If you’d asked me not too many years ago what my prototypical idea of a video game was, I probably would have come up with some sort of RPG-ish thing. Single player, with the story standing out more than anything (and with that story being excessively grandiose); but also with a lot of time spent on combat, with that combat being fairly repetitive / mindless. And the whole thing would take maybe 40 hours to get through, and it would try to be a “AAA game”, whatever that means; at the very least, that generally meant that they tried to put in lots of polygons.

These days, I play a lot fewer games like that; part of that is that I’ll only play through so many 40-hour games in a year, a lot of that is how trends have shifted, but most of that is my personal choice. As production costs have increased, the duration of AAA games has decreased, but otherwise those elements are there: you’re still likely to find an excessively grandiose story, the mechanics are still generally combat-focused and repetitive (though, admittedly, if it’s a multiplayer game then there’s probably actually quite a lot of meat to those mechanics, they’re just not going to be to my taste), and the polygon count keeps on going up in service of a facile realism. None of which is to my taste.

So, these days, I tend to play shorter games that focus more on one of those aspects of game quality. (Though, actually, if they’re mechanics-focused, then may end up evergreen in practice rather than shorter, with me returning to them for months or even years.) Gone Home is a narrative-focused example; Android: Netrunner is a mechanics-focused example. (Or, if you insist on staying within video games, then Super Hexagon; but it’s not a coincidence that I play a lot of board games these days.)

But then there are games that don’t really shine in either of those aspects: instead, they shine in other forms of artistry, audio-visual in particular. Some recent examples are Proteus and Dominique Pamplemousse; the flourishing of the indie scene has allowed unique personal visions to come forth like that, for which I’m very glad. (And it’s also allowed polished stories and mechanics to come forth: what it doesn’t allow is the AAA morass of high production values combined with focus-group teenage-male-targeted mediocrity.)


There was a time a generation and a half ago, though, when it seemed that idiosyncratic artistic had a chance even among major publishers. Capcom gave us Okami and the incomparable Killer 7; Sony had Shadow of the Colossus; Namco had Katamari Damacy. But, even before those, there was an entire console that pointed at a different path forward, the Dreamcast. Space Channel 5 and Jet Set Radio, in particular, are two of the most stylish games I’ve ever played.

I’ve spent the last hour watching the above Space Channel 5 playthrough instead of writing this post; I am still completely captivated by that game. I don’t dance in real life (and yes, that is, I am convinced, a mistake), but dancing is incredibly effective here: the game combines musical and visual beauty, and uses the mechanics to embody them. (And to embody a spirit of cooperation and coordination. All with a healthy dose of horn playing, to boot.) Yes, it’s a product of a major corporation, a game intended to produce a system mascot; but, as she says, “you think a reporter without soul can out-dance Ulala?”, and perhaps that game had too much soul to let itself be captured that way.


I’m supposed to be talking about Jet Set Radio here, though; I played the original Dreamcast version (under the name Jet Grind Radio) when it first came out, and I just played the XBLA re-release. And, approximately two seconds after starting the game up, it was obvious that I’d made the right choice, it was obvious why the game had stuck in my head for the last thirteen years: amazing visual design, yes, and amazing music (this time featuring bass lines more than horn sections), but really it’s the overall style that shines out.

And it’s a style that, yes, comes forth in dance. My favorite character is Gum, and you’ll see in the video above the way she dances when you select her (or, if you watch it to the end, the way she dances when finishing a level): she is awesome, she knows she’s awesome, she is not taking any nonsense or subordinating herself to anybody. Of course, as we move out of the character selection and into the gameplay, the character movement turns into skating, but that skating is dance as well: sure, you’re trying to get from place to place or to escape people, but you’re encouraged to do that in the most spectacular fashion possible, never skating on the surface of a street if there’s an edge to grind.

The music and visuals are, if anything, even more central to the game’s distinctiveness, though. The frame story is narrated by a DJ at a pirate radio station, and the soundtrack is great; and in-game goals are (generally) more about painting graffiti than about skating well. This was the game that introduced the phrase “cel-shaded” to at least my game vocabulary; and it’s the earliest game on Wikipedia’s list, so while I have a hard time believing that there weren’t earlier games with a related visual style, it was clearly a pioneer.

Actually, let’s talk about cel shading for a bit. If you’d asked me at the time, I probably would have said: Jet Set Radio looks great, but I bet a lot of other people are going to copy it, we’ll have a cel shading fad boom, and then we’ll get sick of it and move on to something else. Instead, that didn’t happen: AAA games had a race for more polygons in service of pseudo-realism combined with hyper-sexualized character design / bizarre body proportions, indie games went for a low rez look, and there were never nearly enough cel-shaded games for me to start getting sick of them.

In fact, the opposite happened: it’s an art style that still makes me sit up and take notice, and two of the games I mentioned above in my list of idiosyncratic artistry were cel shaded. And yeah, that cel shading is part of that idiosyncracy: Okami in particular is flat out beautiful in a unique way. (Also, Okami also foregrounds drawing with its ink-painting-based mechanics in a similar way that Jet Grind Radio does with its graffiti.) But Okami has heart, has soul going for it in other ways, too; and when we move to Killer 7, the art style is only one of the artistic (in the broadest sense) design choices that made that game so unique.

My almost completely uninformed guess is: cel shading is hard to pull off from a technical point of view and it demands a sort of thoroughgoing artistic commitment/vision that high-polygon art doesn’t. So it’s never the easy path forward, and you aren’t going to do it unless it’s part of what you want to express; and that sort of artistic vision is more likely to fit into a broader picture?


At any rate: within seconds of launching the game, I knew that replaying it was the right choice. Of course, a few minutes later, I realized that the game wasn’t an unalloyed joy: the controls are oversensitive, and having cops constantly on your tail generally not only isn’t much fun but detracts from the art.

But another lesson of the game for me is: that doesn’t matter. Well, that’s a bit of an overstatement: I’m sure that there are changes that could have been made to the mechanics to improve them while harmonizing better with the overall artistic vision. (I haven’t played Jet Set Radio Future yet, but I’ve heard people say it does a better job in that regard.) So sure, there are probably better places in the local neighborhood of the design space.

What I’m even more sure of is, though: I’m a lot more worried about a different scenario, one where the gameplay gets smoothed out in a way that weakens the game. Because the last thing that I want is for the game’s exuberance and its brashness to be toned down in the name of improved gameplay. There are thousands of games out there that are striving for smooth gameplay; let them have their space, and embrace the fact that gameplay isn’t the only good in games. And neither is the other traditional focus of video games that I play, namely narrative: Jet Set Radio‘s narrative is mediocre and by the numbers, but I Do Not Care.

With those aspects of game design stepping to the background, what I was left with was a game that was a joy to watch, a joy to listen to, a joy to inhabit, a game where every level felt like coming home. And that is something special.

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