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Jet Grind Radio (Dreamcast) artwork

Jet Grind Radio (Dreamcast) review

"Speak with someone who owned a Dreamcast in 1999 or 2000 and they’ll likely recall fond memories of a fantastic library tailored to the “hardcore” gaming crowd. But gamers who never adopted the console usually aren’t hunting it down on eBay. The fact is many of its best games ranging from high-profile titles like Sonic Adventure and Crazy Taxi to niche import releases like Guilty Gear X and Ikaruga have been ported to more successful consoles. There are, however, a f..."

Speak with someone who owned a Dreamcast in 1999 or 2000 and they’ll likely recall fond memories of a fantastic library tailored to the “hardcore” gaming crowd. But gamers who never adopted the console usually aren’t hunting it down on eBay. The fact is many of its best games ranging from high-profile titles like Sonic Adventure and Crazy Taxi to niche import releases like Guilty Gear X and Ikaruga have been ported to more successful consoles. There are, however, a few titles that have eluded new life, such as the unique skating and spray painting action game Jet Grind Radio.

In a near-future analog of Tokyo called Tokyo-to, the streets are filled with gangs of rudies, teenagers who dash around on high-tech roller skates and cover the city with intricate graffiti. Playing as a gang named the GGs, you head to rival gang turf and tag over their graffiti with GG pride, while avoiding the buffoonish Captain Onishima and his pursuing anti-rudie police force. Jet Grind Radio is light on story, with the narrative mostly comprising of whacky news reports from the hyperactive DJ Professor K’s underground radio station.

Start off in the bustling Shibuya-cho district and the gang of jaded ex-girlfriends, the Love Shockers, are busy muscling in on the GGs’ turf. With the roller skates you can quickly glide through the game environments and reach many otherwise inaccessible areas. The skates allow rudies to grind up and down a variety of objects, slide and jump off walls, and execute stylish flips. Levels are also full of spray paint cans necessary for the game’s all important graffiti objectives. Stages consist of relatively small but open areas covered with rival gang’s graffiti, which needs to be retagged by the GGs. After stocking up on spray paint power-ups, finding the tags is a cinch thanks to large hovering red arrows denoting tag locations as well as a helpful in-game map on the pause menu. Small tags are easily covered by a simple press of the L trigger, but bigger spots require multiple spray cans and more technique. Immediately the game stops and prompts pop up on the screen. Initial prompts are easy, asking to push the analog stick up or down, but later you have to quickly flick the stick in full and half circles in specific directions and often multiple times per can. Mess up a prompt and you lose a can from your supplies.

After a couple of tags, Captain Onishima gets wind of the GGs rampant vandalism, and he’s tough on crime. At first only Onishima appears decked out in his wannabe-Sam Spade trench coat and laughable Elvis cut. He slowly gives chase and occasionally fires off rubber bullets from his revolver – a minor threat. Keep spraying the streets and back-up arrives. This is where Jet Grind Radio becomes interesting. Initially common flatfoots and dogs run after you, trying to grab you with their arms or teeth. As levels progress, the danger increases: paratroopers blanketing the streets with teargas, motorcycle cops swerving into pedestrians, SWAT teams charging with clubs and riot sheets, and eventually a fleet of tanks rolling into town. When the police are in pursuit, gingerly tagging the walls isn’t an option. Once you start spraying, the camera will pan out, showing when enemies are closing in. Your options are either take a chance and try to finish quickly or abruptly flee the scene. Using the environment to quickly grind away or leap onto rooftops allows quick elusion from danger. While the fuzz is busy trying to catch up, you can head back and finish your tag.

But the intensity only ramps up as you progress. At one point, tagging an abandoned, decrepit warehouse amidst the setting sun becomes a fight for survival when Onishima calls in three helicopters equipped with heat-seeking missiles. The mission seems impossible until you start using power lines and fencing to grind, jump high into the air, and spray paint the helicopters’ windshields, causing them to wildly sway to and fro before crashing into the earth. With so many police resources being pooled into blowing up rudies, it’s a good thing levels have ample health-replenishing power-ups. What really makes Jet Grind Radio shine is this melding of genres. There’s plenty of skating and platforming to reach targets, but there’s also an interesting graffiti component as well as plenty of high-octane action from evading capture.

Throughout the game you can recruit several rudies each with varying amounts of stats, such as speed and health. The characters are all unique, but equally vibrant and interesting. You’ll start with Beat, a geeky-yet-hip teenager decked out in goofy glasses and can-sized headphones who’s also the leader of the GGs. Later there’s a muscular black guy who roams the streets while holding a giant boombox blasting Jurassic-5 and the typical pale goth girl (of the Hot Topic variety) clad in all black. Although playing as these characters is fun, I wish controlling the camera was more so. The Dreamcast controller lacked the twin stick design of the PlayStation’s DualShock, which later consoles adopted, meaning there’s nothing to control the camera with aside from the dated tap of the left trigger to center the camera from behind. It’s workable, but ten years later I found myself wanting to instead fiddle with a non-existent analog stick.

Possibly in an effort to add variety, Sega implemented several levels in which the GGs must humiliate rival gang members by tagging their backs, and these stages are easily the game’s low point. Three members from gangs like Poison Jam – the brutish graffiti thugs clad in rubbery monster suits – or Noise Tanks – a collective of robot otaku with a penchant for cosplay – race around the level. You have to catch up to them from behind and paint their backs ten times each to properly humble them. These missions quickly become tedious, and thankfully they’re uncommon.

Jet Grind Radio was the game that started the cel-shading craze. As a result, its cartoony look doesn’t have the same impact as it did a decade ago. Fortunately the game otherwise still has a strong art-direction. Professor K’s pirate radio station is surrounded with a wall of amps throbbing as they spew out deafening beats. Characters stylishly dance in cutscenes, police officers flail their arms and stomp the ground comically in frustration, and sparks fly off as you grind rails. The game’s soundtrack is equally fantastic and very elective. In the Noise Tanks’ territory, the game blasts techno and electronic dance music, while the Love Tanks are accompanied by j-pop and turntablism. Whether it’s hip-hop, funk or pop rock, all the music fits the game’s look and feel and puts an exciting energy into the experience.

This is vintage Sega back when they were willing to take risks on unique, innovative ideas and create new IPs. There really isn’t anything like Jet Grind Radio. Even its sequel, the inferior Jet Set Radio Future, is very different, choosing to focus more on exploring massive environments and executing difficult jumps while significantly simplifying the graffiti system and downplaying the police element. Jet Grind Radio is a fantastic mix of genres with a lot of character to the experience. Likely due to poor sales, it’s never been ported, making it one of the last great still-Dreamcast exclusives. That is unless its rumored future release on PSN and Xbox Live turns out to be more than a rumor.

Genj's avatar
Community review by Genj (July 15, 2010)

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jiggs posted July 16, 2010:

woah, funny this is being mentioned. i didn't even think about Jet Grind Radio until i remembered how awesome "Let Mom Sleep" was, then i spent the morning listening to some Jet Grind Radio tunes. going to read Genj's review now and the soundtrack is still great.

also the timing couldn't be more coincidental with your comment on Wolfqueen's Ys review while i'm in the midst of anticipating Ys Seven and raving about the music in the trailer on my facebook with the quote "the music always rocks in an Ys game"

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wolfqueen001 posted July 17, 2010:

Awesome review. I had no idea what this game was like, and it definitely sounds unique. Shame it's (currently) only on the Dreamcast (I imagine the BGA version is worse). It certainly sounds like a game I'd be interested in playing. I've got to say, though; sending tanks and helicopters just to stop a bunch of kids who aren't even violent is just a little ridiculous, haha, even if that's the whole point.

A few minor errors to point out, though; I hope you don't mind.

Although playing as these characters is fun, I wish controller the camera was more so.


police officer flail their arms

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Genj posted July 17, 2010:

Thanks for the positive feedback everyone. Thanks wolfqueen for pointing out those typos.

If there's a complaint from me, it's that it takes a while to get to the good parts.

I thought so too, but I felt I needed to lay some groundwork first for an unusual game such as this.
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aschultz posted July 19, 2010:

I really like this review too. It appears quite polished except for a few oopses:

down the on eBay -> on eBay
a synch should be a cinch
"and he's tough on" probably needs a comma
Oh, you start 2 sentences in a row with "Levels," which clangs a bit

That's it, though.
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Genj posted July 19, 2010:

Fixed. I hate proofing.
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CoarseDragon posted July 20, 2010:

You mention speed and health as stats in your review. Can these be increased by completing different tags? Are there any other stats or skills?
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Genj posted July 20, 2010:

Each character has permanent, unchanging stats. I didn't want to go in depth in the review for it because it's a bit complex and not very important in the grand scheme of things, and it's something you'll pick up when you play the game. There's:

Power = Health
Technique = Speed, Jump
Graffiti = How difficult their button prompts are

The last one is very odd. Using a character with high graffiti will make the game slightly harder, but you'll earn more points for your score. The thing is score isn't important at all for beating the game, so it's more of an extra thing you may want for replay. As a result, I felt it wasn't important enough to warrant the extended explanation it would require.

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