I can pretty definitively say that I used to be an idiot. Here’s how I spent my time around the year 2000: Memorizing most of Blink 182’s Enema of the State. Watching The Boondock Saints far, far too many times. Liking Family Guy. And, when any talk of videogames happened, mounting a fervent defense of Jet Set Radio (or Jet Grind Radio, as it was originally released in the US) as a classic. I would slowly learn that most of these were unambiguous trash impeccably timed to coincide with one of my most impressionable periods. It breaks my heart to find out that the same is true of Jet Set Radio, now rereleased as Jet Set Radio HD.
For those of you without fond memories to spoil, Jet Set Radio HD is a game set in the future city of Tokyoto, a neon and particle board sprawl controlled by gangs on hyper-powered rollerblades who mark their territory through extreme sports, graffiti and the occasional choreographed dance. Most levels give you a playground full of places you need to tag with your gang’s logo, obstacles to grind on and police to avoid. Propped up by one great concept after another, Jet Set Radio violently collapses whenever the player has to actually do any of these things.
Developed in a time just before Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater set a standard for grinds and leaps, Jet Set Radio demands precision without giving players the tools to be precise. The game wants you to leap from rail to rail, tagging walls mid-air and grinding to avoid enemies. But jumping off that rail sends you unpredictably askew, like when you slap a helium balloon away and it somehow ends up behind you.
The elaborate graffiti sections also require the players to engage in analog stick mini-games that satisfy when they work, which is infrequent due to controller lag or the game’s own over-sensitivity. The frustration that hits when the game asks you to do both of these tasks while being tear-gassed, shot at by helicopters and chased by police dogs feels less like a challenge and more like an invitation to turn the game off.
Frustration changed to disappointment as I spent more time with the parts of Jet Set Radio HD that still hold up. The cel-shaded bubble-gum pop color palette feels refreshing compared to even modern games—even in the dozen years since, few games look anything like Jet Set Radio. The soundtrack, blasted by the virtual ancestor of Fallout 3’s 3-Dog, Professor K, sounds appropriately like the buzz that comes from sucking down too many Pixie Sticks.
The HD re-release is a business model newly borrowed from movies—from VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray, Hollywood has convinced many to buy the same movie three times over for enhanced visuals. But the interactive nature of games and our constant development and re-education as an audience means that no matter how much you increase the resolution some games just don’t work when rereleased “as is” twelve years later.
It’s a tough spot for developers, as altering a beloved game or cult classic can backfire just as badly. Jet Set Radio HD maps a camera to a second analog stick, a feature missing from the original, but using it interferes as often as it helps.
If only Sega had let me remember its game as a gem from a bygone era, instead of exhuming it as the creaking, groaning ancient machine it proved itself to be. Too dumb at the time to think Jet Set Radio was anything but great, Sega has now opened my eyes to all its flaws, and I just wish I could go back to thinking of it the way I used to.
Casey Malone is a game designer, comedian and writer living in the Boston area. Recently he’s been working on the wording of a joke about DMX for his Twitter feed (@Casey_Malone).