Jet Set Radio Future

   Jet Set Radio Future (JSRF) is less of a sequel to the Dreamcast original than a reimagining of that game's core concepts. The same general description could apply equally to either title. The evil and oppresive Rokkaku Group is suppressing freedom of personal expression in the not-at-all-dystopian city of the future, Tokyo-to (no relation). The last bastion of individuality in this city is an extremely stylish graffiti crew, the G.G.'s. It's up to this band of skaters to evade the Rokkaku security forces while canvassing the town with their socially-minded graffiti. The whole package is presented via cutting edge cel-shaded graphics and fueled by the underground music of DJ Professor K's pirate radio station: Jet Set Radio!

 I feel wonderful
I'm living in the future

   The returning cast and nearly identical premise, would, at first blush, suggest a gameplay experience similar to the first game. And while the general concept is the same--skate around the levels, avoid the police and other hazards, and successfully tag all of the graffiti hot spots--the details have been reworked from top to bottom.

   The first and most striking change is in the scope and layout of the city environments. The first Jet Set Radio featured small, compact, and unforgivingly timed settings that required memorization of the level's geography, opponents, and tag locations for success. The second game uses the increased power of the Xbox to provide far more expansive environments. Time limits have been completely eliminated, leaving the player free to explore the city's streets, back alleys, railings, telephone wires, overpasses, and sewer pipes without restraint.

He can't afford to stop
I turn myself around, I'm moving backwards and forwards

   Skating movement has been augmented by a number of easy-to-perform tricks. Players can chain tricks together while grinding to increase their speed; tricks can also be added to the apex of jumps, to right before landings, and on the edge of a halfpipe. All tricks are performed via a single button press, making their successful execution a matter of timing. Chaining tricks together builds the trick combo count, increases the point multiplier, and builds the momentum necessary to reach otherwise inaccessible parts of the level. Chaining tricks and building combos soon become required skills to complete stages. A new Boost Dash technique consumes ten spray cans and injects the player with an instant burst of fiery super speed. There are twenty-four playable characters that can be unlocked throughout the game, each with unique strengths, weaknesses, tricks, and timings.

 It's a dangerous life
And we are criminals that never broke no laws

   The police are back, of course; both on foot and in progressively more ridiculous machinery. The original forced gamers to tag graffiti while simultaneously evading the police--a difficult and often frustrating task. In JSRF, the evade and tagging portions have been completely separated. From time to time while exploring a level, chain link fences slam down and enclose the player in a small portion of the stage until the Man has been neutralized. Players can now fight back, though hardly on the same scale as their opponents; locking-on to enemies then skating or dashing into them knocks them over and makes them far easier targets.

I don't have to prove that I am creative
I'm painting, I'm painting again

   But perhaps the biggest change has been reserved for the tagging mechanism. The original game handled tagging via a sort of rhythm-action minigame; the player paused in front of tag locations and input broad, semicircular sweeps of the analog stick to drop graffiti on the walls. JSRF guts this system completely, replacing it with a simple button press when adjacent to a tag location. Larger tags are represented by a larger number of hotspots and require more spray cans to complete.

 Turning the music up
I can see the people on the street

   At first glance, it's tempting to dismiss these changes as a "dumbing down" of the original; after all, with simplified tagging, segregated police encounters, no time limit, and a one-button trick system, it sounds like gameplay has been removed entirely. The game's first few stages are disarmingly easy, to boot. But soon the game opens up immensely, the stages increase dramatically in both size and difficulty, and the reason behind JSRF's gameplay changes becomes clear. The focus has shifted from a race against time to a platformeresque series of explorations. The challenge comes not from rapid movement and evasion, but from understanding the environment and discovering the path to that one final out-of-reach location, that one last impossible tag. Executing tricks while grinding allows a level of control over speed and position not possible in the original. Tagging has been simplified because the previous system required you to stay still; many of JSRF's more insane tags offer no such consolation and absolutely must be targeted on-the-go. The sprawling, trick-heavy environments are enough of an adversary that police are hardly necessary. Some of the later environments can take well over an hour to complete, nearly all of that spent in traversal and exploration. Though not as challenging as the first, somewhat notoriously difficult game, JSRF is far from a pushover.

She shakes 'em up when
she start to walk
She is moving to describe the world

   The graphics are simply divine. Though the first game fizzled in the marketplace, its cel-shaded graphical style has become one of the most imitated trends of the past two years. Jet Set Radio Future expands on the original's creative appearance, taking the series even closer to the developers' vision of "living manga." The city and characters are rendered at a much higher level of detail and resolution, giving the entire game a sharp, well-defined look. New touches give the game an even greater sense of vibrancy, such as color streaking out of your characters at high speeds, or the screen-distorting waves that oscillate after a Boost Dash. Stages are a riot of color and motion, and the engine handles their speed, size, and complexity without dropping a beat.

   Unfortunately, the camera quirks that plagued the first game have been only superficially addressed. First, the good news: recentering the camera now uses a different button than tagging. The bad news is that the camera can still loses track of the character, gets stuck next to walls, roams inside the character's head, and stops directly in front of the player. It's never a serious problem, but it's always a mild nuisance.

 Picking up something good
Radio Head

   The player is given wide freedom to customize tags' appearance. As the player progresses through the story and acquires new characters, new tags become unlocked and selectable. The stages also have "Graffiti Souls" scattered in especially tricky-to-reach locations; touching these adds a new tag to the available arsenal. Finally, of course, the player can use the in-game editor to create custom tags. The ability to save tags directly to the Xbox's internal hard drive is a boon, allowing as it does for a nearly unlimited size and number of custom tags. Unfortunately, a frustrating lack of online support makes it impossible to download tags, trade tags, or import tags created on another platform (such as a PC). The the in-game editor is far more robust than the first's, but without the ability to trade, most of the impetus to create and share tags is gone.

   The music, unsurprisingly, rocks. Overseen by the now-defunct Grande Royale records, the soundtrack is an eclectic mix of excellent licensed tracks, remixes of songs from the original, and new music from Jet Set Radio contributor favorites. Hideki Naganuma, Deavid Soul, B.B. Rights, Guitar Vader; the gang's all here, many of them even collaborating with each other for the first time. A good deal of the new music has an urban or hiphop feel; it seemsthat Smilebit's overseas adventures with Jurassic 5 and Mixmaster Mike (in the American sections of Jet Grind Radio) has had a lasting influence on the series' overall musical direction. This small shift doesn't apply to every track, however, and fans of the original's style will also find lots to love. Every single track is fantastic; Jet Set Radio Future only adds to the first game's legendary musical prestige.

People got no idea where
in the world they are
It's dark, dark in the daytime

   Despite over thirty-two excellent tracks to choose from, each stage tends to cycle through the same five or six tracks in sequence, with different "playlists" for different environments. This lets the developers keep introducing new music into the mix well into the game's final hours; unfortunately, the price is repetition, repetition, and more repetition. Some of the more difficult environments can take an hour or two to complete, and even Cibo Matto's "Birthday Cake" can lose its charm by its fifth iteration.

   Jet Set Radio Future offers a fairly robust set of multiplayer options, offering versus or cooperative play for speed races, character-tagging battles, graffiti-tagging battles, flag-gathering (not capture-the-flag), and an arena-based ball game. The multiplayer options are numerous; unfortunately, they're also uninvolving. Character movement in JSRF is too streamlined to make racing compelling, and the levels are too complicated and multi-tiered to permit graffiti-tagging and flag-capturing without consulting the map. The rules to the ball game are both simple and uninteresting. No one will purchase JSRF with multiplayer play in mind, but it's unfortunate that the copious multiplayer modes are so much less involved and interesting than the single-player adventure.

 I can't take no more of it
Take me to the river, drop me in the water

   Yet despite its solid, enjoyable gameplay and stellar aesthetics, Jet Set Radio Future doesn't completely rebottle its predecessor's magic. Rather than tweak and polish the first game's formula, Smilebit chose to rebuild the title almost from scratch. This severe reworking addressed many gamers' concerns about the first title,but at the same time introduced a number of new problems. Though the game is more immediately accessible than the original, its increased size and scope is its ultimate undoing. The first game's smaller, timed environments and evasive mechanics kept the player alert, focused, and on edge at all times. Failure was common, but instructive; success was impossible without understanding. Like a well-planned obstacle course, the original game trained the player to succeed, gradually honing the necessary skills.

   Jet Set Radio Future isn't an obstacle course so much as a playground: an interconnected city, teeming with life and secrets, for the player to romp around and explore. It's big, big enough to get lost in, which is both its blessing and its curse. While the vistas may be breathtaking, it's too easy to forget the location of the stage's entrances and exits, to lose track of that opponent you're supposed to be trailing, or to spend fifteen minutes searching for the right pipe to grind to your next destination. When the environments work, they gel together like few other virtual spaces. But when the player loses track of the next goal, the city's artificiality is laid bare. A single awkwardly placed staircase, unclear instructional cutscene, or misleading environmental clue can stop progress dead in its tracks, grinding the game's carefully constructed mood to a halt like a needle abortively scraped off a playing record.

It's hard to hold onto the ground
And gravity don't mean a thing

   Yet these occasional missteps are vastly overpowered by the game's and constant stream of frenetic brilliance. Jet Set Radio is a far more accessible game than its predecessor. It gives gamers a world where the entire city pulses to the beat of an underground radio station; where even the slums--especially the slums!--are bursting with color; where good and evil alike take their fashion tips from the chaotic streets of Harajuku. Jet Set Radio Future lets gamers skate horizontally across six alternating billboards, skate vertically up the edge of a hundred-story skyscraper, and skate backwards on telephone wires while tagging assault helicopters. It's a ridiculous, brilliant game exploding with intoxicating joy.

Review by Andrew Vestal, GIA.
Jet Set Radio Future
Developer Smilebit
Publisher Sega
Genre Action
Medium DVD-ROM
Platform Xbox
Release Date  02.2002
Jet Set Radio Future website launches
10 multiplayer screenshots
5 new character designs
Desktop wallpaper