SEGA’s rebellious action game hasn’t lost its edge.
The Dreamcast was more than just SEGA’s final console, it was their creative peak. Where their rival Nintendo leveraged a small stable of iconic properties every single generation, SEGA took the Dreamcast as an opportunity to forge a new identity. They split their internal development up into semi-autonomous studios and gave them the ability to pursue their own passion projects. The experiment didn’t last long. Within a couple years, SEGA buried its console, and consolidated its developers not long after, but the Dreamcast’s brief tenure left behind a stable of wildly original titles that stand as some of the best of their day.
Nearly all of these made their way to other consoles as SEGA sought to recoup their losses after a costly defeat. For a long time Jet Set Radio (formerly Jet GrindRadio in North America) stood as the glaring exception; the one reason to keep that Dreamcast handy. Although it spawned an ambitious sequel on the original Xbox, it was at best a very different sort of game. Now, SEGA is looking to right that wrong by porting the classic skating action game to every platform under the sun. Earlier this year JSR hit the major consoles, and now it’s landing on iOS, PlayStation Vita, and Android.
Jet Set Radio was a reaction of sorts to the dry visual styles that characterized the early days of 3D console gaming. Smilebit set out to create something that was vibrant, hip, and rebellious, rooted in the youth culture ofTokyo in the late ‘90s. The visual style, which leveraged the then-new technique of cel-shading, was unlike anything gaming had seen before, and the eclectic soundtrack remains one of the all-time greats.
The gameplay, too, defied expectations at the time. Players controlled one of a gang of “rude boys” on rollerblades. Each level was littered with various graffiti from rival gangs, which players then had to cover up with their own tags. Matters are complicated by the overzealous police who ramp up their efforts throughout the level, unleashing attack dogs, tear gas, and military helicopters to take down the vandals. The result is a comic medium between the free-form skating of Tony Hawk and the sandbox mayhem of Grand Theft Auto.
Although it’s now over a decade old, Jet Set Radio is still quite the looker. Despite some blocky models and blurry textures, everything oozes style, and the cel-shaded graphics are still maybe the best use of the technique to date. The new mobile incarnation seems to be no worse for the wear, looking almost identical to the recent console ports. Eagle-eyed nit-pickers might notice that the pop-in/level-of-detail threshold has been moved a little closer, and some of the textures are a bit more compressed, but at a glance they look identical.
The expansive soundtrack remains almost completely intact as well, and it wouldn’t be the same game otherwise. The deep playlist is anchored by Hideki Naganuma’s funky hip-hop inspired instrumentals, and filled out with some truly excellent tracks by underground Tokyo artists like the indie rock band Guitar Vader or the DJ duo David Soul. It’s an incredibly hip, distinctive collection of songs that you’d be just as happy to jam along to in the car. The selection is marred only by a handful of questionable American tracks used in the New York-themed stage from artists like Rob Zombie and Cold.
Nothing has been slimmed down for the handheld release, and very little has been changed. This is the full-length experience you remember, at half the price of its console equivalents, which makes it an impressive value. The down side of this is that very little has been done to adapt the game for the format. Four on-screen buttons and an analog d-pad replicate the console controls as best they can, and you can adjust the camera by sliding your thumb anywhere on the right side of the screen – an ability painfully absent from the Dreamcast release. The Street Fighter-like controller motions needed to paint your tags have been wisely replaced with a gesture system, but the detection sometimes seems a bit spotty.
The loose controls are probably the most dated aspect of JSR, and reliving them on a touch screen does the game no favors. There are no options to change the size, placement, or layout of the buttons, and on a 10-inch tablet the controls are comically large. Mercifully, it does support external controllers, and our experience with a PlayStation 3 controller was just like old times. Here, too, there are no substantial configuration options, and the camera and spray functions are both mapped to the same button (as they were on the Dreamcast and the recent console ports), but it’s no worse than it ever was. Xperia PLAY is supported as well, but frame rates on the aging device leave something to be desired.
Although some options might have helped, the touch screen is just not the ideal way to play this game, and there’s not much that could fix that. If you’ve never played Jet Set Radio before, make sure there’s a controller in your hand when you do. If, however, you’re just looking for some pocketable nostalgia, SEGA’s port does an impressive job of packing the full experience into a tiny package, and with HDMI out and a Bluetooth controller, it could nearly pass for its counterparts. Either way, JSR is a classic, bursting with personality, charm, and more than a little funk, and it has aged as gracefully as anything from its time.