Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Jet Set Radio (known as Jet Grind Radio in the US) is a cult classic Dreamcast title which was released twelve years ago (that makes me feel old). SEGA have polished it up and brought out an HD remake for the current generation. While it does a few things really well, I’m not sure it lives up to the fond memories we have of the original.
Set in Tokyo-to, a futuristic alternate-take on Japan, Jet Set Radio HD sees us taking control of a gang of rollerblading teenagers. Thrown straight into a turf war fought using graffiti, our gang must face various groups of weirdos to retain control of the streets. If that wasn’t enough, the police are also understandably unhappy about our incessant vandalising. Ranging in severity depending on how well you’re progressing through the level, police will come after you to hinder your efforts, varying from guys with batons all the way up to helicopters with missiles. The police captain really does my head in.. Onishima is this fat guy with a pistol, who seems to be able to keep up with a kid on roller skates no matter how fast you’re going. I hate that. You just can’t seem to outrun him unless you make a ridiculous jump, or if you spam the boost button.
At first glance, Jet Set Radio is everything you want out of a video game. It’s fast paced, frantic and fun, with awesome background music to skate to. Visually, this game was made for a HD remake. The cel-shaded graphics have translated really well over the years, keeping it feeling fresh and modern. The NPCs look really weird though, still just blocks of pixels without any discernible features.
One of the best aspects of the game is its soundtrack. The action often switches to the ramblings of DJ Professor K, who narrates the events of the story as well as playing some really catchy tunes. The music varies from funk, hip hop, electronic punk, and even a touch of samba. I love it while I’m playing but it gets sort of annoying when the beats remain stuck in my head for days afterwards.
The art of tagging itself is pretty fun too, with the game prompting the player to flick the analogue stick in different sequences to complete each graffiti. It’s fun, but as the later stages demand longer sequences with the added pressure of police presence, it begins to get a bit tiresome and feels more like a chore.
Sadly, this is where my criticism of the remake begins. I had forgotten how awful the controls were. It feels so stiff, particularly as you progress through the early levels. The controls don’t seem as much of a hindrance early on, but it really becomes apparent how bad they are when every jump and grind counts towards achieving the goal. I found the second level to be unbelievably frustrating. It involves a section which is very high up above street level, with a jump involving a series of grinds and then a leap of faith from a crane. After falling to the ground (a lot) I finally made the jump, and proceeded to tag one of the two targets, only to run out of paint cans half way through. This meant I had to go back down to street level, avoid all the cops AGAIN, and look for more spray paint. Annoying is not the word.
It is in the air where Jet Set Radio HD really disappoints. The game is supposed to be all about tricking and grinding, focusing on style over substance, but it doesn’t even execute that well. It is so hard to complete a string of tricks or grinds successfully, simply because the jump controls are awful. Once your feet have left the ground, you have virtually no control over where you land. This leads to relying on blind faith and gut instincts way too often, and it doesn’t feel good when you’re solely depending on luck to reach your target.
Another point of endless frustration is the camera. It wasn’t good in the original, and it has not been improved one bit in the remake. It locks itself in the environments, restricts the player’s view of the character, and even cuts away completely during really important moments just to show you a pointless cutscene involving the police. This is just asking for us to throw our controllers out of the window.
I especially hated when the police turned up. I’m all for a good challenge, but this just felt really irritating as opposed to adding to the experience. Firstly, when they are chasing you a large yellow arrow appears above your head with “RUN” next to it. I’m still unsure as to whether the arrow is pointing to safety, or whether it’s pointing to the whereabouts of your enemies. This is partly because they seem to be everywhere at once, but it’s also due to the fact that the arrow is so damn unstable; it just flicks around to any direction seemingly at random.
Nostalgia can be a warm fuzzy feeling, but it can also provide us with rose-tinted glasses. Viewed in the clear light of HD, Jet Set Radio has not lived up to its own expectations. If you want an improvement on the original, check out the actual sequel, Jet Set Radio Future. Jet Set Radio HD may be the best so far of the Dreamcast re-releases, but perhaps it would have been better left as that cult classic we all knew and loved.