Back in the ’90s, when I had a Dreamcast, lived with roommates, and had more hair, my roomie and I had a little disagreement. “You have a Jet Set Radio problem,” he said, to which I replied that I had no “problem.” Would you tell Mozart he had a piano-playing problem? Would you tell Michael Jordan that he had a basketball problem? I had simply mastered Jet Set Radio! So, please, understand two things here: one, that I loved the original Jet Set Radio; and two, that I was totally prepared to savage this game if they tampered with some of my happiest gaming memories. And if they recreated it perfectly, I was prepared to be disappointed and to write a mournful piece about how you can’t reclaim the joys of the past, what was great 10 years ago is passé now, and all that other old-guy stuff.
It turns out that there’s no need to cry in my Geritol. Playing the XBLA reissue of Jet Set Radio makes me just as happy today as it did back in the day. If anything, I’m a little sad how few games have followed up on its elegant controls, glorious art style, and light-hearted anti-capitalist story. I usually find skating games fiddly and dull, but the brilliance of Jet Set Radio was how it cocked an eyebrow at the hand-cramping button combos of the Tony Hawk series, swept out all the clutter, and stripped the genre down to its barest essentials. There’s one button for boosting, one button for jumping, and the main stick for shifting your weight, providing the opportunity to apply delightfully physics-defying midair “english” to your skater. Getting near a rail or a wall is enough to initiate a grind, so the player can ignore arbitrary button assignments and concentrate on pure kinetic fun.
Many of the levels, particularly the chase missions, are so precise in their demands that they become a sort of high-speed puzzle game; you’ll invest significant time just figuring out what combination of leaps will get you to certain goals. But unlike the games of H.O.R.S.E. that made me give up on the Skate series, you’ll never be forced to reproduce predefined tricks. Instead, the game gives you a time limit and an objective, and you can get there however you like, unleashing both your reflexes and your creativity.
Though the controls are simple, each skater has a whole range of subtle differences, letting you apply your own style en route to a perfect score. The combination of elegantly minimal controls and varied paths to the objectives makes the game a simple shape that becomes endlessly rich as you look more closely, like the coast of England in James Gleick’s Chaos (and how’s that for the ultimate ’90s reference?). Playing it now, I remember exactly why I got hooked on the original: Because no matter how well I did, there was always the tantalizing possibility of doing just a little better.
The other half of the Jet Set Radio equation is the graffiti, and it’s as gleefully insubordinate as ever. Though you can no longer upload your own graffiti (one of the many ways this generation of consoles has taken a step backward from the Dreamcast), there’s a lot of tags to unlock, and you can make your own tags if you’re willing to put up with the crude interface. The game opens with the same winking warning as the original: “Graffiti is art. However, graffiti as an act of vandalism is a crime.” But then it unleashes you on the city with the goal of decorating it with the art you like best. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the thrill of tagging, and the ability to tag the backs of the overreacting cops adds an extra dose of teenage kicks.
But it’s notable that the game’s most destructive acts, like bringing down enemy fighter planes by spray-painting their windshield, give only a slight score bonus. Climbing the ranks is more about being so fleet-footed that it’s like the hapless police and the malevolent corporate drones don’t even exist. In this game, having fun while pushing yourself is way more important than defeating enemies.
What moves Jet Set Radio from “a lot of fun” to “one of the great gaming experiences” is its unique aesthetic. The music, in particular, is some of the greatest in the history of the medium, an incredible fusion of J-pop, hip-hop, and psychedelic rock that makes everything you do feel like the coolest thing ever to happen a TV screen. The game comes out of a particularly wonderful cultural moment, when a not-yet-curdled otaku culture cross-pollinated with fast-internationalzing hip-hop, producing a style that mixes brightly colored whimsicality with street-smart defiance. Though a few games have picked up on its visual surface (most notably the equally creative The World Ends with You), there may never be another game in which the act of defying corporate overlords is conveyed with such buoyant optimism. This is the game that Mirror’s Edge wished it could have been, a world where the individual spirit’s resistance to corporate conformity was expressed through spatial energy, colorful art, and a nice twist of gender inclusiveness.
Jet Set Radio is an all-ages-show of a video game, in which cheerful amiability is as much part of the rebellion as boyish aggression. It comes from a time when thuggish hostility hadn’t yet become the default state for mainstream games, which all other titles had to either desperately emulate or loudly eschew. The bright-eyed fun of the game is a poignant reminder of the best that Sega could once accomplish, back when they specialized in combining Nintendo-esque sunniness with hardcore gamer challenge. Turns out, that as long you make your home inside an artist’s vision, you really can go home again.