There’s no denying that Sega definitely tried during their Dreamcast years. After the failure of the Saturn in the North American market, Sega went all out with it’s next console. Not only did the Dreamcast bring a time of rejuvenation to a company that had it’s reputation practically destroyed due to failed hardware, it brought a time where Sega once again proved how masterful they were at developing games. Some of the most original games from Sega came out during the Dreamcast era, such as Crazy Taxi, ChuChu Rocket!, and Shenmue, and they even updated some of their classics such as Ecco the Dolphin and Sonic the Hedgehog.
During this era, Sega had their creative juices flowing and their internal development house Smilebit came up with a positively unique game for the Dreamcast that garnered critical praise from reviewers and critics. Gamerankings.com has the game listed with a 91% average. It had a huge marketing campaign with it’s rough edge and crazy new graphic style that Sega was calling “cel-shading”, which technically wasn’t new. What did Sega do to promote this game, you ask? Sega threw an event in San Francisco called “Graffiti is Art” contest to commend graffiti artist with there talents (which actually caused an uproar with the mayor of San Francisco and led to an anti-graffiti task force removing graffiti from buildings a few blocks away. Atari pulled a similar stunt in 2005 for advertising their shameful Mark Ecko’s Getting Up game). It was deemed an extreme inline skating Tony Hawk like game with graffiti thrown in. The game was Jet Grind Radio (Jet Set Radio in Japan), but despite the hype and praise, the game didn’t do so well in stores.
Why did the game sell so poorly? Was it too Japanese for our taste? Did it have something to do with the fact that the game was released on the same day as another big name Sega game came out, NBA 2K1? Whatever the case may be, it’s depressing that such a stylish game with plenty to do was not a consumer success.
The game is a rather simple concept: graffiti paint or “tag” the hell out of every possible facet of the city of Tokyo. The games follow the story about Rudies or roller skating gangs. More specifically you play as the street gang know as the GG’s. Your main goal of each game is to cancel out all the other street gangs graffiti by tagging it with your own designs.
What so special about the game then? From a technical standpoint, the original game had so much substance and soul that other titles only dreamed about. It had a wonderful cel-shading look that made the game look like a cartoon come to life (although there were games that featured cel-shading prior to what Sega wants you to believe, such as Fear Effect). Everything in these games certainly come to live, no matter what locale you are vandalizing. Also, the music between the two games are almost pure perfection, headed up mostly by Hideki Naganuma, whose most recent work includes Sonic Rush for the Nintendo DS. There are unfortunately only two real games in the series and although both share obvious similarities, they both have a slightly different emphasis on gameplay.
Will those crazy Rudies ever come back to a console? After the abysmal sales of the Dreamcast and Xbox versions, it’s hard to say yes. The games always had a unique freshness with it’s artistic style and cel-shaded graphics (although it seemed like for a time everybody was doing) that was and still is rivaled by few. And it never felt so good to do something illegal, even if it’s as small as tagging a wall.
You begin Jet Grind Radio with Beat, the lone member of a gang known as the GG’s (not much of a gang, I’d say.) Right from the get-go, you will face challenges from the first two characters, Gum and Tab. This acts as a tutorial – if you pass, they’ll join your gang (this is how all of the recruiting is done in the game except for Cube and Combo). From there you are thrust into a gang war between every gang in each Tokyo. The Love Shockers hail from Shibuya-cho (which is actually you’re turf, but they’re trying to get in on it), Poison Jam resides in Kogane, and The Noise Tanks congregate in Benten. You start off in Shibuya, but then you get to choose where to go after that. The story is actually rather ridiculous, with some deal with an evil corporation called the Golden Rhinos headed by the dastardly Gouji Rokakku. He’s a crazy business man searching for some magical record called the Devil’s Contract that will enable him to take over the world. Typical Japanese weirdness, if you ask me. All of the developments in the story are told through the hilarious and upbeat DJ Professor K, broadcasting from his pirate radio station appropriately called “Jet Set Radio”.
Each time you select a stage, you are dropped off with no spray paint, a number of specific locations to tag, and a time limit. Spray cans are located everywhere, so finding them isn’t hard, and they respawn after a minute from picking them up. Through the level, you’ll find red arrows on designated areas, mostly on walls and the sides of buses and trucks. Once you reach the arrow and press the L button, the game takes a cue from rhythm games and becomes a Simon Says style combo game. Arrow directions are shown and you must input these directions with the analog pad. Keeping the entire combo running will give you the maximum amount of points, but if you screw up, you lose a precious paint and need to start tagging again, can which could spell disaster if you’re being chased.
Speaking of being chased, the more you spray paint the town, the more police units or gang members come after you. It’s utter police brutality as foot soldiers tackle you if you’re too slow. Paint about 70% of the town, and they might call in tanks, helicopters, the SWAT team, or whatever else they can find, including flamethrowers and suicide bombers. In the beginning of the game, you are constantly pursued by the police chief Captain Onishima, who, to say the least, is completely insane. The fact that he is constantly shooting at you always gives a sense of urgency. In fact, this game is all about being fast. With a strict time limit and limited life, you are constantly on the move, making the game ever so difficult because you have to stand still when painting graffiti (for Medium and Large tags anyway; you can move and paint at the same time for Small tags). Also, different size tags mean different quantities of spray paint they need. Small tags need one, Medium tags need three, and Large tags need a whopping seven. Considering you can only hold a limited number of paint cans at one time, this can get annoying.
There is no multiplayer, but you can take Jet Grind Radio online. For what, you might ask? The game comes with 102 graffiti designs (you have to unlock most of them through finding graffiti soul icons), and you can choose with using one at a time for each of the three sizes. The purpose of going online was to actually grab any picture and be able to load it on your VMU, and in turn be able to turn whatever image you saved into customized art in the game. Wanted to tag over Poison Jam’s graffiti with a picture of the famous Mona Lisa painting? SegaNet let you do it. Jet Grind Radio also lets you make your own graffiti tags with a bare bones editor so you can get creative as well. You won’t be able to make beautiful masterpieces like the art in the game, but it helps add a nice personal touch.
One particularly major problem with the game is the somewhat unresponsive controls. The boost button seems to only work when it wants to, leaving you in frustration when trying to run away from enemies. Smilebit also simplified the game were you only had to use two face buttons and the shoulder buttons, but in effect this is kind of a bad idea. Since there is no “grind” button a la Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, it’s too easy to get caught on different surfaces and fly off in some direction that you didn’t want to. And why is the button to realign the camera also the same button to start tagging? Smilebit should’ve added a button mapping option to make it a little bit easier to control. Additionally, some of the areas can get a big large – so heaven forbid you run out of time or life, because you need to start the whole stage from scratch. The stages where you need to race other skaters and tag them can also get pretty annoying.
For the US release, Sega added two new areas (Bantam Street and Grind Square), new graffiti designs and new music from artist like Rob Zombie and Jurassic 5. In 2001, Sega Direct, Sega’s online store, would sell De La Jet Set Radio which was the US version of the game for the Japanese market. It’s extremely rare and unlike the original Jet Set Radio, De La Jet Set Radio is entirely in English.