09.09.99. Leading up to, the magical number that would dictate the release of Sega’s blockbuster pre-we-using-the-term-next-gen next-gen system, which would wipe clear the hall of Nintendo and Sony for good. In retrospect, it was the day that began the Sega console death-march, even if the Dreamcast was one of their strongest systems. It was an illustration of Sega’s strengths, lushed out and lengthened in non-parallel ways. Sonic in 3D wasn’t a triumphant moment, but games like Crazy Taxi, House of the Dead, Chu Chu Rocket, Rez and Space Channel 5 are prime examples that, at heart, Sega is an arcade game company, who can punch out quick thirst quenchers with simple concepts that are brilliantly original. Not to mention well done.
No game is more a testament to this than Jet Set Radio (known as Jet Grind Radio in North America), an extreme in-line graffiti action game, which has you and a posse of cell-shaded art bomb banditos thrashing across Tokyo-to and dodging the man. It is one of the most memorable games of Sega’s final stride on their own turf. And, oh look, now it’s in HD.
Tokyo-to is a sprawling, near-future, neon-cell shaded metropolis, full of homely pedestrians, overzealous police enforcement and, most notably of all, gaggles of scribbling, hyper-battery-powered rollerblader gangs that dominate the streets with their tricks and tags. You are the GG’s, a new outfit looking to make a name for itself by commandeering turf from rivals the Noise Tanks, Poison Jam and holding your own against the Love Shockers. All the while, a mysterious Golden Rhino gang is up to something entirely no-good, and it may require your eclectically specific set of skills to set Tokyo-to right.
From the outset, Jet Set was hard to ignore. As games were getting cozy with the third dimension, most publishers were making the hard push for gritty and “realistic” as a ground floor for all major endeavours. But Jet Set Radio, on top of a ludicrous pitch, uses shades of colours I’m not certain exist in reality. It was in so many ways, especially artistically and culturally, ahead of the curve, hoping to create an uncanny, estranged universe instead of emulating something the current tech could not grasp. So while it didn’t have pore-textures or, uhm, physics, it had cult baiting creative design and one of the greatest mixed soundtracks in all of videogame-dom. So now, with the game being re-released, the real question isn’t, “was it good?” The question’s, “is it still as good today?”
Admittedly, Jet Set Radio’s turn at a makeover is selectively restored. The colours, the wonderful wonderful colours, are piercing, and HD makes them pleasantly radioactive. While audio, particularly that gifted score, with Japanese trip hop, acid jazz, Cibo Matto and, as I totally forgot, Rob Zombie (then again what late-90s video game didn’t have Rob Zombie?) has been polished for whatever tricked-out speaker set you froth over. But there are some odd omissions. Okay, laziness.
The clunky character models I’ll overlook, since it could be one of those resilient aesthetic pieces holding the charm together, but there are a number of objects that just weren’t even jabbed at. The tags look great whenever you select them, but they don’t entirely hold up when you use them, sometimes looking smudged or oddly cropped. Shafted even more are the entirety of graphics, signage and illustrations around Tokyo-to, which even a decade later have been left as a dogpile of pixels. Controls haven’t been enhanced by any measures, and they even feel a bit sluggish on modern controllers. And before I seem like a whiner, there are odd glitches, and some that deprive you of that soundtrack you paid half the admission for.
Everything else, however, is still gold.
There are some new tags, but otherwise it’s all the classic material. It harks back to the era of true Sega games: arcade games, designed based on time, speed, and simple goals, decadently dolled up with addictive artistic aesthetics. Jet Set Radio still serves as one of the greatest achievements — hip at the time and, because of the constantly tightening belt loop of nostalgia, still trendy today. If you’ve been defacing your walls with fan art for a decade, you’ve likely already made the purchase, but if you’ve never had the pleasure, then it’s time to believe the hype.