At its core, Bomb Rush Cyberfunk wants to remind you how cool other games were. Specifically, Jet Set Radio, Jet Set Radio Future, and a tiny bit of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. The problem is, by choosing nostalgia as its sole focus, Bomb Rush lacks an identity of its own – it only reminds me of why I’d rather play those other games instead.
Bomb Rush attempts to right one of Sega’s great crimes: the 21 years we’ve gone without a new Jet Set Radio game. For the uninitiated, Jet Set was an action sports series that put you in control of a gang of rollerbladers terrorizing the streets of Tokyo-to, tagging every surface flat enough to hold paint. You fought other gangs and the police for dominance over the city. Its striking cel-shaded graphics, incredible electronic soundtrack, and general finger on the pulse of late ’90s and early aughts Japanese street culture still make it a standout of Sega’s catalog – up there with the greats of the time, such as Rez, Seaman, and Space Channel 5.
Understanding this influence means understanding Bomb Rush. It is also an action sports game that puts you in control of a gang of rollerbladers (and skateboarders and BMX riders) terrorizing the streets of, in this case, New Amsterdam, tagging every surface flat enough to hold paint. In fact, you can just copy and paste all of the above, and it directly applies to Bomb Rush. It’s either an incredibly earnest homage or a blatant copycat with few new ideas of its own. I tend to lean towards the latter.
This isn’t to say there aren’t areas where the game shines. Mainly, it’s fun if entirely mindless. Action sports games are about momentum, and tricking through New Amsterdam’s numerous levels racking up million-plus-point combos feels fluid and natural. The tagging mechanic, which stops the flow for a short drawing-based minigame, adds a bit of flare. And I liked swapping between different gang members to experiment with the skateboard and BMX tricks.
On the other hand, it never pushes the player. The lack of a balance meter is apparent (which, to be fair, also wasn’t in Jet Set Radio, but nevertheless), meaning you can grind or manual without any skill. Tricking around is fun, but after eight hours of playing, I rarely had to actually think about what I was doing on-screen by the end. This is exacerbated by the fact every level has more or less the same mission structure – tag an area, beat a rival gang in a combo contest, avoid cops or fight them with bad combat, rinse, and repeat. It’s monotonous after a bit. But this is changed up in end-stage levels that serve as dream sequences that push the player’s abilities, which are some of the best parts of the game.
By copying Jet Set’s whole aesthetic, which, thanks to cel-shading, has aged fantastically, Bomb Rush pops off the screen. Its soundtrack is great, too, though its small playlist means you’ll be hearing even your favorite tracks entirely too much. Hideki Naganuma – of Jet Set fame – also has several songs here; unsurprisingly, they’re rad.
But my biggest issue with Bomb Rush is just this: as of this sentence, I have used the words “Bomb Rush” and “Jet Set” an equal number of times. That’s because you can’t talk about Bomb Rush without talking about its inspirations.
It seems Bomb Rush’s grandest aspiration is making the player say, “Hey, wasn’t Jet Set Radio cool?” And yeah, that game was cool. I love Jet Set Radio. I wish I had spent my time replaying that instead.
I think this is a general problem with the trend of nostalgia-focused media; by being so obsessed with wanting you to remember how great something else was, it lacks an actual identity of its own. Bomb Rush doesn’t feel like something new, unique, and earnest like Jet Set did when it came out 20 years ago. It feels like someone else’s better ideas were recycled into a derivative and unimaginative product. Bomb Rush doesn’t add anything new to the conversation. It doesn’t want to make new memories – it’s the guy in your friend group who’s still obsessed with talking about high school. Every so often, I still boot up Jet Set Radio. I can’t imagine I’ll do the same for Bomb Rush.
This is a shame because there’s a fun game here – it’s just trapped in a hollow shell. Its final sin is having a miserable story hardly even worth bringing up. It’s boring and bad; we can leave it at that. There’s room for games that want to recapture some old glory – to remind you how cool games used to be – but to do that, you have to add something new to the conversation. Neon White is a great example of a game that did this right. Bomb Rush isn’t interested in adding anything new. It just wants to have the same conversations we’ve been having for years. Jet Set Radio was cool. Go play that instead.