Jet Set Radio, like most video games, is aspirational. You play Call of Duty, you want to feel like a badass, no matter how morally dubious that badassery may be. You play Skyrim, you want to feel like a destined hero; Madden, you want to feel like a tactical genius of the gridiron. Jet Set doesn’t trade in those usual modes. What you aspire to in Jet Set Radio is coolness. You’re no hero here in one of Sega’s defining Dreamcast games, now reborn in HD. You’re just trying to be the coolest rudie in Tokyo-to, placing your tags around town and shutting down your violent, unsavory competitors while sticking it to the fascistic police force.
For those that missed Jet Set in its first go around at the dawn of the century, here’s the scoop: You control the GGs, one in a number of graffiti artist gangs (i.e. Rudies) kitted out with magnetic inline skates vying for dominance of Tokyo-to’s districts. You’re allied with Professor K, the DJ of a 24-hour pirate radio station called Jet Set Radio, whose mission is to expose the corrupt rulers of the city, the Rokkaku Corporation, and their police force cronies.
Fighting the power in the world of Jet Set Radio mostly entails grinding rails and tagging everything in sight. Most levels in the game give you a time limit to enter a city district and spray down a set number of marked locations. You choose small, medium, and large tags for your skater — you can design your own or collect them in a tough to reach spots throughout the levels — and mark up the town appropriately. Small tags go up with just a quick pull of the left trigger on your controller, but medium and large tags require you to slide the left analog stick in time with onscreen prompts. You’ve got to be quick, though. Mess up, and your score multiplier is broken. Plus, you’ve got cops bearing down on you and they will literally kill you if given the chance (the authorities’ murderous nature is part of what makes being a vandal okay in Jet Set’s world).
Adventures in graffiti are only as interesting as the town they take place in. Luckily Tokyo-to is one hell of a city. Each district is a glorious tiered structure of train tracks, banisters, scaffolds, and billboards, all of which can be used to keep your skater moving fast, and gaining air. The skaters you unlock — rivals will periodically challenge you to trick-offs and races, joining the GGs if you win — have varying skills, but those that are fastest are the best because of how hard it is to move through the city. Jet Set Radio isn’t forgiving, and you have to learn both the rhythm of skating, how to properly line up a landing, and the layout of the sprawling neighborhoods if you hope to succeed. When you do, the flow of Jet Set is unlike any other. The first time you hug a corner, perfectly time a jump onto a billboard edge, and grind down a skyscraper, tagging as you go while the cops trail behind, you’ll cheer out loud.
You’ll be bobbing your head too. Hideki Naganuma’s songs and the other tunes compiled by sound director, Fumitaka Shibata, still make up one of the best soundtracks ever in a game. The fusion of late-90s J-Pop and sample-heavy hip-hop has aged marvelously. Jet Set’s sound is more indebted to Shonen Knife, post-Paul’s Boutique Beastie Boys and The Avalanches than Kool Keith, and it still works. The HD remaster is only missing a couple of tracks from the original release, one of which was only featured in the PAL version of the game anyway.
Taking down Poison Jam in the Tokyo-to sewers, spray painting Captain Onishima in the face before he shoots you, designing your very own tag in the game’s editor, grinding a rail—It’s cool. Very cool.
Nostalgia can be poisonous for a game. Jet Set Radio isn’t without problems. The camera has as much trouble following you in the HD version as it did in the past. Niggling technical issues like that are barely worth mentioning though. This is the definitive version of the game, a big, beautiful presentation of one of Sega’s greatest creative achievements. It makes you aspire to coolness, and stands as an inspiring work in the tapestry of 2012’s games.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on a PlayStation 3 copy provided by Sega)