Jet Set Radio, the Dreamcast gem from yesteryear (please don't tell me I just used that word to describe the 90's), has finally graced our mobile devices. Is the experience everything you hoped it would be? Or have our nostalgia goggles obscured a sad truth from our eyes?
I had always wanted a Dreamcast but could never afford one. So I did what any other kid would do and lived vicariously through my more well-off friends or waited until the local video game store had set up a demo. Unfortunately, none of my friends had Jet Set Radio, nor did I ever see it being played on a display console. The closest I got to playing the awesome-looking game was picking up a jewelcase in a store and reading the instruction booklet. It looked so crazy cool that I had to try it.
And now that Sega has brought the game back in HD as part of their Heritage Collection, I finally have the chance to play the game to my heart's content! The only problem is now that I've done so, I find that I'm not feeling all that satisfied.
Jet Set Radio is a stylish, arcade-style game that puts you in the shoes, er --- the skates of a gang of "rudies" (young folk who skate and tag), called the GG who live in a totalitarian version of Tokyo. Rival gangs have taken districts of the city as their own parcels of territory, tagging up areas with their graffiti, and the police are rabid in their attempts to squash the rebellious youth. The object of the game is to claim other gangs' turf by spraying over their tags while avoiding the overzealous members of law enforcement.
During a level, you'll use your GG member to jump, grind, tag, and dash your way around city districts with the goal of covering every rival's graffiti. Jumping onto rails and similar structures will automatically put you in a grind. Hopping off of a grind will result in a trick, netting you some more points and letting you stay aloft for longer. You'll use maneuvers like these to get around the neighborhoods and collect spray-paint, which you'll need to tag up existing graffiti.
Tagging can be as simple as skating past a small rival's mark and hitting the "tag" button, or performing a series of directional commands to cover a large tag, segment by segment. This gets harder to do while you progress through a stage, because not only are you racing against the clock, but after a certain amount of tags, the police presence in the area will grow and become more intense (they sent helicopters armed with rockets after me).
Still, it's pretty fun to ride around and explore the beautiful cel-shaded cityscape while grinding on various objects in the environment and doing tricks in mid-air. You can even skitch (grabbing onto the back while in motion), on cars, which I enjoy because it lets me channel my inner Marty McFly.
But you know what's not fun? The virtual thumbstick in this game. Now, it's probably fine if you're playing on a smaller device like an iPhone or an iPod, but playing Jet Set Radio on the iPad can be an exercise in vein-bulging frustration. It's big, it's unwieldy, and it's placed in an awkward position that's too far into the screen. This placement and the lack of precision due to its size makes getting around the city a nerve-wracking game of "Let's Avoid Death By Not Accidentally Skating Toward Oncoming Traffic".
Perhaps I was spoiled by games like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and its tight controls, but that damn thumbstick kept me from really enjoying Jet Set Radio. I feel it would benefit greatly from an update with tweaked controls and maybe a slightly smaller floating thumbstick instead of the great, hulking circular terror it currently features.
But if you look past that nearly game-breaking issue, you'll see an app with gorgeous graphics, an amazingly energetic and eclectic soundtrack, and one of the most original premises in gaming. It's no Crazy Taxi, but with a bit of patience and maybe some future fixes via updates, it can still stand as a solid title. Disappointment or not, at least young John's curiosity has been satiated and can move on.