Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
With February coming to an end it's about time to wrap up the month's "Is it good" theme. For this last post in the series, I'll be addressing Jet Set Radio Future, the follow-up to one of my all-time favorite games, Jet Set Radio. Jet Set Radio Future -- hereafter JSRF -- was a re-imagining of the original game and stands as a rare Sega game that was released only on a Microsoft platform (the original Xbox). As a re-imagining rather than a proper sequel, JSRF is a strange mix of borrowed ideas and minor changes from the original. It keeps the original game's distinctive hyper-colorful cel-shaded representation of Tokyo (though the stages have been completely redesigned), and Naganuma Hideki returns to head up a new soundtrack that's every bit as deliciously funky and cheekily nonsensical as the original's. It's in these two aspects that JSRF most succeeds--the game looks great even now, and the soundtrack is just as strong as the original's, to the point where it can be easy to forget whether a particular track comes from the original or from Future.
JSRF differentiates itself from the original in its gameplay and plot. The original game was built in the vein of the skating games that were popular at the time, and while Jet Set Radio isn't about competitions and the like (as is typical of sports games) its underlying mechanics hold a weight and technicality that solidify its position as a "skating game" -- albeit an unusual one. While Future's characters still move around on skates (as it wouldn't be a Jet Set Radio game otherwise), the "feel" of the game is drastically different. JSRF's mechanics are much snappier and more fluid than its predecessor's, making the game considerably easier to acclimate to and control and requiring less commitment on the part of the player. Characters generally accelerate and move faster, and it tends to be easier to move vertically -- something the game's level design utilizes to great effect. It feels similar to the different between, say, Dark Souls and Kingdom Hearts -- one has a weighty pseudo-realism that can be initially off-putting but is highly satisfying to master, while the other is much airier and offers flexibility to pull off a variety of superhuman maneuvers.
JSRF also made a significant structural departure from Jet Set Radio. The original game is built around isolated, timed missions in distinct locations, while JSRF's world is completely interconnected and its stages are not timed, taking much longer to clear. The combination of the structural and mechanical changes leads JSRF to feel more like a 3D collectathon platformer than a skating game. Where JSR encourages mastering the controls and learning the maps to plot the fastest and most efficient routes through each stage, JSRF encourages exploration of massive, soaring environments in search of graffiti tag locations. The games are more cousins than siblings, bound by aesthetic styles but not by gameplay, and while both are fun, I think the original tends to be a much "tighter" and more unique gameplay experience, in exchange for being considerably shorter.
I went into detail about how the original Jet Set Radio tells its story in the post I linked above, so you can check that if you want more of a breakdown on how the game works, but long story short it's about the value and power of self-expression, and it's told in bits and pieces as a radio drama. It's simple, but its message and thematic ideas are clear and are supported by every aspect of the game, and the presentation is full of charm. It operates almost like the video game equivalent of a short story -- it isn't a complex, sprawling narrative, but it makes its point in a concise, compelling, and polished manner.
JSRF, by contrast, isn't nearly as clean. It sort of adheres to the radio drama premise of the original, but it also breaks from it at times in ways that makes the intent somewhat confusing. The game ends up feeling far too literal. The original game thrived on its sense of existing in the abstract. The central characters, the GGs, are ideas of people rather than actual people, and their broad-strokes struggles as we hear them from the narrator, Professor K, are meant to be emblematic of purehearted youthful rebelliousness. Jet Set Radio paints the "feel" of a story more than it tells an actual concrete narrative, and in its added complexity JSRF loses much of that feel.
To put this in more concrete terms, JSRF's narrative isn't memorable in the slightest. It follows the same sorts of events and problems as the original game, but where Jet Set Radio's turf wars and kidnappings and corporate corruption linger clearly in my memory, I struggle to recall even the barest outlines of JSRF's plot. It feels purposeless, a shell of a story meant only to evoke the idea of the original game and to provide an excuse to skate around Tokyo reveling in the art of the city.
I am, of course, always happy to have an excuse to explore Tokyo, but that's beside the point.
Extra Sugar, Extra Salt
JSRF is a fun game. Period. It is, however, a weaker work than its predecessor, and that ultimately stems, I think, from a lack of purpose. Jet Set Radio was created to be an homage to urban youth culture at the turn of the millennium. Everything about the game threads the line between affectionate parody and celebration of youth, from its totally meaningless, incredibly catchy music, to its exaggerated, colorful art, to its ceaselessly optimistic story. It says, "Yes, all these things are absurd, but the world around us is bright, and the future is good, and you can make a difference if you try." There is, in short, a defined reason for the game, and that purpose drives every part of the game's design philosophy.
JSRF, then, is "Let's make Jet Set Radio again." It takes all of the ingredients that went into the original game and turns them up to eleven, adding more and more until the game is full to bursting. It reminds me of a certain line from "Birthday Cake," one of the more infamous songs in the game's soundtrack: "Extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil, MSG!" In cooking, you can't just throw in more of every ingredient and expect your recipe to turn out better--all that's going to do is throw off the balance of flavors. Every piece of a recipe is there for a purpose, to create a dish with just the right flavor, and no matter how much you may like sugar or salt, adding more than you need is only going to ruin your cake.
Much of JSRF feels it was added just to have more. I love running around Tokyo -- in both real life and in games -- but JSRF's stages tend to be a little larger than they need to be, and certain stage ideas are repeated a few too many times. Similarly, the story aims for complexity where simplicity would probably be more effective. In a game where every decision is carefully tied to the game's "why," this problem doesn't happen. When every area, every character, and every plot beat is purposeful, the overall experience is much stronger. JSRF rests on the ways in which Jet Set Radio's purpose inadvertently bleeds into Future's design rather than striving to find its own raison d'etre, and for that reason it is the weaker game.
So is it Good?
For all my complaining, I do really like Jet Set Radio Future. Part of this is that the original game is just so strong that even a relatively hollow imitation is still going to be exceptionally stylish and charming, and part of it is that, whatever else JSRF might be, it's a fun platformer with great music. So yes, I would say it's a good game, but it's not a great game. It's superficial in all the ways you would expect a follow-up to a game as unusual as Jet Set Radio to be. Radio is simultaneously deceptively complex and elegantly simple, and the game's simplicity is what shows most clearly on the surface, so a surface-level re-imagining is inevitably going to lack the original's sense of purpose.
I'm glad JSRF exists. It's a game I'm sure I'll find myself coming back to again and again over the years, and if Sega ever were to make a similarly superficial Jet Set Radio reboot I'm sure I'd play that and enjoy it as well. Not every game needs to be truly great in order to successful, and JSRF is probably one such game. Jet Set Radio is a brilliant homage to a time and a culture. Jet Set Radio Future is an homage to Jet Set Radio, and in that regard, at least, it works well enough.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition