Something's definitely in the water over at Sega of Japan. Quality titles for the Dreamcast keep popping up month after month, like someone's hitting the developers there with an idea stick. Well, someone definitely got lumped up real good this time, because Jet Set Radio is one of the most original games to come around for quite some time. From the innovative graphic style, mostly tight gameplay, and super music, this is one game that will no doubt be copied in various ways for quite some time. Of course, the "right" thing for any developer to do after seeing and playing this one would be to build on the foundation set by JSR and create an equal or even better title, but we all know originality is too rare a thing in the gaming business…
Anyway, check this out: in the near future, in a city called Tokyoto, Rival gangs battle over their turf in mostly non-violent clashes that involve spray painting their tags on some rather expensive real estate. Now, the police don't take too kindly to this, and one particular detective is pretty dead set on keeping order in his one horse town, a-huh. You start out playing as one of three members of the "good" gang, the GG's, and you can unlock other characters as you skate and paint your way through the game. For the first few levels, all you have to worry about is some pretty weak rival gang members and a horde of Keystone Cops that gang up on you and administer a fresh beat down on your slow-ass hide, should they catch up to you. It's really funny to see your chosen character skating away from a pack of police, dragging one or two for a few yards- definitely NOT something I recommend you try in real life.
Even though the game is entirely in Japanese (except for the excellent voiceover narrator), it's simple to pick up and play, thanks to a short tutorial (and no, you can't skip it). You're shown a set of basic moves, and after that; it's up to you to mimic them. After these lessons, it's onto the main game, which plays just like a weird hybrid of Tony Hawk, the old Genesis game DJ Boy, and a bit of the movie The Warriors. Yes, it's hard to properly describe the game, so stop reading this review, run out and snag a copy of the import. If you think it's just a hip-hop version of Tony Hawk, the gameplay will surprise you. Basically, you have to skate around a level snagging spray can icons, and paint up selected areas while avoiding any run-ins with the police. Again, easy at first, but when the cops start rolling out tanks, assault helicopters, and some unbelievable end level bosses, the game turns into an old Nintendo platformer! And yes, that's a compliment. What makes it even more remarkable is the fact that the game manages to combine its fantastic graphics and old school play mechanics and not feel contrived or rehashed in any way. The two trickiest things in the game for most folks who've never played anything like this will most likely be the painting motions (you'll need a fast analog thumb), and pulling off some of the wilder stunts, but practice makes perfect. Besides, the trick system is pretty forgiving- it's almost too easy to grind on and jump over stuff.
Graphically, the game definitely breaks new ground in its use of cel shading, and the truly amazing (and occasionally gaudily colored) realistic looking backgrounds. The sense of realism you get from the pedestrians and moving traffic gives the game a better sense of place than in The frame rate is a solid 60, but the pace of the game is not as frantic as you'd think. There are no hyper-exaggerated speed effects to send you leaping to your death accidentally, and it's pretty much impossible to crash into walls in the game. The controls are extremely simple to pick up; yet pulling off a few of the harder moves and reaching some of the hidden areas can be a bit daunting at first (Practice, is all I can say). The music is really something as well, funky, yet low key at the same time. The main title jumps out and bites you, while the in-game tunes are a bit tame. and I prefer the no-name beats and hip-hop jams here to what's going to happen to the U.S. version (Rob Zombie? Yeesh. I'll be he doesn't even rollerblade.).
I'm not going to even mention the create-a-tag feature, and the implications this has when combined with the internet link. Let's just say that a LOT of people will be getting very creative should this make it intact to the U.S. version. Funny thing is, I have absolutely no idea how Sega of America is going to market this one- hopefully they won't use the same ad agency that bought us that that Virtua Tennis print ad. Ugh. Anyway, I'm going to shut up, and let you boogie on down to your favorite import shop and pick up a copy- just watch out for the cops on the way back home.
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