Jet Set Radio Future | Developer: Smilebit | Publisher: Sega | Year: 2002
The male graffiti skater called Beat from the Xbox PAL cover art of Jet Set Radio Future.

Jet Set Radio Future

Jet Set Radio Future is a cult classic. To a stronger degree than even Kung Fu Chaos, its niche fandom has grown despite not being ported to modern formats like its predecessor was. Jet Set Radio Future has remained an Xbox exclusive for over twenty years now, although it was decently represented at the time, as it was included in a popular hardware bundle alongside fellow exclusive, Sega GT 2002.

It’s difficult to express just how beloved this sequel is in certain circles. Again, part of this is due to its mystique at being isolated from mainstream gaming for so long. To give credit where it’s due, Jet Set Radio Future, even more so than the original Jet Set Radio for Dreamcast, is all about style. It’s the most stylish video game I’ve ever played, in fact.

Jet Set Radio Future follows the exploits of a rollerblading Tokyo street gang called the GGs. Graffiti isn’t vandalism in their world. Rather, tagging territory is how they “release the soul of the street” or something. Aided by the “almighty” DJ Professor K. (who hosts the eponymous pirate radio station), they oppose a criminal syndicate that has taken over Tokyo’s police department and outlawed all forms of self expression. The plot is exactly the same as it was in the first game, with the developers considering this second outing to be an alternate reality featuring many of the same characters and concepts.

It also has a broader scope than its predecessor. Rather than featuring a linear set of levels, this sequel has a connected map which players can explore at their leisure. Players must seek out rival territory to spray paint, whilst completing various challenges and adding new skaters to their gang. Without a timer threatening to end the run, Jet Set Radio Future is an easier game than Jet Set Radio was, but reaching 100% completion will take time because the expanded environments are harder to navigate. A handy boost ability helps players zoom around though, and tricks can now be performed to accelerate your skater during a grind, which is all very helpful.

The beautiful environments teem with pedestrians and street punks who spray paint their message of peace with one hand, whilst flipping off a corrupt authority with the other. It’s wonderfully atmospheric. Characters are always showing off their fresh dance moves, and it’s not a surprise they like to when there’s such a loaded soundtrack.

Just listen to the way the music transitions into garbled medleys that actually make the radio station itself feel alive. Although, it really needed custom playlist support so players could remove some of the more annoying cuts and stop those repetitive loops where the same few songs play repeatedly. I am fond of the ironic sound that “Jet Set Radio” airs, but if it was a real station, I’d turn it off pretty damn quick!

Jet Set Radio Future represents the peak of the cel-shaded graphics craze — a craze that was once so tiresome, I took my own ironic turn by naming a website after it! — with its art style holding up extremely well, even in lowly 480p. The powerful graffiti editor returns, along with some very sweet default designs if you’re less artistically inclined.

Jet Set Radio Future gameplay screenshots for Xbox showing cartoon skaters exploring Tokyo.

Jet Set Radio Future has many playable characters, but the story is still presented via radio broadcasts narrated by DJ Professor K.

Jet Set Radio Future is a very cool game, but it’s poorly designed in crucial ways. Combat is bad for one. Players get ambushed by cops quite frequently, and the only way to get rid of these enemies is to awkwardly knock them over before tagging their hides. It’s an inelegant process to say the least, and it’s only by the grace of the game’s generous health items and spray can pickups that these segments don’t come away feeling worse than they already do.

The boss battles are actually worse since they’re longer than regular fights tend to be. Battling the Terror Drone in Hikage Street is the peak of awfulness here as the developers expect players to slowly grind their way to the top of a very tall building to destroy a walking spider robot. Only, the robot’s missiles murder your patience (as well as the frame rate) because getting hit can knock your skater all the way to the bottom again. Come on, Smilebit!

Jet Set Radio Future has chapters which start easy then get absurd when the formula becomes less about tagging and more about falling off things (the never-ending sewer level immediately springs to mind here). All points of interest are helpfully rendered on a 3D map, but the vertical design of later environments like Rokkaku-dai Heights and especially The Fortified Residential District, means players will be checking this map constantly to see where their character model lines up. Travelling is also a hassle because there’s no teleporting between save points, nor any shortcuts to cut down on the many boring commutes.

It’s worth doing the extra challenges because there are many fun characters to unlock and the process of doing so is more intuitive than it was in the previous game. A big improvement there. The main campaign itself is pretty short otherwise, but considering how frustrating the later areas can be, this was probably for the best anyway.

The final big selling point is the 4-player mode. This predates Xbox Live and there’s no system link support, but players can compete in split screen graffiti challenges or team up to race each other. These are good options to have, but they’re sadly not very fun. The maps are limited and the play modes don’t have the necessary spark to keep players coming back.

The undeniable charm of Jet Set Radio Future helps people overlook these faults, and honestly, that’s still a good place to be. It’s bewildering this hasn’t been remastered in HD, as it’s a superbly original game whose art style would look awesome with a modern facelift. Should it ever happen, newbies should set their expectations accordingly. This isn’t the flawless gem it’s sometimes made out to be (I was often struggling to enjoy myself during my recent repeat play). Nevertheless, it remains one of those Sega gems whose character and concept (of love) still has much to offer.

Banner art by Akutou-san