'Jet Set Radio HD' creators look back on the original game

It says something about Sega's creative prowess during the Dreamcast area of the late '90s and early 2000s that the Jet Set Radio HD remake out this month has garnered so much positive press from the modern media.

It says something about Sega's creative prowess during the Dreamcast era of the late '90s and early 2000s that the Jet Set Radio HD remake out this month has garnered so much positive press from the modern media. It perhaps says something about the company's attractive force to Japanese devs that the two main creators behind the original JSR are still with the company.

"An HD version was something we were previously thinking about, given the strong demand there was for it overseas," said Masayoshi Kikuchi, director of the original JSR and currently head of development in Sega's online division, in an interview with Famitsu magazine. "There was a Spanish developer called Blit that approached us with this very passionate pitch to do the game. We were a little worried about how well it'd turn out at first, but after giving them some time, it became plain that they were up to the task, so we left the HD version to them."

Jet Set Radio, which came out on the US Dreamcast only a few months before Sega officially dropped all Dreamcast support in early 2001, got its start when Kikuchi was approached by Ryuta Ueda, a young designer. "It's a game that contains a lot of our youthful energy," Kikuchi recalled. "I remember Ueda bringing me the basic image visuals for the game that became Jet Set Radio right around the time we were finishing up the development of Panzer Dragoon Saga. We used those visuals as a base to talk over and figure out what direction the game would take. This was about two and a half years after I joined the company, so we were really still pretty young. The entire team was, in fact. Outside of Takayuki Kawagoe, who was producing the game from up top, I don't think anyone was in their thirties."

"I wanted to make a really epoch-making game that was inherently Sega-like in style," added Ueda. "I had this vision in my mind when I joined Sega that we could make this really edgy, Sega-like game, so there was this push to get the younger devs together and try to make this. That was why I approached Kikuchi in the first place. Looking back, I think the project got finished up precisely because we weren't afraid of anything back then."

JSR's gameplay, which features players roaming a cartoony version of Shibuya and other Tokyo neighborhoods as they sprayed the town with graffiti and fought against police and rival gangs, made it one of the first titles in what'd later be called the "sandbox" genre. Coming out over a year before Grand Theft Auto III solidified the genre, it was a pioneering game. "We built the stages to encourage people to try climbing up on the walls and so forth they ran into," Ueda said. "The player wound up being able to access a lot of odd places in the game world, which made programming pretty difficult. There were only a handful of free-world games out at the time, so we didn't have any examples to really go on. I think we did a pretty good job at it in retrospect."

JSR was also one of the first console titles to use cel shading, lending a pop-art toony look to the visuals that later became standard in other games. "That was actually one of the smoother aspects of development," Ueda recalled. "We were wondering which way to go with that, and then we realized there was a designer within the company that was working on the exact kind of tech we were thinking of. It's funny how everything falls into place when you're trying to do something new. It definitely wasn't something that was stuck in the research phase for years or anything." ("I think it was really key that we were producing this on the Dreamcast, our own hardware," Kikuchi added. "The fact we could take whatever we were talking about directly to the hardware people was important.")

It's partly thanks to this style that JSR, especially in this new HD incarnation, doesn't feel like an old game at all. "I think that's because, while we were trying to put in as much street culture as we could from the start of the project, our aim wasn't to simply chase after whatever cheap new thing was in at the time," Ueda said. "That, and it's not a game world based on the concept of real life," Kikuchi added. "The visuals are set in what we called the 'manga dimension', a very comic-like 3D world. If you up the resolution like we have in this HD remake, I think that ensures the game doesn't look old at all."

Jet Set Radio HD is due to hit the PSN and Xbox Live Arcade in a few days, followed by versions for Steam, the PS Vita, and assorted mobile devices later on this year. When asked if all this activity means a sequel is coming, Ueda kept his cards close. "A lot of people tell us about how they'd like an online version, and personally I wouldn't mind making one at all," he said. "That's assuming the company gives us lots of time and a big budget, of course!"

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