An eye-popping palette. Skater gangs that dance in sync like the cast of an alternate-reality West Side Story. It may be over a decade old, but Jet Set Radio, now in widescreen and full HD, still looks and feels like nothing else around. Like the modern, semi-futurist metropolis it depicts, the game draws in a range of influences to its genre melting pot. It’s one part time-attack platformer (complete with health bar and collectibles), one part trick ‘em up skater (if it’s metal, you can probably grind it).
The core objective is simple: skate across each stage, tagging the required amount of wall space to dominate the zones of Tokyo-to, avoiding the law, and spraying over the insignia of other gangs until time runs out.
In addition to style that pays homage to everything from B-Boy and hip-hop culture to matinee cartoons, it’s the unique locomotion and sense of physicality of JSR’s quirky cast that sets the title apart. Gliding, hopping and high-flying around town is all about judging velocity and distance. Characters can perform a short, sharp jump with a tap of A, or a higher, floatier flight skywards with an extended press. Grinding is about making the leap to metal correctly, not finely balancing yourself on its edge. It’s easy to forget, in the age of Skate and progressively trickier (and turbulent) entries in the Tony Hawk series, how pure the thrill of JSR is. This is skating without the science – a powerful hit of classic Sega mechanics; Sonic even took to this style of grinding himself when he made the leap to 3D on Sega’s final home console.
The controls are simple to the point of shallowness and so – as with the looping, labyrinthine Green Hill Zone – it’s the level design that demands your full focus here. Stages begin basic, starting with Shibuya-cho’s daylight street-level dalliances and moving on to Benten-cho’s vertiginous night-time setting, all looking better than ever on modern displays thanks to a careful, considered approach to HD remastering.
If there’s a weak link in JSR, it’s undoubtedly the half-pipe – a bane that challenges both the camera and the thumb, often resulting in either a botched attempt at catching air (and leaving your skater with a sore head), or some undignified clipping. It’s a symptom of preservation, of course, and any criticisms that can be levelled at this re-release are merely carryovers from the game’s turn of the century debut. The truth is JSR, even with its minor niggles intact, remains every bit the joy it was when it first splashed onto screens.
Though Sega deserves credit for treating JSR with respect in shepherding it to 1080p – and adding a free camera, mapped to the right stick – it’s not a perfect transfer. There are various textures, and chunks of text, that haven’t survived an ugly-stick beating from the porting process, jarring with an otherwise immaculate conversion. As compensation, there’s a short documentary included that sheds some fascinating light on the game’s development. Interviews with key staff reveal nuggets of information on JSR’s development that serve to enrich its status as a cultural and videogame milestone.
Smilebit, led by Masayoshi Kikuchi – who has since moved on to work on the Yakuza series, another franchise that pivots around vivid city-building – swam upstream with JSR, defying the rush to photorealism, celebrating rebellion and individuality in one of the most memorable genre mash-ups you’re ever likely to come across. Its HD revival is every inch that game, serving as a reminder that originality and passion retain their lustre when all else fades, and that such treasures are worth buffing up to display again.