It may not have been the very first cel shaded video game, but Jet Set Radio was the game that truly brought the idea of giving 3D games a cartoon quality to the mainstream, and in doing so it became one of the defining games of Sega's ill fated Dreamcast platform.
Later games like The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and Borderlands have broadened the audience of cel-shaded titles and today it's common place both among games targeted at young kids and more adult productions. The techniques have been improved upon, but Jet Set Radio still stands as one of the greatest examples of what cel-shading can achieve.
Developed by Smilebit, formerly known as Team Andromeda and responsible for the Panzer Dragoon series, the game was premiered at Tokyo Game Show in 1999 and as it was during the height of the Dreamcast era the hype was immense.
Jet Set Radio was the perfect blend of aesthetics with the visual style, the sense of youth culture and urban expression, along with a soundtrack that perfectly captured and underlined the vibe of the game. It was funky, catchy, and with that somewhat, strange and naïve Japanese quality.
We followed the GG's, Beat, Gum, and Tab, as they went up against rival gangs The Noise Tanks, Poison Jam, and the Love Shockers, as well as the police led by Captain Onishima. The levels saw the player tag a set number of spots to win the map, while trying to stay alive at the same time. The game required both a good sense of navigation in the sometimes cluttered maps as well as skills grinding and jumping to difficult to rach tag spots.
The cel-shaded graphics were not only an inspired art choice, but they only helped diffuse the explosiveness of a game that saw players spray graffiti all over a city while dodging bullets from cops, hitching rides on the bumpers of cars and more.
Quoted from the back of the PAL box (spelling mistakes included):
"The government is attempting to silence the kids of Tokyo-to, but armed with their motorised in-line skates the cops will have to catch 'em first. Professor K keeps the tunes pumping from the pirate radio station "Jet Set Radio", his music keeps the kids unified and inspired to fight for their rights of expression, which includes graffiti art. You can design your own graffiti tag or even upload/download new tags online, so start expressing yourself, grab your spray cans and tag city streets. Join up with like-minded street artists that will help you keep your territory the way you want it. With rival gangs trying to muscle in on your turf and the law just around the corner you'll have to skate hard. It's fast, its fun and it's definitely funky! The online functions for this game are only available in the UK, mainland France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Ireland."
"Grab your spray cans and tag city streets" - something that naturally caused a bit of controversy back in the day, as the practice of tagging city streets isn't exactly encouraged in most cities and nations around the world. It sparked a fair bit of criticism back in the day, and it's hard to imagine any other hardware manufacturer at the moment or even today for that matter who would willingly walk into the sort of controversy. And ultimately in doing so, Sega gave us the perfect example of why it was so easy to like their product, even if their games were far more mixed in terms of quality than say those of bitter rival Nintendo. Sega was the edgier alternative, and even if Sega is a totally different company these days it's nice to see them pay tribute to Jet Set Radio with the release on digital platforms this summer - a tribute to their glory days as provocateurs and innovators.
The screens in this article are from the updated HD version that will hit Steam, PSN, and Xbox Live Arcade this summer. It won't feature the entire soundtrack sadly, specifically some of the licensed PAL and NA songs have been removed, but most of the eclectic Japanese tracks have been kept in.