Having completed Jet Grind Radio for the first time, nearly twenty years after its original release and in spite of my awareness of its cult popularity, I’m nonetheless impressed by how fresh it remains. The team at Smilebit encapsulated a period of pop culture history so well: tonally, stylistically, and with such zest, that the game has eluded a potential fate of mere time capsule and is instead, timeless. It’s not without fault, however. In contrast to the vivacity of its aesthetics, the act of playing was oftentimes tormenting. An inadequate method of camera control compounded grievances I had with skaters’ rigid movement, momentum, and their flippant adverseness to grinding. With adaptation, I was able to compensate for these shortcomings and enjoy the otherwise exciting combination of skating and graffiti tagging gameplay.
Taking place in the distant future, where the neighborhoods and districts of Tokyo-to are claimed by rival gang’s graffiti, Jet Grind Radio hones in on the actions of one such crew: the GG’s. In cutscenes recalling cult film The Warriors, DJ Professor K, the bombastic host of Jet Set Radio, documents the GG’s efforts to protect their turf from rivals and combat the repressive Rokkaku Group. Though orientated around gangs, the game’s portrayal is non-violent and cartoonish. No better is this illustrated than with The Poison Jam, a rival gang whose members are so obsessed with monster movies, they dress like the subjects of their favorite films. In comparison, the GG’s unit is built around a shared cause of youthful rebellion and a respect for each other’s skill and individuality.
Structurally, the game was designed around distinct stages, most commonly tasking me with tagging specific locations before time ran out. Skating around the levels, I’d collect cans of spray paint and tag graffiti spots by sidling up to them and moving the analog stick around in basic, representative motions. My progression in these stages was offset by an escalating, police presence. They chipped away at my health and interrupted my graffiti tagging with preposterous tactics. I found them to be manageably annoying; nowhere near as frustrating as the stages where I had to tag rival gang members. In these, I had to remain extremely close and hammer on the tag button. However, when I made contact with them, it’d knock me back in a debilitating fashion. Completing these stages required a fair bit of trial and error, primarily observing the rival gang members’ paths.
In between stages, unaffiliated skaters would challenge the GG’s, joining the ranks if I proved worthy. I had to copy their moves in a manner reminiscent of the basketball variation H-O-R-S-E and in turn, I learned how to play and pull off increasingly tougher moves. The skater’s strong visual identities were complemented by the game’s striking cel-shaded graphics. Jet Grind Radio was one of the first games to utilize cel-shading and it still looks fresh, especially the sharp HD ports. An energetic collection of sample heavy dance music, hip hop, and alternative metal further bolstered the game’s style and themes of individuality. The Japanese, North American, and European releases each featured a few unique licensed tracks but it’s the original compositions of Hideki Naganuma, among others, that set the soundtrack apart.
Taking a step back, it took me a considerable amount of time to get comfortable skating in light of the game’s brief six hour runtime. The skaters moved about with significant momentum that lowered their responsiveness and produced rigid movement. Since they’re on rollerblades, this makes logical sense but in terms of gameplay I found it unintuitive, or at least, undesirable in comparison to turning on a dime. As a result, I thought it was more difficult than it should’ve been to execute specific actions. It took me at least two dozen attempts to successfully jump onto and grind a rail in one painfully memorable instance. Much of my ineptness can be attributed to poor camera control, however.
Because the Dreamcast controller lacks a second analog stick, typically assigned to camera control in third-person games such as this, the developers relied on a common, platform-level solution: re-centering the camera by clicking the trigger. While this may work in slower-paced games such as Phantasy Star Online, it’s ill-suited here… but something’s better than nothing and I eventually adapted. Camera control in the HD ports was reworked to take advantage of modern controllers and dabbling with the Steam version, I was able to take in the rich detail present in each stage. They started off compact, honing in on a particular neighborhood, but as the story progressed, stages began to integrate multiple areas. I marveled at how the previously disparate areas connected with each other, and wished for an exploratory free skate mode.
For a number of reasons, I never felt entirely confident with my skating prowess. The responsiveness of skaters was too stiff for my liking, and performing exact actions wasn’t something I could reliably do. Additionally, I found the camera bothersome on the Dreamcast, the version I completed, although it was much improved in the HD ports. Nevertheless, I was able to overlook these grievances and adapt, focusing instead on the offsetting positives. Soaking the stages in, I was wowed by their interconnectivity, and how real they felt, despite the cartoon visuals. Those cel-shaded graphics remain arresting and pair well with the vigorous art design and enthusiastic soundtrack. Spraying graffiti was presented with natural motions and underpinned the brief, enjoyable story. With Jet Grind Radio, Smilebit imparted an infectious, youthful zest that leaves it feeling as fresh as ever.