I’m a sucker for re-purchasing the games that I loved as a youth, even if I still have physical copies of them. I’m such a sucker in this regard, in fact, that I have purchased Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Streets of Rage 2 no fewer than three times each. When I know that I love a game through and through, when I know that I’d be happy to play it any time, any place, when it goes on sale, I can’t help but splurge, because I know exactly what I’m going to get.
Except sometimes, the games surprise me, especially the games I pick up again after leaving them on the shelf for years and years at a time without thinking of them. Sometimes I pick them up again and see them in a different light than I did when I was a youth.
It’s probably been a couple years since I repurchased JetMoto, SingleTrac’s sci-fi hoverbike-motocross grappling-hook stunt-race extravaganza, originally released in 1996 on the PlayStation. It’s a goofy, over-the-top game, but it has the distinction of being the first game I purchased for my PSX that I really and truly loved. (Before it, I had to make do with the confounding Aquanaut’s Holiday and the decent-but-not-particularly-exciting Ridge Racer Revolution, which spent more time in my Discman than my PlayStation on account of its delightfully weird techno soundtrack.)
I recently got myself a PS3, figuring that we were at the end of a console generation and the time would never be better to catch up on all the Sony exclusives I’d missed out on for the last seven years (that Nathan Drake! What a card!). Not having much to play on it after I’d gorged myself on FFX/FFX-2 HD, I installed the PSOne Classics that I’d bought over the years to play on my PSP and fooled around with those. I loaded up JetMoto, played it for a while, and had a realization.
JetMoto has a more progressive stance on gender than an awful lot of games.
The game has a playable cast of twenty riders (subdivided into four different “teams,” identified by brand, in what might be the most ham-fisted case of product placement in a game from its era), and of these twenty riders, nine of them are women. It’s not complete 1:1 parity, but it’s pretty close! It’s a nice touch, too, that the default rider the “character select” screen starts on is a woman–and she also happens to be the character on the title screen.
The graphical limitations of the system mean that JetMoto doesn’t mess around with individuated character models for different riders–with some slight differences in size, all “Butterfinger” riders look alike, as do all “Mountain Dew” riders–and so all of the riders, male and female, appear the same during races, clad in their motocross-esque jackets and helmets. Fittingly, the characters on the title screen are also girded in this “X-treme sports” gear, but a second glance at the character front and center reveals it to be obviously Dakota–her long black hair and feathered accessory marking her distinctly.
The game is obviously about the vehicles and not the riders–but it’s a nice touch that the “face” of JetMoto, at least by default, is a woman.
The riders you can choose from aren’t terribly distinct from each other, and they’re only defined by a handful of assets–a portrait on the character select screen, a paragraph of backstory, and a full-body portrait which is displayed in the winner’s circle if you happen to place first–but these are enough to offer each of the riders at least a little bit of personality. And while it’s true that a couple of the ladies in the roster are partly defined by their relationship to male riders, the flavor text often seems to suggest that they’re in a better position than their counterparts.
Shannara, for example, is the ex-wife of one of the male riders–we’re told that she races on a modified bike that she won in her divorce settlement, a machine built for someone twice her weight. Her ex-husband, by contrast, is a man whose “spirit sank with his ranking, harsh bitterness [reducing] him to little more than a hired gun to run opponents off-track.” Shannara’s stats are considerably better than those of her ex.
“Quick Jessie” West is introduced as the protege of Mark “The Max” Corri, and we’re told that her biggest hurdle to an impressive debut season may be having to compete against her mentor, but The Max’s profile likewise mentions that the biggest threat he faces “this season” probably comes from Quick Jessie.
The other women in the line-up are defined by their own merits–at least, to the extent a character can be in three or four sentences. Shirow is “the first female Japanese heavy bike rider,” and it’s rumored that she has cybernetic enhancements. Irons grew up in the rodeo. Harris is a bungee-jumping, skydiving adrenaline junkie. “Bomber” is a mechanic who builds the fastest, heaviest bikes in the whole circuit.
It probably doesn’t mean a lot, in the grand scheme of things, that there are so many different female racers in a hoverbike game from 1996. But I spent an awful lot of time playing JetMoto when I was twelve, and I can’t help but think it had an effect on me.
(Caveat: Although I eventually came to favor Bomber, I spent most of my time playing as Kari Kelley, AKA “Wild Ride,” by far the best stunt racer in the line-up, whose “legendary victory parties” have been “declared illegal in some states”–so maybe the game doesn’t deserve THAT much credit in helping me to be progressive in my thinking–although I DID eventually marry a girl named Kari.)
At the very least, the uniformity of character models in-game means that JetMoto doesn’t overtly sexualize its racers. That’s a pretty low bar to set for a game, especially a sci-fi motocross game, but this is 1996 and we have to start somewhere.
There ARE girls in skimpy outfits in JetMoto, it’s true: if you come in first place in a race as a male rider, part of your reward in the winner’s circle is having the trophy presented to you by a woman in a skimpy outfit (a bikini, Daisy Dukes, etc.). Conversely, however, if you’re playing as a female rider, the trophy is handed to you by a beefcake dude in hot pants. The game has ogling, yes, but it’s equal-opportunity ogling. For whatever that’s worth.
This “trophy babe/trophy hunk” feature of the game is also the source of one of the subtlest, most delightful twists in JetMoto‘s sneakily diverse presentation. While it’s possible to set the game to always display a male or female trophy presenter in the game’s options menu, the default setting is “Rider’s Choice.” The wording here, I think, is key, because by invoking the characters’ preferences, the game is allowed, without much fanfare, to suggest that two of its twenty riders are gay.
Yes! I was positively delighted to discover upon revisiting JetMoto that if you come in first with either Harris (the aforementioned adrenaline junkie) or “Rhino” (something of a beefcake hunk himself) and the game is set to “Rider’s Choice” of trophy presenter, both of these riders will choose someone of their own gender. Neither character’s description on the select screen offers any hint as to their sexuality (and why would it? Remember: Sci-fi motocross game), but I’m not sure there’s another way to read having a same-sex trophy presenter when the trophy presenters are eye candy and the game declares them “Rider’s Choice.”
Is this the ideal handling of a diverse and balanced approached to gender, race, and sexuality? Of course not. But for 1996, it’s almost certainly more progressive and forward-thinking than you’d expect: a nearly 50/50 split of men and women, a fair modicum of ethnic diversity (African-American, Native American, Asian, African… Australian), and a subtle acknowledgement that 10% of its rider pool is gay.
So I salute you, JetMoto. You are far and away the best game about hoverbikes, and I won’t hear any arguments against it. (Actually, if there are any arguments against it, I would like to hear them. I’d like to start a robust and thoughtful conversation… about JetMoto.)