Although the Dreamcast may not have been a commercial success, there were definitely a dozen or so titles that have left their mark on gaming culture. Shenmue, Crazy Taxi, Samba De Amiga; I won’t dwell, but you get the picture. One of the titles that really shone for me on Sega’s system was Jet Set Radio (JSR), or Jet Grind Radio as it was named for America. It’s well executed, cel shaded visuals and modern electronic soundtrack gave it a completely different feel from anything I had played before. It was a fast paced platformer, putting you in the shoes of inline skating youths as they fought for the freedom of a futuristic Tokyo. The Western equivalent was the Tony Hawk franchise, which relied on you usually just racking up the biggest score possible. It was a stark contrast that did well to show how extreme sports are perceived in different cultures.
I thoroughly enjoyed playing it and although critics gave it positive reviews, JSR didn’t do very well in the charts. Once Sega dropped out of the console wars I felt that it might be the end of the franchise, eternally banished for retro collectors. However, recently I discovered and purchased Jet Set Radio Future, the sequel (or prequel?!) for the Xbox. Upon start up, a lot has changed; some for better, some for worse. So does this version live up to my high expectations of its predecessor?
Yes and no. The graphics have had a major overhaul, increasing the detail of the cel shading and the city environments in ‘Tokyo-to’. It looks very impressive, but somehow some of the stylised feel has been lost from the original. I guess for me, in the original JSR it was something about the simple colour palette and block shading that made it so unique. In comparison, Jet Set Radio Future is grittier and more realistic, so it all comes down to personal taste on which version you prefer. The cut scenes are still minimal, but the inclusion of Professor K (the DJ of the pirate radio station, Jet Set Radio) does enough to keep the simple story amusing and vibrant. Jet Set Radio Future was almost a launch title for the Xbox system, so to see it stand up so well today is a true testament to its graphical approach.
The Dreamcast had one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever seen. Blending trip hop, electronica and dance, Hideki Naganuma led the way with tracks that supported and enhanced the entire experience. These days we’re offered music scores like ‘EA Trax’, which is incredibly generic and genre-less. By covering all bases, developers think they’re playing it safe and pleasing everyone, but in reality making a playlist with little personality. Instead, Sega threw that rulebook out the window. Jet Set Radio Future is even better than the original, remixing old tracks and throwing in new ones that constantly give your ears something new. Instead of what the gamer would like to listen to, you’re forced to listen to Jet Set Radio; the music the characters would listen to. This isn’t a negative though, as it helps immerse you in the characters and the lifestyle they lead. Which is important, because otherwise there is very little drama or emotion to connect you to these characters. Each skater only has a few coined phrases and once you find your favourite it’s easy to forget about the others.
The levels are relatively big, connected together in a pretty handy map of the city. They have multiple pathways and areas which you’ll learn to access as your skill and ease with the control system increases. Grinding and grabs are all automatic, leaving you only to worry about timing your jumps and speed boosts. A huge negative I have from this game is the streamlined graffiti mechanic. In the original, you would collect cans of spray paint scattered in the level and then find designated walls to unleash your art upon. You then had to copy arrows with the analogue stick to complete the tag, losing valuable cans if you were too slow or inaccurate. Rather than take this further the whole system has been taken out. After finding a can you simply walk over to the wall, push the right trigger and you’re done. I think Sega did this to try and keep the gameplay high paced, but for me it simply felt shallow.
The main story is fairly lengthy, but can be increased even further if you decide to unlock all of the secret mix tapes and characters. A versus mode is also available, which will keep you and a few friends hooked on beating times and finding new shortcuts. An online mode would have made this a truly competitive package, but as it stands it still has a lot of hours for your cash. I would recommend Jet Set Radio Future to anyone who is a fan of platformers, action sport games or even racing titles. Despite a few obvious design choices the game is enjoyable from start to finish. I never felt like any of the goals were a chore and found some of the later levels to be particularly challenging. Sega has taken full advantage of the Xbox hardware to make a game that looks, feels and sounds like nothing you’ve played before. If you find this title for a retro price, it’s certainly worth a look.