Wednesday 24 October 2012

Jet Set Radio Review (GBA)

When Jet Set Radio appeared on the Dreamcast, it was a breath of fresh air in a market stagnating from lack of imagination and choking on the fumes of its own seriousness. Its distinctive mixture of cel-shaded rendering (one of the pioneering titles for the soon-to-be-overused technique) and Japanese cyberpunk-styling perfectly complimented the level design - and brought a unique touch to what could easily have been just another skating game.

 For the uninitiated, Jet Set Radio takes place in the fictional city of Tokyo-To. The local law enforcement have been struggling with a number of skate gangs, adopting an 'anything goes' policy to stop them. Playing as Beat, a young skater in the scene, you must recruit new members to stake out your turf from rivals while evading the cops.  These gangs don't fight, instead they 'tag' Tokyo-To with graffiti in a contest to see who can spray the most. Success not only raises the profile of Beat's gang, forcing other skate factions to move elsewhere, it also really annoys the police chief.

Turning a graphically-stunning Dreamcast title into something credible on the Game Boy Advance would seem an impossible feat. The effort put into giving the handheld version some of the same style and atmosphere found in its more powerful Dreamcast brother clearly shows in terms of graphics and sound; adopting an isometric view, levels are filled with enough colour to mimic the trademark cel-shaded feel. Helping to complete the sensory package, a wide range of music tracks from the original have made the transition to cartridge (impressively, even including all their lyrics).

Unfortunately, a number of problems arise once the game begins. The first sign of trouble comes from the incredibly-difficult-to-master control system. Pressing up on the D-pad moves characters forward, with left and right rotating them. It sounds simple enough, but when grinding around the screen at all sorts of strange angles, it becomes nearly impossible to work out which direction to press for an accurate landing. More often than not the results are a nasty faceplant, made all the more frustrating by the fact that each level is timed. Given enough patience, the problems caused by the controls begin to fade as you get used to them - but they never become instinctive.

Cel-shading attempts to infuse a three-dimensional graphical style, but instead gives everything an almost two-dimensional feel. In the polygonal world of a truly 3D game (like the original Jet Set Radio) this works fine, but applied to an isometric landscape it does something very stupid: effectively, it makes everything look flat. In other words, the three-storey building on the corner appears to stand as tall as the traffic cone in the street beside it. This makes judging vertical height impossible - whereby you frequently hit walls, fall off ledges or cannot determine how high you should jump to reach something (which adds to the mounting frustration).

Though there are obvious flaws, there is also a lot of fun to be found. Just enough of that Jet Set Radio charm persists to help you shrug off each frustration and have another go. The difficulty will not pose too much of a problem for gamers familiar with skating games. Nor was Jet Set Radio ever considered a long-lasting title - a tradition this version continues, perhaps even taking a step backward by the significant drop in difficulty. Short and sweet? Maybe. Fun while it lasts? Definitely.

Jet Set Radio on the Gameboy Advance creates a strange quandary as a game. Someone who has never played the original might never come to grips with this miniature sibling. For fans of the series though, the chance to grind around Tokyo-To on the move far outweighs the frustration and general 'flatness' of the appearance. Likewise, the lack of difficulty will not matter to those who already know their way around the console version; making a race to the end come second place in terms of pure Jet Set appreciation. A title for the fans to be sure, but anyone else seeking that graffiti buzz should look to the Dreamcast, Xbox or the HD remakes to really understand, understand the concept of (Jet Set Radio) love.


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