Jet Grind Radio

April 3, 2020
Developer: Smilebit
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Sega Dreamcast

When I was about 10 or 11, I loved my Dreamcast. I played the hell out of Jet Grind Radio (known by many as Jet Set Radio) back then, and to this day it's still held up as one of my favorite games of all time. The game is an action-platformer mixed with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, and there's a dash of puzzle-like gameplay thrown in there for good measure. The game takes place across three areas that make up some fictional version of Tokyo called "Tokyo-to". In the NA and EU verisons, there are also two additional levels that come off as something vaguely New York-ish. The story, while simple, is anti-establishment in nature: You take the role of your choice of one of many cartoonish characters in a gang of street punks called the GGs who are fighting it out with rival gangs in the streets to claim their turf.

At first, you spend your time spray-painting graffiti on walls, billboards and cars, while the eccentric Officer Onishima and the police force of Tokyo-to chase after you in exponentially absurd ways. It starts off simple enough: some cops chase you around, and when they fail to catch you, Onishima himself comes in, guns blazing. Within a level or two, there are SWAT teams firing tear gas at you, tanks bombing the city to kill you, and choppers launching guided missiles at you—and that's all within the first chapter. Each of the three sprawling areas of Tokyo-to consists of three sub-sections, and the first chapter of the game treats each sub-section as its own level. The first two levels of each area involve chasing off rival gang members while avoiding the police and, most importantly, covering the town in graffiti; the third level involves chasing down and spray-painting the backs of rival gang members to defeat them (your guess is as good as mine). In the NA and EU versions, after the first chapter some outsiders show up and rope you into a conspiracy involving a corrupt financial conglomerate known as the Rokkaku Group. Before you know it, there are trained assassins out for your head: from some weird rich foreign prince guys with whips to jet-pack-wearing, machine-gun-toting foes, the Rokkaku Group means business...all because of some graffiti and a couple pieces of an album that supposedly summons a demon. After traveling to not-quite-New-York, you return to Tokyo-to only to replay all three sub-sections of each area combined as one giant level each as the Rokkaku Group assaults you relentlessly. Ultimately, you engage their leader on top of a giant spinning record while strippers with rhinoceros heads dance in glass tubes around you. Once you manage to spray paint four arbitrary platforms (which, of course, causes them to explode) while a gigantic rhino breathes fire at you, the rhino blows up too, and you can finally tag the bald head of the Rokkaku Group's kingpin one single time, causing him to fall to his assumed death. I felt it was worth describing the absurdity of it all, because although it sounds so stupid and yes, childish, it never feels that way—it never feels corny or cheesy. It feels like a video game—a term that I think has become a bad word nowadays. The developers of Jet Grind Radio weren't afraid to make a game, that feels like a game, that is made up of things that can only happen in a game.

Gameplay-wise, as you rush around town collecting spray cans, you come upon graffiti spots (some optional, some mandatory) in three different sizes: Small, medium and large. You can customize your graffiti if you would like, and there are many pre-set tags by famous graffiti artists to collect and choose from as well. Small tags are simple: Just spray as you go. Medium tags require you to perform a series of three analog stick movements, the order and direction of which is pre-defined per character; large tags require a set of seven in succession. If these movements are executed quickly and precisely, you are awarded bonus points; points which are are necessary to receive higher ranks and unlock hidden characters. There are also arguably "extra large" graffiti spots, which are two large spots next to each other, each one making up half of a double-sized large tag. The core game acts like a platformer, somewhere in between Mario and Sonic. There are individual, contained levels, but they are somewhat open-ended. There is a certain ideal order to spray your graffiti in, but at the same time, you're free to do whatever you want. You can simply complete your objective and get out, or you can explore, find hidden collectibles, or go for the high score. The (very short) game can be replayed over and over, and you keep the characters you've unlocked each playthrough, so this adds some nice replayability as you strive to unlock them all. And it will take you a few play-throughs to get the hang of it: The game seems janky at first, and this "problem" is only remedied by improving your skills at this very different title. The follow-up/reboot, Jet Set Radio Future, is much the same. Both games reward persistence, practice, and patience, and will frustrate the gamer who goes in expecting hand-outs.

Jet Grind Radio is unique. It doesn't take itself seriously. It's fun, it's charming, and the art style is fantastic—it's all aged quite well for an almost 20 year old game. Oh, and the music is fucking phenomenal. And somewhere within it all, there are shy connotations of something more truthful and earnest: the danger of becoming obsessed with something; with a passion spiraling out of control. A small, unimportant sub-plot, but one that still rings true to this day: whether we are living the simple life or we are the most important person in existence, there is always this struggle for control, and whether or not we let it consume us defines who we are.

Final Rating