In the not too distant future, the streets of Tokyo will be ruled by kids with rollerblades, forming gangs to find and fight over turf and marking their haunts with graffiti.
No, I'm not talking about Mark Ecko's Getting Up. No one is ever talking about Getting Up.
No, not Air Gear, either.
I'm talking about JET SET - JET SET - JET SET RADIOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. Or Jet Grind Radio, as they renamed it for the US.
Jet Grind Radio was a culmination of so many things you could do right in a video game, and yet, it didn't sell so well, even amongst Dreamcast diehards. Sure, it's got a cult following even now, but so do individual American Idol contestants, so that doesn't say much. How could you overlook all of this, though?
: For starters, JGR was the first 3D game to use full-on cel-shading as its visual mode of choice, which inspired a whole slew of games to follow suit, from Sonic Shuffle all the way up to more recent (and more appreciated) games like Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Crackdown. Complementary to the graphics engine was the art style itself; a cartoony, somewhat angular cast of characters managed to all be memorable beyond their mere stat differences. A player's choice of character reflected stylistic sense moreso than gameplay sense, in most cases.
: Jet Grind kept things simple while giving players a whole lot to do. The control layout allowed for little more than movement, jumping, and spraying tags, but there was a fair amount of world to do all three of those in, never mind the sheer number of things a character could grind on to reach objectives and new areas. The game's core mechanics were all taught in media res, and paced so that players didn't feel rushed and forget things, but at the same time didn't feel like they were being dragged through overly long tutorials.
Primarily bulked up by the mix magic of Hideki Naganuma, the tunes in Jet Grind Radio did a great job of reflecting the whole "street vibe" of the game, with enough punk- and rock-centric tunes to avoid alienating those less inclined to hip-hop and DJ work. Granted, the bulk of the songs were by Japanese groups, so to make things even more accessible, some popular western (as in part of the world, not genre) artists were tacked on to the American release, but Just Got Wicked came up infrequently enough in the mix that it was easy to forget they were even there.
: While admittedly a fairly familiar tale of the outcast kid banding together with other outcast kids to Fight The Power, the tale of Jet Grind Radio was told just quirkily enough to make players care. Not only did the nefarious Rokkaku Group have the police in their pockets trying to stop you, said cops were actually commanded to shoot
at you, going to such ridiculous lengths as employing tanks and gun-laden helicopters in their attempts to end your innocent, albeit vandalistic, life. Definitely a much harsher reaction to finding you in rollerblades than the one your parents had; namely, asking you if you were into dating members of the same gender. It was goofy, but goofy enough to make you want to know why Tokyo had turned out this way, and whether there was anything to be done about it.
Replay Value and Other Fine Things
: Jet Grind Radio gave players plenty of things to find by going back through levels, such as new graffiti options scattered throughout every level for them to collect, new characters to find and unlock, including versions of the enemy gangs and even the game's boss, and internet capabilities that allowed the sharing of one's homebrewed graffiti tags and the import of image files for use as tags from various sources online. Granted, the whole Dreamcast/internet thing was a bit before its time, but it was a cute idea while it lasted.
On top of the Graffiti Soul album, each area had its own special challenge modes that unlocked toward the end of the game, allowing players to flex their tagging, skating, and other in-game skills, if for no other real reason than to show off to their friends.
Smilebit's Dreamcast opus is a unique piece of work, without being super-weird like Suda51's creations, and it's a shame JGR didn't get more acclaim when its home system really could have used a boost. If you have a Dreamcast, you've no real reason not to track this game down, and if you have an Xbox 360, the semi-sequel Jet Set Radio Future is backwards compatible, and still looks amazing and plays well despite having a fair amount of years on it. It's a shame Smilebit seems to have fallen by the wayside, or else I would have some hope of the franchise seeing a resurrection on this console generation or the next.
Tomorrow, if I have time before my friends and I party down, I aim to wax poetic about the Dreamcast's fighter-friendly nature, something that seems almost genetic for Sega's disc-based systems. See you there.
The Gum in that cosplay pic looks awfully familiar, and if it is who I think it is, I should probably feel a bit weirder about checking out my friend's girlfriend than I actually do.