Review: Jet Set Radio HD

JetSetRadioHD

Nostalgia can be a cruel mistress.  Memories from bygone days are often remembered through humorous or fun experiences from our youth.  Perceptions shift as we get older and learn to recognize when experiences aren’t what we remember.  Partying as hard now as I did back in college only makes me realize how dreadfully painful the next day of recovery really is.  Playing old video games brought back as HD remakes can also feel like a bad hangover.  Sadly some games just don’t age well, and Jet Set Radio is one of them.

Now that’s not to say that the premise doesn’t stand up to today’s standards, or that the graphics don’t look amazing, or that even the music isn’t good anymore.  No, in fact I found myself wanting to play Jet Set Radio in spite of my better judgment because the premise is one that I find fascinating from a historic perspective.  How many games these days actually speak out about how society views and treats the youth revolution and counter culture?  I wanted to play to see how the game presented graffiti culture while offering engaging gameplay through a musical mix of hip hop, jazz, and metal and highly stylized visuals.

Instead Jet Set Radio provides chunky, slow menus and horribly squirrely controls (both the character you play and the new camera controls) countered by fresh cel-shaded visuals and music that give the impression that this game will be fun.  The idea of skating around a city, tagging graffiti to claim territory while avoiding the police sounds like it should still be exciting after all these years.  In actuality, the game plays like it’s still in early beta.  Maybe I’m spoiled by design conventions of modern titles, or maybe I suck at video games.  Both sides of the coin are debatable.

Grinding on rails in modern titles makes falling off of the rail a bit difficult, as if once you are on a rail, you are stuck to the rail.  Not so much in Jet Set Radio. Once on a rail even the slightest twitch of the left stick leads to immediately falling off.  If I didn’t have enough forward momentum once I was on the rail, I slowly would grind until I stopped.  Jumping would allow me to get up in the air, but once I was at a dead stop moving the left stick in any direction would not allow me to easily get off the rail.  This is the exact opposite of me actually grinding on a rail, when an accidental nudge of the left stick sends me tumbling. So, sticky rails when not moving, but not when I am?  Rubbish.  Obviously adding momentum once on a rail would be fairly hard to do.  At least in real life.  But this is a video game.  If I’m grinding on a rail and I don’t have enough momentum to keep moving forward, give me the ability to add speed or at least make it easy to jump off and try again.

Apparently the developers of the game knew that jumping off while standing still would be difficult, so instead of making it easy, they opted to get you off the rail by having any number of the various police enforcers chasing throughout the level be able to not only knock you off the rail, but then stun you so that you can’t just keep moving.  Of course once stunned the police force moves in closer, hitting you again, stunning you and ultimately draining your life, ending the game.  Wee.  Isn’t that fun, kids?

If being knocked over and stunned can be avoided, the actual level challenges still need to be met. Spraying graffiti over rival gang tags has to be completed in order to beat the level.  Paint for graffiti isn’t unlimited and thus requires collecting floating spray cans.  The cans are littered about conveniently where ever rails are positioned for grinding.  Collecting cans requires proper momentum and being able to grind without accidentally bumping the left stick.  Oh, and grinding also demands that you come up on a rail at the exact perfect angle, otherwise when you jump, you will simply jump over the rail instead of land on it and grind.

As if trying to grind to collect cans of paint and avoid police wasn’t difficult enough, you also have to tag rival gangs’ graffiti at the same time. The act of spraying a graffiti tag is performed in one of two ways.  The first is easy: simply roll past a small tag and press L2 to spray a short burst of paint to cover the rival tag.  The second involves stopping in front of a larger tag and pressing L2 to activate a mini-game that has you match the analog stick movements prompted on screen.  Often times the larger tags require two, three or sometimes four cans of paint in order to cover up the rival symbol.  Don’t forget that the police are chasing you during all of this.  Yes, that’s right.  While you are in the mini-game trying to spray over the rival tag, the police can shoot and beat you which interrupts the tag process.  In order to finish the graffiti tag you need to get away from the police (which again isn’t necessarily easy due to their ability to stun you) by skating around the city to ditch them, return to the unfinished tag and then follow the prompts until the tag is complete.

One last thing I forgot to mention: each level is timed.  If poorly implemented forward momentum, grinding, interrupt-able mini-games, collecting cans of paint, and avoiding the police weren’t enough of a hassle to deter you from playing the game, then let’s add more aggressive and powerful police to the chase every two minutes or so.  I can understand a world where police chase punks spray-painting a building. I can even accept police in riot gear shooting tear gas at said punks.  Both are fairly non-lethal and the potential for property damage is minimal.  That mentality just doesn’t work in Jet Set Radio.  Police with billy clubs, a Sargent with a huge .357, even K-9 attack dogs (which stick to you better than when you are attempting to grind on a rail) aren’t enough to keep punks from spraying graffiti in this game.  Nope.  Let’s send in deadly accurate helicopters that can precisely fly through narrow city passages and shoot a never ending volley of rockets.  Never mind that in the real world rockets launched from a helicopter would cause a whole shitload more property damage than some spray paint.  But since this is a video game it is an acceptable challenge “enhancement.”

Give me a break.  This game is not worth the time it takes to download.  For anyone who has fond memories of this game, do yourself a favor and save those memories–and your money.  Sure the game has added the right analog stick to control the camera, but that doesn’t improve how the game actually plays.  Sure the game has leaderboards, but the gameplay just isn’t fun enough any more to make you want to even attempt chasing a relatively good spot online. Maybe during the update the developers should have tweaked the actual gameplay to bring a more modern feel, as fundamental game design has been improved upon so much in the twelve years since this once-revered classic first skated onto the scene. In the end, Jet Set Radio HD shows that it still has the style and the flash, but it’s definitely lost its gameplay funk.

SkipIt

Pros:
+ Solid, varied music
+ Unique visuals

Cons:
- Horribly touchy controls
- Dated menu interface
- Difficulty spikes early and often
- Unfair, unbalanced enemies

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3 via PSN, also available for PC and XBLA and coming soon to PS Vita
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Blit
Release Date: 9/18/2012
Genre: Action
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.