"Somewhere in Asia, there is a city that cannot be found on any map called "Tokyo-to", but everyone just calls it Tokyo. The two hottest things on the streets of Tokyo-to are the punks wearing magnetically driven in-line skates powered by newly developed "netrium" batteries and "Jet Set Radio", a pirate radio station manned by the DJ "Professor K", that plays nothing but non-stop, hard-core music. Those street punks have been named "Rudies" by the people of Tokyo-to. They roam the streets and cover the city with their personal graffiti, claiming that is their way of expressing themselves to the world."
There really is only one DJ Professor K, and who better to explain the setting for one of Sega's most cherished Dreamcast classics - Jet Set Radio (known as Jet Grind Radio in the States).
In many ways Jet Set Radio came to symbolise one of the most creative and volatile periods in Sega history. It was something very different, it held on to some of Sega's arcade fundamentals, and it never really caught on with the larger gaming audience. Much like the console it originally appeared on.
Jet Set Radio was something very novel at the time. A game where you're tasked with painting graffiti, while trying to outrun the police on your in-lines, chase down and tag rivals, and perform incredible tricks along the way - grinding, twisting and vaulting your way through the streets of a fictional Tokyo.
More than a decade later and Jet Set Radio comes across as remarkably fresh. While it may not technically have been the first game to make use of cel-shaded graphics it certainly was the first one to do so with brilliant results - and the graphics still pop in this HD version.
The music, and Sega somehow managed to include the full soundtrack with the exception of one track for the re-release, is core to the experience.
Unlike Crazy Taxi that had to be released digitally without its signature music, Jet Set Radio, recreates the original soundscape and does so brilliantly. From licensed acts like Jurassic 5 and Rob Zombie (not in the original European release) to the more obscure Japanese indie rock act of Guitar Vader ("Magical Girl" and "Super Brothers"), and the many tracks from Hideki Naganuma ("Humming the Bassline", "Let Mom Sleep", "Rock It On", "Sweet Soul Brother", etc.) it's one of the most vibrant and beautifully crafted soundtracks ever created for a video game. It complements the on screen tagging and grinding to a tee.
I find myself turning on the game, dialing into the the radio corner of the GG's garage and just have the music blast through the room as I write this text. It's almost as if the levels visualise themselves as Funky Radio by BB Rights states "Territory is a territory" over and over. Something that could so easily have been a little cheesy, captures exactly what the game is all about.
"This is your very own guerrilla broadcaster, Jet Set Radio!!! Use this city as your canvas and paint us some vibes from the street!"
I recall the first time I saw something from Jet Set Radio, from Tokyo Game Show, and I was just trying to make sense of the strange imagery. What kind of game was this? The visuals were striking, but in terms of gameplay - what was it that Smilebit were cooking up? Turns out, Jet Set Radio is a game that could be described as a more fleshed out and console friendly take on the classic Sega arcade experience. While, it's not an extremely long, the levels will take one or two tries to get right for the most part - some challenges will force you to really grind through to complete them - and overall it's a game that offers tremendous replayability - aceing the levels and unlocking a diverse and wonderful cast of playable characters - all the way from Beat, Gum and Tab - to Cube, Yo-Yo, Garam and your rivals later on.
At the time Jet Set Radio was edgey and somewhat controversal, in fact Sega included a warning about the difference between graffiti and vandalism that can be read as the game boots up - in fact it's there in the HD release as well. However, unlike a lot of other games that stir up controversy this feels like a genuine concept - and not one that sets out to provoke. Of course, most people didn't find it controversal at the time, and the same goes today. The visual style helps, of course, but this is a fictional work of art, albeit with some serious undertones.
"Police crackdowns on the Rudies have become more severe, and Captain Onishima is more anxious than ever to put them behind bars. The streets of Tokyo-to are ready to explode..."
Yes, you're fighting the police in Jet Set Radio, the corrupt Captain Onishima and his SWAT teams and tanks during the first chapter of the game. Later on you will face even stranger enemies including the somewhat politically incorrect assassin number 5's, as the conspiracy is unravelled. They will try and grab you, shoot you, interrupt your graffiti spraying and generally make life miserable for you.
There are some areas where Jet Set Radio shows it's age. The camera was designed with the Dreamcast's one analogue stick controller in mind, and is a bit tricky to get re-adjusted to, and the controls are not as sharp as one would expect for a modern game. Or rather, the controls require exact timing - and can be unforgiving compared to modern games. The tutorial is one such area, that with today's standards would have been deemed unacceptable, and some of the chase missions also come across as antiquated game design.
But other than that Jet Set Radio feels remarkably fresh from a gameplay perspective - partly because this brand of arcade sensibilities never go out of style and partly because there is a lot of depth there and lots to unlock.
"Hey, out there! This is Tokyo's very own, #1, pirate powerstation, Jet Set Radio!"
Now, if you haven't played this game before the PSN and XBLA HD releases offers you a good incentive to do so. At ú6.49/800 points it's a bargain, but you may want to wait for the PS Vita version (out in a few weeks) if you want your Jet Set Radio on the go.