Somewhere in Asia, there is a city that cannot be found on any map called “Tokyo-to”, but everyone just calls it Tokyo. The two hottest things on the streets of Tokyo-to are the punks wearing magnetically driven in-line skates powered by newly developed “netrium” batteries and “Jet Set Radio”, a pirate radio station manned by the DJ “Professor K”, that plays nothing but non-stop, hard-core music.
Those street punks have been named “Rudies” by the people of Tokyo-to. They roam the streets and cover the city with their personal graffiti, claiming that it is their way of expressing themselves to the world.
Jet Grind Radio is one of Sega’s innovative and unique games released during an era when the Japanese powerhouse was widely trying out crazy new ideas on the Dreamcast. Presented as a third-person action game, Jet Grind Radio gives you a pair of inline skates and sends you to pick up aerosol cans and tag your territory with graffiti.
Life is not that simple though. There is something sinister going on, so you must tag the required areas with graffiti to solve the mystery whilst the authorities, rival gangs, and various other villains are out to stop you. After conquering a city sector, you will be facing the sector’s gang in the next level where you then need to tag the rival gang members (essentially providing an additional challenge by having moving targets).
You start the campaign with a single selectable character named Beat, but other skaters will approach you with a showdown challenge and join your gang after you’ve proven yourself to them. Initially, in these showdowns you have to repeat the challenger’s movements, which also serves as a tutorial. Eventually, you will also end up racing challengers to be the first one to tag a particular spot. Once you beat the challengers, they can be selected as a playable character in the campaign, ultimately giving you the choice of ten characters with varied properties in health, technique, and graffiti skills.
Each added character also brings their own graffiti to your collection. Other graffiti can be added to your repertoire by picking up collectable icons. This increases the game’s replayability as you try to collect them all. Sega also offered a service back in the year 2000 where people could design and upload new graffiti and share it with anyone on the internet.
Apart from the gameplay, Jet Grind Radio shines in two other areas; graphics and music. The game was the first to introduce cel-shading to the gaming world, making the graphics look good even twenty years on. The music, some of it licensed, blends in perfectly with the subject matter and provides a fantastic thumping backdrop to the fast action.
Just like real skating, Jet Grind Radio is not easy to pick up and immediately master. However, it grows on you quickly and skating and grinding across the map’s various background objects becomes second nature. The levels are challenging and the fast pace will leave you with aching hands after a gameplay session.
But it’s a kind of challenge that keeps you coming back. Each level needs a little exploration, and a plan to determine the best sequence for picking up spray cans and painting the graffiti. A timer and a health bar provide a sense of urgency from taking too much time to explore and plan. Run out of any of them and it’s game over for you. With practice, you will eventually complete the levels though, and then the game will invite you to try again and better your score.
The main gripe I have with Jet Grind Radio is the camera. You need to press a button, which is the same button you use for spraying, and the camera will be reset directly behind your character’s back looking forward. For a fast-paced action game like this, it sometimes gets in the way and is most apparent on the last boss level with everything spinning on a giant record.
Still, Jet Grind Radio is an important release in the history of video games. It harks back from a time when games were shorter and free to experiment. Jet Grind Radio still holds its own against modern offerings, so my final suggestion is to go for it and enjoy this unique experience of a game.