Developer: Smilebit, Blit / Publisher: Sega / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $9.99 / ESRB: Teen [Lyrics, Mild Violence]
Before I talk some mess about Jet Set Radio HD, let me establish how much I loved the original. Jet Grind Radio (original American name) wasn’t only one of my favorite games, but actually played a large part of building who I am. It was one of my first introductions to hip hop culture and graffiti, and it contained a soundtrack that I still listen to today. Yes, I even listened to it while inline skating (but at least I was doing that before the game came out). All of the artistic value of Jet Set Radio HD is still intact, but time has been very unkind to the game’s quirks that were far more excusable twelve years ago.
GAMEPLAY AND CONTROL
One of Jet Set’s greatest virtues is that you can’t really describe it with references to any other game. You play as a skate gang in Tokyo called the GGs. At the game’s outset, you’re simply in a turf war with other gangs in Japan, vying for territory by covering other gang’s graffiti tags with your own. In concrete game systems, this translates into three main level styles: tag X number of areas within a time limit, complete specific challenges to recruit new members, or tag the backs of rival gang members to eliminate them from an area.
The basic gameplay is fun but the structure and controls are obviously dated. One of Jet Grind Radio’s main gameplay elements is grinding — it’s generally faster to get around while grinding on rails and most levels are constructed with this in mind. The only problem is whether or not you actually snap to a rail is very dodgy. On more than one occasion I’d land on a grindable surface as though it were flat ground, or better yet start grinding then just flop off the rail for no real reason. Jumps are extremely floaty as well, which is both good and bad. Ideally it gives you time to make small adjustments to your trajectory in mid-jump to land on rails. It works like that sometimes, but more often your air momentum exacerbates small mistakes. Say your stick is ten degrees away from straight forward when you jump — you’ll veer wildly off course and miss a grind rail that may have been just in front of you.
Here’s an example of how wonky and unpredictable the controls can be: I was playing one challenge that required me to grind one rail, transfer to another, then jump off and stop on a platform. I did it on the first try but then backed out of the second part of the challenge. When I restarted, it took me five tries to do the first part of the challenge again just because weird little stuff kept going wrong. That’s the general story of the game at large; it’s not uncommon to attempt the same jump five times because the game’s physics are so unreliable.
Other aspects of Jet Set Radio HD like tight time limits and non-regenerating life fit right in with the arcade culture of the Dreamcast, but may be jarring for players used to more modern and softer approaches. These gameplay aspects aren’t bad, but certainly worth keeping in mind. There isn’t a whole lot added to the package to justify the HD either. You can now control the camera with the right stick, but it snaps back to center so quickly it’s not very useful. There are also online leaderboards for those that want to compete in score attack-type levels that are unlocked later in the game, but again that’s a fairly negligible contribution. I did enjoy the “Making of” mini-documentary included with the game though. Ultimately it’s more of a re-release than an HD remake, despite actually being in HD.
Though the gameplay of Jet Set has obviously degraded with age, the artistic side of the game is timeless. The aesthetic of Jet Set rivals the best of Japanese pop art. Hip hop culture and the bright, cutesy flash of Japanese manga and anime combine effortlessly with cel-shading to create a world that’s a living embodiment of music and manga culture. This is lofty and haughty praise, I’ll admit, but it’s true.
The paint has chipped, however. There are a few elements of the visuals that didn’t survive the modernization so elegantly. First of all, it doesn’t look like any of the textures have been uprezzed. Given that the original game didn’t rely heavily on sharp textures, it doesn’t impact the visuals too much. In fact, you could argue that some of the blocky textures give the game more retro-artistic appeal, but that’s up to taste. What’s less excusable are the frame rate issues and overly aggressive environment culling. Some levels — Grind Square most of all — chug down to the FPS teens at times, and it’s possible to see a screen completely blank of geometry if you turn around too quickly or travel too fast.
Jet Set has one of the best soundtracks of any game ever and the HD re-release contains all but one of the original tracks. So says Wikipedia anyway… I couldn’t tell which track was missing and that’s with a decade of listening to the soundtrack under my belt. The range and quality of Jet Set’s soundtrack is unparalleled. Not only do you get acid jazz, hard rock, and jpop, but bizarre combinations of big beat electronica with high-energy Japanese vocals that you can’t find anywhere else. The soundtrack is worth the price of entry alone for music buffs. Given that the game is equal to the cost of an album on iTunes, it’s a no-brainer.
Jet Set Radio was a hallmark release, but it was only so because it hit at just the right time. The artistic aspects of the game are timeless, and I’d recommend the game without batting an eye to anyone that’s interested in quirky games or unique visual design. People that just want a fun game though, that’s trickier. By all means play it if you missed it the first time around, just understand that the value is in theme and presentation rather than timeless gameplay.