XBLA review: Jet Set Radio

Originally released for SEGA's Dreamcast back in 2000, Jet Set Radio bids adieu to the conventions of extreme sports games and places emphasis on tagging specific areas with graffiti. The game was a pioneer in its day for being one of the first major retail releases to use cel-shaded graphics, and gained a cult following due to its sense of style and gameplay. Now Jet Set Radio is back via digital distribution, and feels like a breath of fresh air to the Xbox Live Marketplace.

Jet Set Radio follows three teens, all members of the GG gang, in the fictional city of Tokyo-to as they mark their territory with graffiti and subsequently defend it from rival gangs and the police. When the GGs find a piece of a broken record dropped by one of their rival gangs, they find it is tied to a group known as the Golden Rhinos. As rogue DJ Professor K broadcasts across Tokyo-to's airwaves, the GGs recruit new members and dig deeper into the intentions of the Golden Rhinos.

Graphically, the game has aged much better than other games of the era, thanks in no small part to the aforementioned cel-shading. The lifelike motions of character models add a dash of attitude to the experience, and as a whole the HD re-release is one of the best looking of its kind. SEGA has done a wonderful and careful job of retaining the essence of Jet Set Radio, having brought back all but one of the classic tunes, which range from technopop to hip-hop to metal. Jet Set Radio is wildly experimental in its presentation, and this shows as much in the visuals and audio as it does in the actual gameplay.

Beneath the stylized appeal lie some dated game designs. Before you are allowed to acquire one of more than nine playable main characters, you must compete with them by either imitating the series of tricks they pull off or racing them to an objective. The latter often force you to play as the obvious underdog and find out which route you need to take via trial and error. Though brief, these challenges must be completed in order to progress through the story.

Compared to something like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Jet Set Radio runs at a slower pace, and tricks feel both less fluid and less exciting to pull off. However, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater is a game that is entirely concerned with chaining combos and pulling off tricks, whereas Jet Set Radio ranks these secondary to graffiti, mainly as a means to gain momentum. Most of Jet Set Radio's tricks rely on grinding, and this handles well enough, though the accuracy of a character landing on a rail can be finicky at times.

The main storyline is relatively short, lasting only a few hours. However, Jet Set Radio offers a substantial amount of replayability. Races, free skate, and free tag modes can be unlocked for each region of Tokyo-to. New graffiti designs can be collected, or you can design your own for use in-game. Xbox Live leaderboards allow you to keep track of friends' scores or the full Xbox Live community. Should you find you just can't get enough of the game's eclectic soundtrack, all of the tunes can be accessed from the garage. A documentary on the game's development and HD re-release is new to this version of the game, as are a handful of unlockable songs from sequel Jet Set Radio Future.

Jet Set Radio offers up a wide variety of characters to play as, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Though there are really only four major areas to skate around in, they are divided up nicely to provide a decent amount of room to skate and tag in for each new mission. A few elements of the game's design highlight its imperfections, though this is mostly due to the fact that Jet Set Radio is more than a decade old. If you're looking for something fun, bold, and different, Jet Set Radio is all sorts of immersive style.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

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