Some games stick in the memory. They’re like the smell of freshly mown grass, or a particular song, or a line from a movie. Just hearing their name mentioned transports you back to the first time you played them, to the chair you were sat in and the weight of the controller in your hand. They’re not always classics, or even games you’d go back to and play again, but they hold a special place in your heart, and nothing will ever change that.
I didn’t pick Jet Set Radio up at the Sega Dreamcast’s launch. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the copy I had was someone else’s. Probably my brother’s. But for three weeks in April 2001, I played it almost constantly, stopping only to eat, sleep, and engage with the minimum ablutions a seventeen-year-old male can get away with.
It’s hard to express just how different the game was from everything else back then. This was the era of polygon counts and ‘realism’, when games were all about the numbers, about smooth lines and draw distances. Greys and browns were already becoming the norm, yet here was this multicolour burst of frantic, cell-shaded, neon madness.
The game was a rollerblading, graffiti tagging maelstrom of Japanese cool, with a soundtrack fit to bursting with upbeat techno noise. It was a game of rebellion, about escaping the cops and making your mark on an urban landscape. It mixed third person action with quick time tagging swipes and a subversive, intelligent swagger.
A tale of gang warfare, played out not with fists or guns, but with paint cans and grind rails, Jet Set Radio was about building up your crew. You recruited other skaters by beating them in challenges, and once they joined your gang, the GGs, you could use their talents to complete other levels. And all to the dulcet tones of the eponymous radio station — enough to plaster a smile across anyone’s face.
That first level proper — grinding through Shibuya Bus Station while chased by policemen that run like they have hot coals in their boots — is one of the defining moments of 21st century gaming. Few games, before or since, have managed to be so individual, yet so utterly playable. Leaping over the bus garages to collect spray cans, sliding down handrails in an attempt to perform that awesome grind (that you knew was possible, but could never quite pull off), these were your initiation into something special.
Jet Set Radio was a unique experience, and while it was followed a couple of years later by an Xbox sequel (Jet Set Radio Future), the magic of the first game was largely missing; that indefinable quality and full-on sensory assault somehow gone. The lashings of colour, the incomparable cell-shaded vistas and the upbeat soundtrack that made the thrill of the chase the only thing that mattered.
We are currently faced by a gaming industry in which violence, army men and muted colours form the deeply dug foundations. Jet Set Radio serves as a reminder that there can be colour, fun and hope; and that sometimes the games that stick in the memory are those that shine the brightest.