Known as Jet Grind Radio when it first launched on the Dreamcast in North America, Jet Set Radio was a genre-defining title. At a time when 3-D was big and there was a huge push toward realism, the original game's developer (Smilebit) took a risk and decided to go with cel-shading for a "live cartoon" look and feel. Many credit Jet Set Radio as being the game that started the cel-shading trend in gaming. Now, more than a decade later, the original has come back to strut its stuff for a new generation.
Watching the game run in full HD on the Xbox 360 is somewhat like appreciating a piece of artwork. All of the visuals still look good, in part due to their cel-shaded nature. Although it's not as revolutionary as it once was, the game doesn't look dated at all. Instead, it could easily pass as a current-generation XBLA or PSN title.
Characters all have a distinct look, which makes them stand out from one another. While their stats have an impact on gameplay, you're more likely to end up with a favorite simply because you like his or her style. Initially, only three characters are available, but more start to unlock as you advance through the story.
In addition to making the game look like a moving cartoon, the vibrant cel-shading also makes it an ideal platform to highlight the custom graffiti art within the game. When SEGA and Smilebit first developed the title, they wanted it to be authentic in terms of art and turned to some known graffiti artists to create tags specifically for the game. If you think your digital painting skills are up to the task, Jet Set Radio even lets you craft your own. Sadly, the tag sharing option in the original appears to be absent in the HD re-release.
The sound, which is a huge part of the game, is equally timeless. With a good mix of bass beats, electronic and punk, the music in Jet Set Radio is catchy and eclectic. You won't find any mainstream American artists on here, but it's pretty much a given that after playing, you'll be looking for the soundtrack. In many ways, it's the soundtrack that makes the game, as without it, the levels wouldn't feel nearly as lively.
Where Jet Set Radio falters is in its controls. The basics behind the gameplay are still solid, but the controls can be unforgiving. You're a rebel gang member on skates, sticking it to the man and rival gangs by tagging up the city. In order to tag, you first need to collect spray paint cans. After that, you approach a tag spot and then have to mimic a series of controller motions that are similar to fighting game moves. Characters with higher tagging skills have more complex patterns, but they also award more points.
Skating through the city is a combination of open movement and finding the ideal grind spots. If you're moving fast enough, you can jump on a grind line and then just slide along it, smooth as butter — assuming you nail it perfectly. For better or worse, Jet Set Radio is a game of precision, and it doesn't accept anything less than perfection.
To say that the game is demanding would be a bit of an understatement. For a veteran player who knows the world inside and out, Jet Set Radio can be a glorious playground. For someone who's learning the game, the environments garner alternating feelings of exuberance and extreme frustration. This is because mere millimeters can mean the difference between a perfect line and failing to execute a trick. There is no give. There is no leeway. There is no hidden assist. Jet Set Radio is punishing, but it's also the same aspect that forms part of the draw. The sense of satisfaction when mastering a level is undeniable.
Some of the frustration comes in simply because the camera can be slow to move into position at times. This means you run into situations where your movement is something of a guesstimate. As a result, failure can feel more like bad luck than a mistake on your part.
In addition to the game, Jet Set Radio also includes a short documentary on the history of the game. It's a nice touch that puts the development into proper context and explains why so many gamers thought Jet Set Radio was so groundbreaking when it was first released.
As a game, Jet Set Radio isn't going to appeal to everyone. The mechanics are dated, and the look and feel, while still impressive, isn't as distinctive as it was in a prior generation. If you're up for a challenge, however, it's not a bad way to spend 800 Microsoft points. Just be prepared to swear — a lot — as you experience a piece of gaming history.
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