Smilebit’s Jet Set Radio was the defining game of my mid-teens, something I was anticipating for months as soon as I saw previews in gaming magazines. So eager to play it I rented it from Blockbuster despite not owning a Dreamcast so I could take it over to my friend Kyle’s house just to experience the game for the few hours I’d be hanging out with him on a Friday. And it oozed cool; that first area in the bus terminal is where the game dug its claws in for most players. But for me the first Benten-Cho level “Benten Boogie” is where the game really connected, in fact it’s my favorite video game level of all time because it marked the first time I could ever play a game that looked like where I grew up.
I was raised in public housing in Boston and though video games were a hobby from an early age after my mom and dad purchased an NES for the family when I was 4 I never saw a place that looked like where I was from until Benten Boogie.
Benten wasn’t a place of Mages, buster sword wielding spikey haired sadboys or R-Types, it was a residential neighborhood on the fringes of commercial development. It was like the neighborhoods my friends and I grew up in. A neighborhood as evidenced by the construction sites in the midst of gentrification just like late 90s-early 2000s Boston.
To kids growing up around entire blocks being demolished thanks to gentrification it was a snap to identify with characters fighting the Rokkaku group. That feeling of having a whole system against you as the police were in the pocket of a sketchy gang of developers, suited up thugs hell-bent on going over your neighborhood’s people and culture. The Neon Tower at the heart of Benten-Cho’s first level is so incongruous with every other structure in that neighborhood, with its Labyrinthian collection of houses stacked on top of each other, balconies and pipes between them, power lines; Benten’s a slum on the cusp of redevelopment.
It’s ghetto, not in the bougie way upper class people call things ghetto but actually ghetto like the slums I knew. And it’s a place where you know at night kids really would sneak around climbing rooftops, roaming the streets well into the early morning and getting into petty crimes like vandalism.
The way Smilebit introduces that level is one of those E3 trailer enders, your GG grinds in the face of the Rokkaku group around the spiral I-beam that descends from a tower that looks as out of place as the Citadel did in City 17 before leaping a massive gap onto a rooftop balcony while Deavid Soul’s Miller Ball Breakers introduces the midnight carnival of Benten-Cho.
Deavid Soul’s work on the Jet Set Radio soundtrack is almost entirely confined to the Benten-Cho stages. And it fits better than any of the other memorable tracks do to the rest of the levels. Soul’s disco house is the perfect soundtrack to the neon soaked night-time levels; it adds an aspiration to the freedom of adulthood that the GGs are striving for. You can just envision Beat or Yo-Yo skating around with these tracks on their headphones thinking that when they’re old enough to go out to clubs without needing fake IDs this will be the soundtrack of those nights.
The track opens with police sirens in the distance which is from the original mix rather than the game’s sound files; it’s something you hear all over the place when you live in the heart of a city. Echoing across the rooftops the sirens give you the impression that something’s going wrong blocks over and so this time and this neighborhood belongs to you.You might be a suspect once that fire’s put out but for now you’re going to make the most of your time. Just go have some fun because you’re young and you’re breaking out of the anonymity that characterizes living in the city.
And then the keyboard line hits, a chrome supersaw shimmering. It’s higher class than neighborhood you’re in, too fancy in the little residential corner of the world, it’s out of place and only syncs up to the neon tower rising above the orange glow of the streets.
Later in the game when you get access to the entire Benten-Cho for the golden rhinos assaults it’s amazing to see Benten as a complete living district. I will forever be a night owl, probably because as a kid my bedroom was at the back of our apartment, facing the train yards and subway. So every night when I was trying to get to sleep I’d hear the wailing of steel wheels as the Green Line rounded the Causeway Street elevated turn or commuter trains screeching to rest in the train yard.
To have a train line that runs through the heart of Benten, acting as the arteries linking the different neighborhoods of Benten really struck a chord with me. In those Benten apartments bang up against the tracks there were kids a lot like me. It created a feeling of a vibrant living neighborhood in all its differences because when you live in the core of the city though there are zoning rules it’s built up vertically so you have these row houses and tower blocks and commercial buildings and movie theaters and subways and train yards all crowding on top of each other.
The Benten levels are the only levels that feel like an organic city, the only one out of all of them that replicate what neighborhoods feel like. Kogane is too fantastical with its avalanche of terrace houses, attack helicopters, massive sewer system and junkyard half pipe. And the GG’s home turf, Shibuya, is too much of a commercial district to really connect with. Shibuya is loaded with great halfpipes, gaps and handrails making it fun to skate but it doesn’t feel like anyone lives there.
And compared to the desolate Grind City levels Benten really shines. Bantam Street is a memorable level with lots of places to rack up combos, but it was clearly designed with the idea of making it a skatepark rather than an actual neighborhood to emphasize the trick based gameplay that was lacking in the OG release.
Grind Square is just a complete fantasy nightmare of railings, power lines and flagpoles. The elevators being the only way to get to the upper levels of the stage just murder the flow of the tricks, about the only thing you can do is grind grind grind grind grind. Compare those places to Benten-Cho.
At the base of that incongruous Tower in Benten there’s a ledge that has no way to combo off of; it’s too low to reach any of the upper railings or power lines and any combo you land into it is guaranteed to end. But that ledge is the purest example of a skate spot in Jet Set Radio.
For most skaters on the East Coast in the 90s we never had the luxury of skate parks. If you lived in an east coast city you just made skate spots out of the environment around you. I can’t tell you how many afternoons I spent with friends at some nondescript ledge or even a curb in a parking lot just skateboarding for hours at that particular spot.
Of all the stages in JSR only Benten-cho features numerous such ledges; places you can just session and practice your tricks. It’s just another layer to the Benten biography; how else do you think Beat, Gum and Tab got so nasty at skating that they’re able to bring down a corporate mafia? Everyone has to start somewhere and Benten is the best place to do it...unless you want to unlock Pots.