The Skyscraper District is perhaps the highlight of all of Jet Set Radio Future’s reimagined Tokyo; the pinnacle of a game so dazzlingly vertiginous it can make your ears pop. It’s a five-minute climb to the top of its highest peak – an aeon in gaming terms, a period in which you could comfortably save the world in most other titles. But Jet Set Radio Future is not most other titles, and the lengthy climb is more than worth the time it takes.
There’s a collectable Graffiti Soul token up there, as well as tags to lay down en route, but those aren’t your real reward. Instead, the prize is something much rarer: 30 seconds of genuine loneliness, until the pull of the streets below becomes too much and you skate off the edge into space, back down to the frothing crowds and the living city spread out around you.
There are things you’re supposed to mention when discussing Jet Set Radio Future. First, there’s the movement, the game’s inherent sense of forward momentum. Deliriously simple and fiercely pleasing, a few hours mastering rail-riding and roller skating will enable you to zip through levels without ever touching the ground. And then there’s the soundtrack, a tangled snarl of Japanese noisecore, sweet-natured hip-hop and sepia-tinted trance delivered with the force of a grand mal seizure. There’s the premise, too, with its gaggle of rollerblading counter-culture types taking on a mega-corporation by covering Japan’s capital city in graffiti. And, of course, there’s the cel-shading: a paint-thin aesthetic triumphantly applied.
Jet Set Radio Future has it all: poise, elation, and a perfect marriage of visuals, sound, and theme. But with that theme comes a huge problem for the designers, because while graffiti may well be the most apt metaphor for creative expression in contemporary culture, it also strikes games in their weak spot. Simply put, they don’t traditionally excel at providing creative expression. There have been art games before, such as Magic Pengel, but JSRF isn’t an art game. It’s a platform game, perhaps the purest sequel to 2D Sonic yet created – a guided tour of precision jumps to be negotiated at speed.
The original Jet Set Radio got around the creativity question by trickery, passing itself off as something it wasn’t. The game may have dressed like a slacker, but it thought like a project manager. With its multiple challenges and ever-advancing enemies, the ticking clock made JSR a peerlessly well-disguised time management exercise. Tags had to be laid down in the best possible order, and the complex environments had to be tirelessly sounded for the quickest route between objectives. Yet the sequel chose to throw that all away, ditching the complexities of spraying tags and, more importantly, ditching the time limits.
With the tension that drove the original game removed, JSRF had to become something different, something new. And it did. With no clock to impinge on the exploration, it placed a new emphasis on the environments. The results are almost without precedent: Jet Set Radio Future is not a game, it’s a place. It’s no coincidence that the story – take back the streets by riding and tagging – puts ownership of the city at its very heart. For once, it’s not your life that’s at stake, but your way of life, and the success of the tale rests entirely on the game’s ability to make you care for the space you’re protecting.
The gently futuristic-looking Tokyo of JSRF is a dazzlingly memorable. Prolonged immersion in those skyscraper canyons reveals that Sega indeed did the seemingly impossible: captured the range, heft and sheer variety of a living city, with its classes, cliques and conflicting forces of veneer and decay. From the sun-lasered concrete of Shibuya Terminal to the coiled neon dragons of 99th Street, or the ravens and abandoned engine yards of Rokkaku-dai Heights with their teetering piles of shanties, Tokyo’s discrete locations have a real impact – separate but somehow interlinked; vividly new, yet culturally readable.
It’s free-roaming and vast, but it would be wrong to label JSRF as a sandbox game. Compared to GTA and all its children, the game’s city is thinner on almost all counts. Its locations remain scaleable but entirely non-interactive, and its collectables are truly token. Yet the world it creates has more sense of place in one street corner than Just Cause could cram into an entire island. How did they do it?
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