One of the spooky things I’ve found about wandering around Tokyo is that everytime I’ve visited, I’ve kept dropping into parts of the city that felt haunted by the ghosts of a virtual city that Tokyo itself had inspired. As a Jet Set Radio fan, Tokyo-To is everywhere in Tokyo. I looked out of a hotel elevator one morning and saw Shibuya bus terminal, where I had spent so long skating and laying down tags. I remember stepping down into Harajuku one evening and the sensation of a close virtual space rippled past me. Walking in Tokyo Midtown I saw a highway rising up in front of me and I swore to myself that I knew where it lead. It was magic. It was also just really odd.
And now here’s Bomb Rush Cyberfunk, a spiritual sequel to Sega’s long-neglected series. And if Jet Set Radio was haunted by a real place, Bomb Rush Cyberfunk is haunted by a virtual place that’s haunted by a real place. It goes deep. The first map I got onto this morning was a weird mix, to me, of Shibuya and Chuo Street. The base for my gang is deeply similar to the base for my old gang in Jet Set Radio Future. Everywhere I look, I feel like I’m looking through Bomb Rush Cyberfunk to the game that I know so well that inspired it so deeply, and to the city, dimly glimpsed, beyond that. None of this is unpleasant. It’s actually a singular feeling. It’s odd though. It’s been two decades since we got a new Jet Set Radio game to play and that’s been far too long. I was hoping that Bomb Rush Cyberfunk would be a good cover version. What I wasn’t expecting was for it to be so eerie – and I don’t mean that in a bad way.
We’ll have our review of the game once I’m back from my holidays, but for now I wanted to get down some quick thoughts based on a single morning of playing it. I like it, I reckon, though I also don’t know exactly what to make of it. I’m still at the stage where I’m looking through Jet Set Radio to see Bomb Rush and its city of New Amsterdam. Hopefully there will be a moment where that changes and I no longer see this all in terms of the similarities and the occasional difference. Towards the end of my play session today there was a sign that such a moment was coming.
Anyway, it’s good to be back, with a new crew and a new city but a similar mission: take over as much turf as you can by covering up enemy tags with your own. There are differences even here, mind: you’re dispatched on this mission because a mysterious baddy has severed your head and it’s been replaced with a robotic head, and in general I would say Bomb Rush is a little more openly violent than Jet Set ever was. And tagging! Tagging was always in flux in Jet Set. In the first game it was a set of stick controls. In the second it was merely a case of holding down the stick for a set amount of time, because that game never wanted to break the flow. In Bomb Rush it’s a blend. Time pauses, and you then have a series of points around the imaginary dial of a clock face to connect. Ping them together as glowing nodes dictate and you’ve put down a tag. Bingo.
A couple of things about this system, which I suspect I love. The first is that the clean swipes of the stick really do feel like the flourishes of an artist who truly knows what they’re doing with their tools. Second is the fact that as you collect more tag designs you collect more stick-swipe recipes for them, and these are sort of superpositioned on the clock face when you start to lay down a tag. So you make choices, and the possibility space of the tag you’re creating slowly narrows until your specific tag is finished. I think this is how it works anyway. It’s very smart stuff.
Taking over turf so far is entertainingly familiar, a mixture of building rep by laying down tags and then engaging in trick battles with rival gangs. Rival gangs are a strong point in terms of design already. Once bunch I’ve faced were stitched together from different body parts. Another were just really, really old dudes, and that was enough to make them memorable. This stuff was a delight in Jet Set Radio – I will go to my grave remembering the lumbering sports metal lunges of Poison Jam. Bomb Rush captures the all-dancing sensation of being dunked in a city of distinct subcultures. It’s copying Jet Set’s template but doing it with such flair that it’s obvious the philosophy of Sega’s game has been fully internalised.
You see this everywhere, in fact, from the maps, which don’t just ape the sun-stained textures and billboard overload of the maps that inspired them, but also have their sneaky circularity, corkscrews and oxbows, flinging you out to the edges and then bringing you back in. These are intricate spaces for grinding and tricking, and I’m interested to see that Bomb Rush already brings in a few of its own ideas here. You can get off your board and walk. You can lean into corners when grinding to get more points. I think one more face button has been given over to tricks too, but don’t quote me on that.
Combat against the cops is a bit boosted as well, with a series of actual kicks and flips and attacks to go alongside just spraying your enemies to put them out of action. Lock-on seems to have disappeared, or maybe I just haven’t found it yet, but there’s scale to the cops’ approach that gives shape to things, with foot soldiers, chain turrets and mini-bosses so far. One of my favourite moments in Jet Set Radio Future was flipping backwards off a rocket truck after having tagged it into oblivion. Someone’s been paying attention to this stuff.
Towards the end of the morning – and I take things slow, so I’m still probably about an hour in when it comes to progression – I saw something genuinely new. A sequence in which I travelled inside my own robotic head strung territory out into a sort of gauntlet to skate through, in a way that Jet Set Radio Future only got to in its finale. And it never did it quite like this, I think, with sections where the game starts to feel like a side-scrolling platform game or something even stranger and less likely.
It was a short sequence, but it suggested to me that a game born of its developers’ desires to play another Jet Set also contained the fruits of a lot of thinking about where Jet Set should be taken next. I’m so close to the start still, but I’m having fun. And oh god, I haven’t even had time here to talk about the soundtrack. I’ll have to save that for the review.
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