Discussion surrounding Jet Set Radio has always been skewed. As revered and celebrated as this game is among fans of old-school Sega classics, the vast majority of the praise levied towards it revolves around its cel-shaded style, premise, and soundtrack. Of course, this is not to say that those elements are not extremely well-executed, because they absolutely are. But the gameplay of this cult classic title tends to be glossed over, and in some cases it is outright panned for being dated or clunky. It is true that, as a title released when 3D gaming was still relatively new, Jet Set Radio lacks polish in many areas, but focusing on the ways in which it does not live up to modern standards would be to sell it short. Jet Set Radio is a much more meticulously designed game than it appears on the surface; the mechanics and level design are surprisingly well-thought out, and the title encourages mastery in subtle yet significant ways. All of this makes for a game that is incredibly rewarding to learn and improve at, which more than makes up for its design flaws.
The Difficulties of Starting Out
Of course, the intricacies of Jet Set Radio are not immediately apparent, which can make the first playthrough feel rough and confusing. The first obvious hurdle is the controls; since the player character is on roller skates, their ground movement is rather slippery, and the stiff, floaty jumps make platforming awkward initially. Learning the rail grinding mechanics is another hurdle; rails initially seem to be strewn randomly around each area, leaving the player with little idea how to build up grind combos. Punishment for mistakes is often harsh; bonking into a wall or hazard when jumping on a rail will lead to the player coming to a dead stop, and the resulting loss of momentum can lead to other unfortunate mishaps that can screw up the player’s rhythm or send them flying to a lower section of the level. The police are often relentless, hounding and interrupting the player multiple times as they attempt to spray a large graffiti tag. All of this is without mentioning how janky the game can be sometimes; some rails don’t always function like they are supposed to, and jumping on a half-pipe can lead to wildly unpredictable results. Needless to say, these hurdles can make Jet Set Radio very frustrating at times, but first impressions aren’t everything. Many of these headache-inducing moments become much more manageable on subsequent playthroughs, especially as players learn about the title’s many gameplay nuances.
The Art of Grinding
One of the most important and rewarding aspects of Jet Set Radio is the grinding system. It is certainly streamlined compared to similar systems from games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater since players immediately stick to rails without having to balance on them. That being said, the process of grinding efficiently is more complicated than it first appears. Players build up momentum by dashing before hopping onto the rail, and that momentum gradually decreases as they continue to grind. If the player jumps while grinding at high speeds, then they perform a special trick jump that rewards points and allows for greater air control, whereas if they jump while grinding at a lower speed, then they perform a regular jump. Here’s the tricky part: on a normal, level rail, a trick jump lowers momentum while a regular jump builds momentum. Effectively controlling speed while grinding involves knowing how these jumps affect the player’s momentum and when to perform them, all while taking into account the placement and angle of each rail. It is difficult to grasp these movement quirks at first, but it becomes easier with practice, and they ultimately benefit the game as they make the grinding mechanics more intricate without making the controls more complicated.
As players grow more familiar with how grinding works, they may begin to notice how effectively the level design takes advantage of the grinding system. Although the distribution of rails initially appears scattershot, it becomes clear that most rails are deliberately placed. Rails and walls to jump off of are typically spaced just far enough apart that players can grind and jump between all of them if they approach from the right angle, allowing them to build up combos and flow through levels with grace. Since levels also tend to have multiple tiers to them, these rails also tend to be placed near a few other rails that lead directly to the upper areas of the map. Properly learning the locations of these rails and how to reach them while grinding will lead to players’ having a much smoother time transitioning between the area’s tiers.
A good example of how effective the rail placement is can be found in the Gekijomae area of Benten-cho. The most notable features of this area are the five rails connecting to the circular platform up high and the four grounded billboards with rails placed in front of them, but it looks like they are spaced too far apart from each other for the player to grind between them all. There is an obvious ramp that leads to the upper section, but jumping from that ramp successfully is slow and easier said than done. But if the player explores the area a bit, they may notice a truck ramp and some small stands that can be grinded on to jump between the billboards, and the outermost billboards can be jumped off of to directly access the rails connected to the upper platform. This combined with the telephone lines that connect between two of the upper platforms mean that, with some practice, players can access every part of the area through consecutive grinds and wall jumps, making navigation that much smoother. This effectively transforms what may have initially been one of the clunkier areas in the game to one of the best areas, which speaks to how effectively the levels incorporate grinding.
Conquering the Grinding Controls
All this leads to what is perhaps the central pillar of high-level play in Jet Set Radio: the infinite grind loops. With the exception of Center Street in Shibuya-cho and the final boss area, every area in the game contains at least one series of rails and walls that players can jump between and grind on potentially forever. Naturally, nailing the infinite grind loops is one of the most difficult parts of Jet Set Radio as it requires intimate knowledge of the level layouts and the grinding physics. But the benefits of learning these loops is immense. Players can earn a massive amount of points for as long as they can keep the combo going, and those points make passing the score threshold needed to earn the stage’s Jet ranking much easier. Not only that, but the infinite grind loops are often the most efficient routes for navigating any given area, so players may find themselves doing part of the loop on instinct to get to normally difficult-to-reach areas. These infinite grind paths are not necessarily a linear set of actions either; since rail pathways often intersect, players can naturally mix up their routing and come up with fun, creative ways to move through stages. The infinite grind loops open what were once bewildering areas into massive urban playgrounds, and reaching that point in the learning process is an indescribably liberating feeling.
The Art of Tagging
Graffiti tags also have a noticeable learning curve associated with them. At first, the fact that medium and large tags both put the player at a standstill to have them complete analogue stick minigames doesn’t seem to have a purpose other than presenting a bit of fun, if obtrusive, flair to the gameplay. But it soon becomes apparent that the main reason these graffiti minigames exist is to make the police more of a threat. Since grinding makes players impervious to damage and puts them mostly out of the cops’ range, the title relies on graffiti tags to force players to deal with police more regularly. The graffiti minigames also make players into sitting ducks as police begin to swarm the players’ positions, making them even more of a problem. Ultimately, though, the police are mainly problematic if players simply tag every graffiti spot they find; the cops can be largely circumvented if players plan which tags to spray first. Oftentimes, it’s best to prioritize the large tags; cops are usually absent when the level begins, giving players plenty of time to spray the large tags comfortably. By the time the police arrive, they will become considerably easier to deal with since only the smaller tags will remain. It’s also beneficial to prioritize tags on the area’s lower tiers; with some exceptions, most police teams attack the player from the lower tiers, so leaving the tags on the higher tiers for last is often a good strategy.
Controlling the Police
What ultimately makes this planning element of the gameplay really work are the specific criteria that trigger the police to arrive. Each wave of police is determined by the number of tags sprayed, not the amount of time taken, so players have complete control over which tags to prioritize and when the cops will appear. On top of this, radio chatter indicating the next wave of police will always occur one or two tags before the one that will trigger the cops’ appearance. This warning really helps keep the game fair and honest, as it essentially grants players one last opportunity to plan ahead before having to deal with the oncoming threat. These quirks with how the police and graffiti systems interact add a fun strategic element to the gameplay on top of the multifaceted grinding mechanics. Learning the level and tag layouts to the point where the police are barely a problem anymore is nothing short of cathartic, and it makes subsequent playthroughs that much more rewarding.
The Hidden Tutorials
Coming to grips with all of these intricacies leads to a big realization: Jet Set Radio actually helps players more than they may have initially realized. The most obvious way the game teaches players about techniques is through the challenges where the player has to copy the moves of certain characters to unlock them. What is less obvious is that these challenges occasionally show players incredibly useful shortcuts for certain areas, and they can even reveal grinding paths that make up part of specific infinite grind loops for that area. During regular gameplay, paint cans are often placed on difficult grinding paths, which subconsciously encourages players to engage with those routes if they want the reward. Even the tagging battles with the rival gangs serve as soft tutorials. These stages see players tagging the backs of three rival gang members as they roam around an area, and while one of these members usually takes a very simple route, the other two tend to grind across the level much more efficiently. Players can learn a lot about advanced grinding paths simply by observing the routes the gang members take, and the same goes for the rival character in the Jet Crush races. There are learning opportunities all over the game if players look out for them, and they all do an amazing job at setting them up for success in the future.
It is admirable that Jet Set Radio goes to such lengths to provide a challenging yet rewarding gameplay experience. The title is certainly not perfect, and players are bound to run into some aggravating moments while learning it, but the amount of satisfaction that comes with the gameplay systems’ finally clicking into place is palpable. Even after achieving every Jet rank and unlocking every character, Jet Set Radio is still an incredible title to come back to again and again, learning more and becoming more experienced with each playthrough. The fact that the aesthetics have gotten as much attention as they have is well-deserved, but the gameplay experience deserves just as much respect.