Retrospective Overdrive: Jet Set Radio Future

And so we begin the odyssey into the depths of my old games pile. Leading off is an oldie but a goodie: Jet Set Radio Future. Catch our introduction to the Retrospective Overdrive here, and all of our previous Retrospective articles can be found here.

I'm not going to lie: I'd almost completely forgotten about Jet Set Radio Future. I mean, I remember that it exists — and I have a copy of the split-single version of it that came with my original Xbox — but when my mind thinks "Jet Set Radio," it goes straight to the Dreamcast original, not the 2002 follow-up.

After starting the game back up, though, I'm going to have to reassess my opinion. Jet Set/Grind Radio on the Dreamcast may be able to tug on my heart-strings, but JSRF may be the better game.

If you haven't played one of these games: first, shame on you! You can find it dirt-cheap now because it was an Xbox pack-in for a long time, and it's backwards compatible on Xbox 360. But second, it's an action game all about zooming around on inline-skates in a near-future version of Tokyo and spraying graffiti. There's a counter-culture storyline and a The Warriors-esque radio DJ slash narrator in the form of DJ Professor K, who is awesome. And, of course, the graphic style and music are both perfectly pitched for the game and really, really awesome. Seriously, it's awesome.

Even though it's a game from only one console generation ago, 2002 may as well be 1,000 years ago in the gaming industry. But one of the biggest takeaways I have from spending time with Jet Set Radio Future is that so much has been streamlined and refined in the past eight years in gaming. The menu system could be better (plus some allow you to use the analog stick and others force you to use the D-pad? Strange), the game could use automatic saving and checkpoints in levels, and perhaps the maps could be better designed. But in the grand scheme of things, they're minor annoyances that show just how far your average game in 2011 has come.

No, the biggest shock is that the game still holds up so well. Okay, so the graphics are a little rough, but it's not the design or style of the game — it's the clipping and slowdown, though the latter may be due to the Xbox 360's emulation. Everything from characters to backgrounds has a well-executed style that may be too futuristic compared with Jet Grind Radio, but it certainly is much more impressive. Levels are designed well, too — my memory of Jet Grind Radio is that the levels were cramped arenas or snaking streets, but in Future they're much larger, a bit more free-flowing. One I just got to, Kibogaoka Hill, has you grinding high wires above a neighborhood of shacks, and almost feels like it's designed to be skied down.

Fortunately the controls hold up, too. Compared with Jet Grind Radio, you can do multiple tricks during a grind by pressing the X button; however, stringing together moves is a rhythm-based system and one bad step pauses you for a few seconds. The movement and jumping is weighted well. However, this game suffers from one anachronism — camera control is mapped to the left trigger, and all you can do is re-center the view. In a world where right stick-controlled views are the norm, it takes some adjustment.

Maybe I'm too big a fan to really provide an honest assessment of the game, but I've just sunk nine hours into an eight-year-old Xbox game and haven't felt like it's been a waste of time. In fact, it's really whetted my appetite — I feel like I'll complete the playthrough and fire up the Dreamcast just to compare the two. And while it's unfortunate that a sequel is probably never going to happen, at least the two games Sega made in this franchise are classics in their own right.