Graffiti is art. However, graffiti as an act of vandalism is a crime.
Jet Set Radio is very nearly a complete metaphor for freedom. Smilebit accomplished the task by making its game small in scope and using every element of its design to construct a theme: it has a large, overbearing enemy in its fascist Tokyo-to and a graffiti mechanic that is an action-oriented, easily understood core concept that is itself a means to fight against the oppression. It gives characters the tools to move deftly through the world to leave their mark. With the guidance of free-wheelin’ DJ Professor K and his pirate broadcast, the youth are rebelling in the heart of Tokyo-to and the pressure is boiling up from the underground.
Though K is the avatar and the voice, the ripples on the pond are caused by the sound waves of mix-master Hideki Naganuma’s funky hip-hop beats. Every song on this marvelous soundtrack is simultaneously a celebration of life and a rallying call against those who deny it. ‘Let Mom Sleep’ reminds you of chasing your brother through the house and uses family and community as reminders about what you’re fighting for and why. The entire album is incredible; the sound of rebellion and hundreds of feet rising to the street with energy and enthusiasm.
That beat will propel you across the world as you leave your mark with your signature tags. At their simplest, a tag can be small enough to lay spray with a quick pull of the right trigger. Larger compositions require you to enter into a basic Quick Time Event, rotating the thumbstick to on-screen prompts. Tag enough and the police arrive to end your spree. And they have reason to fear you. Your designs communicate with the community; they are a simultaneous show of support for the people and assertion of their collective strength against the oppressors- the fight is spirited and electric, defiant but non-violent. Larger tags end with a fanfare; the burst of paint can as kick pedal to a drum using the NES’s sound chip as an amplifier. You can set these designs in the games editor and, when the Dreamcast servers were up, download them from online. Either way, they become your weapons in the fight.
As a central pillar to this game’s design, the tagging mechanic with its dance-like QTEs introduces a core thesis, one that builds a game that’s all about rhythm and flow. It’s reinforced through the character’s roller-blades that allow them to swiftly jam through the streets and effortlessly transfer into grinds and wall-rides. These two disparate gameplay mechanics facilitate the other to create a unified whole about movement and action and complement the gameplay narrative.
As you make a name for yourself and liberate Tokyo-to, you’ll recruit new members with their own stats and advantages that believe in your cause. From Beat to Gum, Combo to Cube, every character is nicely modeled and has an abundance of personality in their appearance and animation. Despite only being able to use one character at a time, every addition to your roster makes your group feel stronger. But that strength attracts rival gangs to challenge it. While none of them have unique members, the three opposing gangs are interesting and stylish- the monstrous Poison Jam, the femme fatale Love Shockers and cyber punk Noise Tanks.
What starts in your own corner of the city will expand further out into hostile territory. Though you can’t run between all the areas of the city outright, many connect into others to create a unified, living place with shops, residential areas and metropolitan business hubs. These areas are distinct from each other but all are appropriate in themselves. There is a tangible sense of culture in the world with its art, architecture, and commercialism that makes the act of tagging somehow less vulgar, less intrusive than it could have been if it was just about vandalism.
You’ll find that urban style in the aesthetic. Many games have used cell-shading since Jet Set Radio but none have been so richly-formed, have so effectively complemented the gameplay as directly in the years since. It’s both an organic extension of the very graffiti you spray and generates a sense of speed, giving the models abstractly-simple exaggerated motion flourishes like wind strewn clothes that wouldn’t have been capable on the Dreamcast with realistic graphics.
There’s a great variety to the level designs within and across the cities where you’ll spread the word and a reasonable difficulty curve to the forces trying to stay your hand. What starts with a few cops chasing you through the streets becomes a grenade-shooting squad of riot police and tank-driving military. The tagging becomes genuinely suspenseful as you watch the cops rush as you put the finishing touches on a design. Unfortunately, you’ve got good reason to be worried that you’ll get caught: where JSR is a celebration of flow, the game grinds to a halt when it’s interrupted.
There are a number of places where this interruption cripples the experience Smilebit is attempting to promote. It starts with your character’s issues with acceleration: there is a real sluggishness to movement initiated from a stand-still to the point where it can be irritating to gain momentum. There is also a fair amount of weight to the steering, so once you’ve got momentum, it’s hard to properly adjust it in the right direction. While levels do a decent job designing lines for the player to jet through the streets, very few places keep you actively engaged on them for more than a few moments. Combined with too many awkward platforming sections the animations and controls can’t overcome and the levels can be downright frustrating. If nothing else, these problems are the counter beats to the concepts of freedom at the design’s core. You feel it when the cops are trying to take you down.
Jet Set Radio’s theme makes it an experience that is woefully unique. Created at the height of Sega’s creativity and energy, it exists almost in a vacuum; Jet Set Radio Future would be released on the Xbox a few years later, but the sequel abandoned much of this games rhythmic design in favor of more non-stop kinetic action.
Jet Set Radio was a Japanese answer to the extreme sports scene created by Tony Hawk and built directly out of Sega’s experience in arcades. Their Model 2 motherboard ran some of the defining Japanese arcade titles of the time with Virtua Fighter 2, Crazy Taxi, Virtual On and House of the Dead, most of which had easy turnarounds onto the Dreamcast’s hardware.