Jet Grind Radio Review
Posted by Jon Wahlgren
Funk on wheels
Sega's Dreamcast died in an explosion that sent the company's intellectual property flying all over what was left of the gaming landscape, and few consoles of that generation received more surprise ports than the Game Boy Advance. Not only did it see Sonic return to his former 2D self in the Sonic Advance series, the handheld also landed ports of the frenetic ChuChu Rocket!, the too-hip Space Channel 5 and the utter funk-on-wheels that is Jet Grind Radio.
Originally released in 2000 on the DC and developed by Smilebit, Jet Grind Radio (or Jet Set Radio as it's known outside North America) was shrunk down to the GBA in 2003 by Vicarious Visions, the studio behind the rather good handheld versions of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. Jet Grind Radio was given the same isometric playing field treatment as the Hawk games, but the emphasis here is less on stunts and more on getting around quickly to tag the environment – although grinding and jumps are an integral part of getting around. Other than the viewpoint the core game and its presentation is nearly unchanged.
As before, the game takes place in the city of Tokyo-to. You take control of members of roller graffiti "rudie" gang the GGs as you set out into the city to mark your territory by collecting paint cans, spraying graffiti all over the place, fighting off rival gangs the Love Shockers, Poison Jam and the Noise Tanks and steering clear of law enforcement (which ranges from regular ground troops to snipers and eventually attack helicopters) and the lunatic police chief. Each stage has a strict time limit and it's your job to tag all of your targets before the clock runs out or the cops beat you down.
What's surprising is just how accurately Vicarious Visions ported the game. The distinct cel-shaded art style is intact and masks the GBA's underpowered-3D weaknesses through its bright colors and cartoony characters. Those who have sunk hours into the DC original will be delighted to see that the stages make the leap largely intact and are easily recognizable on the small screen, although a few accommodations were made – the most notable being the mixing of the Grind Square and Bantam Street stages. There are plenty of jumps, rails and drops for you to zip around in the fairly large stages, and the sense of speed you get from chaining between them is as fun as it is satisfying. Tagging is done by either hitting a button for smaller pieces or by following D-Pad prompts for more elaborate ones, and you can choose whether you'll spray one of the preset graffiti pieces or create your own with the pixel editor.
Completing the story missions for each of the three areas opens up additional challenges like races, a freestyle trick attack and a tag-everything mode. Not only do these add legs to the game, they happen to enable something not found in the console version: four-player multiplayer. If you can gather round some friends with their own copy of the game then there's plenty of fun to be had and it's a nice extra to have.
The isometric viewpoint worked just fine in the Tony Hawk GBA games and works just as well here once you get used to it, but many of the same issues with that series plague Jet Grind Radio as well. Anything that requires a great deal of precision is tough to pull off because of the viewpoint and limited visibility on what's coming next; it'll take a few tries to get past certain sections as you memorize what obstacles are next and where exactly you need to steer your jumps. Similarly, since everything is isometric-smushed, rails and other areas that appear easily accessible can in fact be way out of your reach and confuses the stage layout some. As mentioned, putting a little time into the game will help alleviate these issues but they don't ever go away entirely.
The beloved soundtrack of the Dreamcast game realistically just couldn't make the trip to the handheld in its entirety. Instead, this version includes a half-dozen notable tracks cut down to 30-60 second loops, which sounds great at first but eventually succumbs to unavoidable repetition. It'll take someone with ears of steel and a heart of gold to not gradually turn the music down over the course of the game.
On the Dreamcast, Jet Grind Radio oozed more style than should have legally been allowed. A lot of what made the game special there survives the leap to the GBA, but of course the obvious hardware limitations necessitate a few cut corners here and there. Considering this, Vicarious probably couldn't have done a much better job at adapting it to the small screen, and once you're used to its quirks then you'll find a crazy, fantastic gem of a game.