play style by allowing you to figure out the best route to your target. It's not nearly as linear as I anticipated, and I'm both somewhat glad and a little perturbed about that.
Bad: (NOTE: THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH ONLY APPLIES TO THE PC VERSION OF JET SET RADIO.) The elephant in the room should be obvious to you by now, but if it isn't, well, this game was not meant to be played on a keyboard. The button mapping can be changed when you start up the game, which is nice, but Jet Set Radio primarily involves quick-time events when spraying certain spots, and these quick-time events were coded with control-stick rotation in mind. As your only method of emulating a control-stick on a keyboard is by using the WASD or arrow keys, these quick-time events suddenly become 200% more frustrating to successfully pull off as you mash the keys in a convoluted half-circle, and since these levels take up a humongous part of the game, it's not hard to see why this port falls a little flat.
At this point, I decided I wasn't going to bother playing the game like this, so I pulled out my brand-new Afterglow PS3 controller with a USB port and plugged it in to see if it would work with the game. Here's where my next few problems arose, although this might just be specific towards Afterglow controllers. When I booted up the game, the controls were a mess. The X and O buttons seemed to be swapped and the start button was changed to R2, among many other mapping bloopers. I decided to back out to reconfigure the control scheme and, what do you know, I was unable to. The more recent updates have apparently gotten rid of controller mapping altogether, whereas the previous versions at least had a controller tab that attempted to find whatever device you have plugged in. I had to download JoyToKey just to properly map the buttons on my controller to the corresponding key on the keyboard, and that's never a good sign when the game requires external software to be played properly. Again, I was only able to test this with my Afterglow PS3 controller, so I don't know if the problem persists with other setups, but this leads me to believe that Jet Set Radio is not entirely compatible with a few other plug-in controllers, either.
Now that I'm done with the technical mumbo-jumbo, one of the biggest problems I ran into with the core game is the lack of direction. Jet Set Radio often leaves you to your own devices, which is nice sometimes, but when the mission spans the scope of an entire district it's hard to keep track of which spots you're still missing. You'd think you could just take a look at the level map, but nope, it's useless, segmented according to which section of the district you're in and doesn't label any spots that are left for you to tag. The issue of faulty navigation is also prevalent in other mission types as well, specifically the rival races, which I swear there is no other way to beat those other than repeated trial and error or a surge of dumb luck.
Overall: First of all, let's put this in perspective right here - Jet Set Radio is a wonderfully great time, and I would definitely say it's in your best interest to check it out. The controls aren't hard to figure out, you're given free reign to tackle each mission however you please and I don't think much more needs to be said about the godlike soundtrack. However, if you don't have a decent controller setup to play it with instead of your keyboard, the game loses a lot of its momentum. Jet Set Radio is a game designed for stick support, as a sizable chunk of the gameplay revolves around it. It's still a great port if you can find a compatible controller, however, and as I've seen screenshots of the console versions looking more jagged and grainy than any other version, you're actually better off with this version if you can't settle for anything else.
Game: 9/10 with controller, 7/10 without a controller