A big shout out to indie games that are successors to existing games in all but name. It's gotta be one of my favourite trends. Fed up of waiting for a big publisher to revive a series that’s been lying dormant for decades? Simply do it yourself instead. 11 years after the release of Jet Set Radio Future, and with Sega seemingly unwilling to exhume their cult-favourite rollerblading series outside of weird crossovers with Ubisoft’s Roller Champions of all things, Team Reptile have done exactly that.
Enter Bomb Rush Cyberfunk, as authentic a sequel to Jet Set Radio as you can get. Dripping with style and oozing cool, the team have crafted a carefully observed love letter that both respects and advances the original duology in meaningful ways, while taking a step back in others.
After being decapitated while escaping prison and having their head replaced with a cybernetic replacement, Red joins the Bomb Rush Crew, a pair of graffiti artists with aspirations of going “All City”. In order to regain your noggin’ and discover who you truly are, each city district must be seized from its respective crew. Thanks to an established code held up by the enigmatic old-heads (a trio of hip-hop loving geriatrics who maintain order among the crews), doing so is simple: graffiti over enough spots before beating your opponents in a score-attack challenge, kick-flipping and grinding your way to city-wide supremacy.
Bomb Rush features a steady flow of interesting narrative beats that are repeatedly brushed aside in favour of hanging out in a way I find absolutely fascinating. There are multiple twists, surprise character reveals, a conspiracy that threatens the already fragile morality of the city’s police force and a persistent thematic undercurrent about the physical form and what makes us human. But all of this takes a back seat to breakdancing, doing a cool backflip on a half-pipe or tagging a billboard in a shopping centre.
This is not a criticism! This almost blasé attitude to its own stakes feeds into a wider sense that Bomb Rush is simply too cool to care, a distinctly early 00s perspective that the game replicates perfectly. This is the future by way of the iMac G3 and the Motorola Razr, with Y2K aesthetics. Huge bomber jackets and flip phone selfies. Dogs in bucket hats and record scratch sound effects. The visual stylings of Jet Set Radio were about more than simple cell shading. It was the curves, the colours, the fashion. Bomb Rush replicates it all beautifully.
Oh, and the music! The hunt for the soundtrack of the year is over. Bomb Rush Cyberfunk features an exceptional mix of electro funk and hip-hop bangers, a rich selection that even features contributions by original Jet Set Radio composer Hideki Naganuma. Few games sound as good as this, and hunting down new tracks to play on your in-game phone is an essential task you should prioritise above all else.
However, while score-attack battles are an integral step on your quest to conquer the city, Bomb Rush’s trick system lacks bite. Outside of a handful of basic grinds, air tricks and combo linkers such as manuals and sliding, there’s not a substantial amount of depth to be found here. Comparisons to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater would be unfair, as Bomb Rush clearly has no desire to replicate that game’s approach to tricks and scoring, and I couldn’t help but wish there was more to chew on as I repeatedly cycled through the same meagre selection of moves. A missed opportunity, perhaps, for a slightly more engaging way of interacting with this world and its structures.
Really, though, the beating heart of Bomb Rush lies in its traversal system. When you're presented with a new district to claim, each with their own theme and colour palette, there is genuine joy in working out how this network of twisting rails and clusters of billboards connect to one another to form pathways to hard-to-reach graffiti spots. These spaces are built for skating. And rollerblading. And BMXing. With movement this tight, and a sense of flow this clean, Bomb Rush is more of a platformer than you might expect, as scattered across these plazas, malls and impossible industrial pyramids is graffiti, placed there by your rivals and begging to be covered up with your own designs.
Tagging in Bomb Rush sees you dragging the analogue stick across a circle, with different shapes corresponding to a specific piece of art you unlock by completing challenges or picking up within the game’s levels. With a surprising amount of variation on offer, it’s easy to become attached to a particular set of tags, memorising their patterns to leave a distinct mark on the world that feels like your own. Methodically rinsing each district of its secrets while submerged in its soundtrack is one of the best experiences of the year.
Or at least, it would be. As is so often the case, the police are here to ruin a good time for no justifiable reason. I get that cops were an important part of Jet Set Radio, a militant force using extreme methods to counter a victimless crime. Fighting back against fascist forces determined to enact violence against harmless and diverse groups is arguably a more relevant and just narrative beat in 2023 than it was in 2002. But on a mechanical level, the police in Bomb Rush seem designed to break your flow so effectively that it can make actually playing the game a miserable chore.
Graffiti enough spots and you’ll start to build up a heat metre, with each level flooding the map with a different type of police officer. Standard officers are a nuisance that can be largely ignored, until the second half of the game when they start shooting at you. Huge machines shoot chains that attach to your limbs and pull you off rails and other platforms. Snipers and armoured officers stand in your way and take pot shots at you from afar. All of these mechanics run counter to the sense of flow that makes Bomb Rush, you know, fun to play. Outside of a handful of boss battles that serve as an extension of the movement and graffiti system in a way that is dynamic and interesting, the police are a frustrating hindrance that sours the whole experience. Don’t even get me started on the combat, as the game pulls you into weightless fist fights that are genuinely terrible.
You can remove your heat metre by swapping outfits in toilets, but what’s the point when dying is a quicker and more efficient way of restoring peace? All the challenge you need is already here, in the score-attack challenges, the hidden areas, those fun lines you figure out through mastery of the game’s movement system. It’s a clumsy addition that leaves parts of the game feeling messy and undercooked.
At its core, Bomb Rush Cyberfunk is an excellent movement-based exploration game with a deep admiration for the games that inspired it. Up there with the best, even. But it never quite reaches the level of greatness it could have easily achieved. I wanted to love Bomb Rush Cyberfunk, and in some ways I truly do, but it ultimately misses the mark a little bit more than I expected. Still, to let it pass you by would be a crime. That soundtrack! That level design! That visual style! What a treat, even if certain mouthfuls leave a bitter taste.