What Today's Video Games Could Learn from ‘Jet Set Radio’

The 15-year-old Dreamcast game wasn't perfect, but it used music and youth culture as inspirations in ways that few titles since have attempted.

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Apr 13 2015, 6:25pm

When I was a kid, there was a skating rink near my house—one of those terminally ill and wholly dorky kind of rinks, complete with disco lights, bad music, and arcade cabinets. I spent a lot of time there in my primary school days, running loops hectically around the varnished floor for birthday parties and hangout sessions.

I was terrible at rollerblading. Rollerskating, too, was utterly beyond me. Every run would end in a premature wipeout, usually when faced with the insurmountable challenge of lazily turning to the left. It was rough. Just thinking about it makes my ass hurt. I was, in fact, always aching for more quarters to go spend at the Marvel vs. Capcom machine, lest I have to go back out there and demonstrate to my classmates just how inept I really was.

Despite my complete lack of coordination—or, perhaps, because of it—I thought skating was the coolest thing in the goddamn world. There was something ineffably empowering about it, some deep, swaggering joy in gaining speed, wheels eating into the ground, some upbeat tune from the loudspeakers pounding into my ear. I can remember moments, seconds at a time, where I got it, where it all worked. They were transcendent.

But then I fell. The real world, obviously, was not going to prove a satisfying outlet for my admiration.

That's where Jet Set Radio came in. I don't remember when I first saw it, but I remember my reaction: This was the raddest shit imaginable. It had the brightest colors; a sharp, bombastic sense of style; and a locomotion system based entirely on looking as cool as possible with wheels attached to your feet. I was sold. The only problem, then, was that I didn't have a Dreamcast, and so I languished from afar for years, pining to be one of the cool kids.

When I finally had a chance to dig deep into the world of Tokyo-to, the caricatured city of youth culture melting pots where Jet Set Radio takes place, it both was and wasn't what I was expecting. It is a game, certainly, about the fluidity of good skating, the joy of motion and skill. But skating itself is less the focus and more the medium. All the technical aspects of the sport are simplified, and everything is comfortably controlled with just a few buttons. Pulling off tricks is just a matter of getting in the air most of the time. This isn't Tony Hawk's Pro Skater.

No, the real focus of Jet Set Radio is right there in the title. This is a game about music. And that's what, even so long after its 2000 release, remains so brilliant about it. And it's why I think it's a game that we can still learn a lot from.

See, I think video games have an influence problem. And it's not, as a lot of critics like to argue, about video games relying too much on outside influences in lieu of developing their own language, or at least it's not entirely that. I think drawing influence from other art forms is an incredibly important part of making good art, and games are no different. After all, nothing is wholly original, and that process of cutting and pasting found ideas and aesthetics is an essential part of the process.

No, the problem that bothers me is how shallow video gaming's reference pool tends to be. I'm speaking in generalizations here, certainly, and I don't want to erase the eclectic, widely drawing work out there. But so many mainstream games seem to get their cues either from television, movies, or other video games. This is a disappointingly tiny range of inspirations, and is it any wonder, then, that major releases often feel so similar? And the games that do pull from other sources often do so in half-hearted or co-opting ways. (Sunset Overdrive comes to mind, a game that tries to be a modern Jet Set Radio but that, as Garrett Martin at Paste put it, relates to punk the same way Hot Topic does.)

'Jet Set Radio' trailer, announcing the game's 2012 HD re-releases

And I think music is an excellent place to look. Music can inform mood and motion, using repetition and structure to create flow and feeling. Bungie, talking about their development of Halo, famously described the core gameplay as built on "30 seconds of fun," a familiar gameplay loop repeated over time, structuring the design, an idea that's not that different in ethos than, say, the repeated verse-chorus-verse structure of a pop song. There are meaningful touchstones of comparison, is what I'm saying, places where games and music can and maybe should overlap. And by incorporating the sound and styles of different strains of youth-oriented popular music, Jet Set Radio gets it right.

The first person introduced to you in Jet Set Radio is the bombastic DJ Professor K, sole proprietor of a pirate radio station, introducing you to the world and its characters like a radio play take on Walter Hill's 1979 movie The Warriors. You're a hooligan with big over-ear headphones and a can of spray paint, part of one of many youth gangs roaming around the Tokyo-to. Your goals are simple: Stake out your territory, leave your mark on as many places as possible, and look cool as hell doing it.

Tokyo-to is rendered in vivid colors and sharp edges, one of the first games to use the cel shading style of graphics. While typically noted for making games look more like cartoons, here they also make Jet Set Radio look more like graffiti, all exaggerated shapes and thick lines, drawing particular influence from the places where street art has overlapped with music culture—Eric Haze, an artist who famously designed album art for the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, among others, was consulted by developers Smilebit (previously AM6, since renamed Sega Sports Japan) in order to form their aesthetic. The whole world feels like it could be scrawled on a wall somewhere, reeking of spray paint fumes.

And every moment is bursting with sound. Barely a single second goes by without a piece of music to accompany it. The music in Jet Set Radio is energetic, rhythm-heavy and defiant. It's an eclectic mixture of hip-hop, dance pop, ska, and Japanese rock, a multicultural melange of youth culture and an irrepressible, joyful sense of revolution. Every moment thrums to its soundtrack, which is, on the default settings, emphasized almost more than the in-game sounds, positioning it as a central consideration of play. Every stage has one or two songs all its own, making it a dance, encouraging the player to match their skating to the beat and mood of the music.

That soundtrack, combined with the bright, graffiti-inflected visual style, gives the whole game the sensibility of a music video. As you skate around the stages at high speeds, marking the world as yours, it captures that sense that I had on the skating rink as a kid, the feeling that the cheesy music was playing for me. It makes you the axis around which the whole world is turning. If Jet Set Radio is a music video, you're the star, an avatar of pop's glorious presence in the world. And when the police start chasing you for being young and rowdy and tagging the place up, as police are wont to do, especially in cheesy music videos, you are always a little faster, a little cooler.

The police, by the by, do chase the hell out of you, escalating in supremely cartoonish fashion. In one early stage, set in a quarry, all bright red and orange, the cops move from chasing you around to assailing you with gun choppers, and for the rest of the stage you have to tag the surroundings while avoiding being carpet bombed into cel-shaded oblivion. It contributes to a general sense of youthful rebellion, a grinning rejection that feels drawn from decades of pop music. It's the feeling that the best way to screw the man is to turn the volume up and let the music drown them out. You gotta fight for your right to party, and all that.

Not that Jet Set Radio is a perfect game or anything (it is, among other things, surprisingly difficult, as I learned when I recently revisited it on Steam—the playthrough these screens are taken from). But by trying to capture an ethos pulled from pop music and youth culture, it encapsulates something not a lot of games get at, embodying an experience more accessible and, frankly, more fun than most Michael Bay–fellating action romps get at. Not that I'm opposed to a violent romp now and then. But Jet Set Radio is a party, a celebration of style and sound. And it's the sort of game the industry could do with a lot more of.

Follow Jake on Twitter.

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