Jet Set Radio ain’t rich with installments. A series so obscure, that hasn’t had a game in 15 years, doesn’t leave much room for divide within the fanbase. But for the hardcore fans, there’s a good-natured debate about which is better: Jet Set Radio for the Dreamcast or Jet Set Radio Future for the Xbox. Two years apart, with practically the same plot, these two games manage to be pretty different.
In that spirit, let me talk about what I think. Bear in mind, these are my opinions and I love both games. They have some of my favorite characters, visuals, and soundtracks in all of video games. Neither one objectively out-styles the other, it’s all down to what speaks to you. Think what you wanna think…that’s the way of the streets.
The first JSR was small and straightforward. It had a beginning, middle, and end, but played like a series of arcade levels. It felt more like a traditional 3D platformer, with heavy physics and precise jumps. It was slower to move around, and it took more momentum on rails to get to high places. Tagging was its own minigame, different for each character, and most of them keep you in one place. Enemies also show up in every story stage, which adds more importance to knowing the level and knowing which tags to complete first.
JSRF made a lot of changes to the formula. It’s still about skating, tagging, and dope soundscapes, but the brand-spanking new Xbox put a lot of new technology and possibilities on the table. JSRF was no longer linear, at least not exactly. There’s not much to do other than progress the story, and the story can only be progressed through completing certain areas. But most of the areas can be accessed at any time.
This leads to some confusion, to be honest. I like the open world aspect because you can find other skaters to recruit, and it feels more natural. The tradeoff is, sometimes you can get stuck in one area for ages trying to figure out what you haven’t done yet, only to realize you’re supposed to be somewhere else entirely.
You also reach a lot of areas by going through other areas, which means a lot of backtracking and trial and error trying to figure out where things are. Good news is, it feels pretty neat navigating Tokyo, especially because JSRF plays much faster. It plays more like a Tony Hawk game than a 3D platformer. It has more grinding, on-rail tricks, and mid-air tricks. You can also use cans to temporarily boost and traverse long distances. There’s so much space in each area that tags are practically hidden behind big movement puzzles. All the areas mesh perfectly with the game’s mobility. Leaping off a giant ledge only to land on a rail and keep on grinding is super-satisfying.
Todd Schlickbernd made one of the few videos on YouTube that talks about Jet Set from a design perspective. He talks about JSRF and its awesome mobility.
I have one major problem with JSRF, and it’s a big one.
I don’t think tagging in this game is very fun, at least not compared to Jet Set Radio. There are five different kinds of tag in this games, and tags are everywhere. You need to collect a lot of cans. Granted, there are plenty of them. But since they’re so spread out, you have to make sure you always have enough. Since later levels require you to boost a lot, it takes some management. And if you manage wrong, you could have to go a long way to get the cans you need. The result is a lot of tedium and frustration in some places.
Tagging is also no longer a minigame event. In the first Jet Set, the smallest tags were the only ones you could spray while moving. In Future, the minigame event is ditched in favor of only moving tags. For example, to paint an extra large tag, you have to paint seven small tags, all next to each other. That means if you’re moving too fast, you won’t complete most tags because you can’t hit the spray button with the proper timing. If a large tag is suspended on a building above a rail, that means you have to get all the way back up to the tag if you don’t get it perfectly on the first try. Some characters are better with this timing than others, but that’s not the only problem…
Tag arrows in this game are also more stylized and animated, but they’re also harder to see, which adds to the problem of failure and repetition. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to go backwards or repeat a grind to get a tag that I couldn’t see in time. It also doesn’t help that if you’re not close enough to an arrow, you can waste a can of paint spraying the air.
JSRF takes a different approach to combat from before. Enemies show up in an area once you reach a certain location, or after you’ve completed enough tags. The two games are similar this way. JSRF also has enemies that you can defeat by knocking them down to make them vulnerable to spraying, which is a neat change. My problem is, there’s no way around combat. In the original, you couldn’t really fight enemies. Sure you could tag strong enemies to immobilize them, and you could spray helicopters out of the sky (which was a fun discovery), but otherwise you have to avoid enemies. Part of the fun of that game was the tense moments where you’re about to get caught, but just have to finish that tag before you can run.
In JSRF, you either fight enemies in a walled-off area, or you’re not allowed to continue tagging until you defeat the enemies first. It loses that tension, and becomes more like going through the motions. I feel like in the sequel, the developers didn’t bring back that fun feeling of evading the law, and that’s a shame.
Final Groove: JSR or JSRF?
The original Jet Set Radio was the first I played, so I’ll admit, I’m pretty biased when it comes to choosing a favorite. I love the bright colors, bounciness, and less-is-more level design of the first game. I concede that JSRF plays better. Much better. It’s faster, more accessible, more kinetic, and more stylish. That being said, completing this game felt stale after a while, because looking for all the tags in an area took a lot of wandering. It’s fun wandering, but not without some kind of direction. And when you make a mistake trying to navigate huge areas like the sewer, and you have to get all the way back to where you were, it’s a real punch in the gut. Throw in the occasional “Birthday Cake” by Cibo Matto as background music and you have a one-way ticket to hell.
Don’t misunderstand. I love Jet Set Radio Future. I had tons of fun playing it through, and for the most part, the soundtrack and world design are a huge improvement. I’m sure that if I had played this game before Jet Set Radio, this post would sound a whole lot different. I just feel that the gameplay didn’t quite scale properly from one game to the next. I personally prefer the bold, short-and-sweet level-hopping to the huge, futuristic landscape.
If I were lucky enough to make a new Jet Set Radio, I would fuse the level progression, enemies, and bold colors of the first game with the beautiful environments and movement of the sequel. A game with intense, stylish maneuvers across huge structures, but full of narrow escapes and a clear, concise goal for each level.
…If only Sega and Atlus heard the call…