Classic Review: JSRF: Jet Set Radio Future
Following the last, rather negative, Classic Review (Gears of War) I thought I should pick a title which I could write something positive about; something to bring a smile to the face, a tear to the eye and a slight thrust to the hips.
So I picked a game that I not only love, but am actually in love with. Sega’s Jet Set Radio Future.
First I’ll set the scene. We are at the turn of the millennium and Sega’s soon-to-be-doomed device the Dreamcast (not sure how they thought a gaming system that sounded like a brainwashing device would work) was a little over a year old and had had some middling successes. But then they came up with an idea to turn it all around. A small-budget game with big dreams known as Jet Set Radio, which would let the players explore a cel-shaded Japan like no other while rollerblading and spraying graffiti.
And it changed almost nothing. The original Jet Set Radio was well received by fans and critics, but it couldn’t help the fact that the Dreamcast was a sinking ship. The Dreamcast was discontinued in 2001 and Jet Set Radio became a great game on a dead system.
Until now (or more accurately, until 2 years later in 2002), when the sequel/prequel/noonereallyknowsquel JSRF: Jet Set Radio Future was released on the original Xbox. And I bought it as part of one the original “box deals” (Xbox, 2 controllers, 3 games if I recall correctly).
And it was sooo awesome.
On paper JSRF doesn’t really seem to stand up. I mean, you have the wacky Japanese culture which people seem to like (atleast, it’s risen to popularity now – not sure if people were quite as big on it in ’02), but then this is backed by rollerblading and spraying graffiti? I mean, is that really why we play games? Because we are exercised starved artists who want to transform the streets?
As I discovered, within the world of JSRF this was exactly what I was.
Off paper, Jet Set Radio Future is one of those games( like Shadow of the Colossus) which has an ineffable quality to the experience it brings you. I don’t know when it managed to squirm into my top 5 games of all time. Maybe it was the first time I was grinding a rail and inadvertently ended up going upside down or up a light pole or across a pair of traffic lights (gravity doesn’t really work in Japan or so I discovered). Maybe it was the first time I wrote “F*ck You!” in the graffiti editor, coloured it in rainbow and then sprayed it on to the back of a group of 10 Japanese police (or “player-haters”). Maybe it was just the sheer beauty of the cel-shading in a franchise which pioneered cel-shading for the gaming industry. It was definitely (at least 40%) due to the soundtrack – which is still one of the craziest, most eclectic and down-right awesome soundtracks I’ve ever heard, in a game or otherwise. All I know is that somewhere through that first play through I was hooked.
And I still am. For a game with 8 hours of storyline gameplay and arguably a further 20 hours of character unlocks and zone completions, I have been playing it off and on for 9 years. I’m currently on my fourth copy and they are getting harder (and pricier) to track down, but I don’t care.
Recently Kotaku Editor Mark Serrels wrote an article on game reviews which touched on the fact that they don’t acknowledge the “experience” of a game, instead focusing on checking off a bunch of criteria. Well, JSRF was an experience to me then, and it’s an experience to me now.
It’s one of very few games, Mirror’s Edge also springs to mind, which I actually consider a world that I want to be a part of, and keep coming back to. It’s not just about the polished, unique visuals or the perfectly suited, perfectly purposed soundtrack. Probably the closest thing I can liken it to is a place where you can go to be yourself, whether it's in your home or somewhere else.
For me, JSRF is one of those places.