Looking through the lineup of games on the Dreamcast the sheer variety of genres, all which are critically considered innovative, top quality experiences, is simple amazing. Sega were genuinely on top of their game.

Yet, this drive for innovation could never be transferred into hard sales and Space Channel 5 is yet another case in point. SEGA's attempt at a rhythm game, Space Channel 5 was the brainchild of Tetsuya Mizuguchi, of United Game Artists the team who went on to create Rez, and  was Sega’s attempt at creating a new IP, and more importantly a new character that would represent the Dreamcast to a female audience. Interestingly, in discussing the study of target demographics,  Mizuguchi related the story of designing Space Channel 5, which was at first a vague assignment from Sega that asked only that he design a game with a broad enough appeal to draw in even casual female gamers.

"This was the first I'd heard of casual female gamers," he said, "so I didn't really know what to do. I personally interviewed a lot of young girls, trying to find out what they like." Women, he says, tend to enjoy puzzle games, while male gamers "want to be on top, they want to accomplish something and be the champion."

While its debatable if this move was a success it's obviously difficult, as he notes to create a game that appeals to both males and females on an equal level. It’s interesting; however, to note that Sega was making a conscious attempt at this time to target female game players and the release of limited edition consoles and games such as the Hello Kitty range was also evident of this change.

 Sega went out of their way to promote the game and 
the quality of the manual is evidence of this

Space Channel 5 is set in the year 2499, and its art design and music was distinctly inspired by the Austin Powers series and 60’s cartoons like The Jetsons and its colorful style really was a breath of fresh air. A cartoon-style alien race, the Morolians, have launched an invasion against Earth, randomly shooting innocent victims with a mysterious ray gun which forces people to dance uncontrollably, and enslaves them to alien rhythms. Sensing a golden opportunity to boost ratings, the director, Fuse, has sent Ulala, the only reporter who hasn’t been captured, to the scene. The broadcast begins at the location of the first incident — Spaceport 9. Ulala must copy the Morolian’s dance steps to defeat the Morolians and free the human victims with mechanics of the game  similar to that of the forerunner to the rhythm title genre, PaRappa the Rappa, as you copy the onscreen prompts in time to the J-pop inspired music. For example, the rival dancer you meet says up, down, left, right, or chu (kiss in Japanese), and you mimic what they say in the right timing. The difficulty lays in the lack of visual indication for the button presses, therefore, requiring you to remember the inputs as well as replicate the correct rhythm.



Despite being backed by a full-on advertising campaign, in both Japan and the West (Ulala the main character even appeared as a host for the MTV Music Awards 2000), like most Sega offerings during the Dreamcast era the title received critical acclaim but could not transfer that success into sales. To be honest, I was quite disappointed by Space Channel 5 on release. I felt that the title was mostly a case of style over substance and lacked the memorable tunes from games like Parappa the Rappa.

The visuals have a style of their own

Nevertheless, the game seized enough attention in Japan to warrant a sequel and Sega launched Space Channel 5: Part 2 in February 2002, as one of its final titles for the console. The sequel is a BIG improvement over the original and the first thing you will notice is that the pre-rendered backgrounds from the original are now gone and have been replace by fully rendered polygon backgrounds. This took away the delay which players would sometimes experience when imputing a command, and the characters no longer appear to be floating.

Artwork for the sequel lacks the panache of the first but is still awesome

Just as in the first game, you play role of Ulala, a news reporter who this time faces of against a group of enemies called the Odori-dan (literally dancing brigade), who are kidnapping innocent people and forcing them to dance. Ulala looks as stylish as ever in her new all white outfit, as do the other main characters, but the people who you rescue do still look a bit low detailed. The backdrops themselves, while now being in 3D are an improvement, they aren’t exactly the curvy neon wonderlands present in the first game, but they still provide their own unique take on the 1960s aesthetic. Overall, it’s a darker game in style and tone which works well.


 

The music in the sequel is a big improvement with more of a kind of trance beat accompanying songs, and there are also some vocal sections which are kind of fun and make a nice diversion from the other musical sections. Ulala now also has the ability to play musical instruments, the guitar and the drum. Both of which follow the same control scheme, but with each direction performing a different pose. A hold section as also been added, for example, Ulala might get the command sequence "Chu! Chu! Chuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu! Chu!" were you would have to hold the X (Chu) button on the third input for the correct amount of time. These additions greatly add to the gameplay and everything feels much smoother especially the control, which in the previous title would on occasions register your input as being late even if it was one time. The story mode in the game will take just over an hour total to complete, but when the game is beaten, a second, harder version of the story is unlocked, where a lot of the characters are altered just enough to keep things interesting. One of the major complaints of the first game was the lack of replayability once the game has been completed and this has been addressed in the sequel.

3D backgrounds are a huge improvement

Space Channel 5: Part 2 features a variety of secrets, such as pressing a button at certain parts of the level for an alien to pop up on the screen, which boosts your rating up or You need to get a 100% rating in a level to find them all which isn’t easy, especially as your rating now resets for each level. You start the level with a 20% rating, and work your way up to 100%. Finding secrets is not critical for success, but does give you more room to make mistakes in boss battles. The addition of 2-player Co-Op mode is also a hugely welcome addition. The way it works is player 1 controls the directions, and player 2 controls the “chus” and “heys”; if either of you mess up, then you lose a heart. There is also a challenge mode, which also supports 2-player Co-Op, where you have to build your rating up to 200%, without making a single mistake There are also different costumes available for Ulala such as her previous orange one which need to be unlocked by fulfilling certain requirements and you can also play as different characters.

A variety of unlockables such as costumes are available

The only area which I feel went unaddressed is the serious lack of checkpoints. This isn't a problem in the earlier stages but towards the end you find yourself playing through the same stage from the beginning, constantly, as you tackle the harder sections. Obviously, this again gives the game some re-playability in an old school arcade style way, but I found myself getting bored of some of the songs and so checkpoints would have been appreciated. 

SC5 has a certain coolness that has yet to be matched in a video game

Just like De La Jet Set Radio offered a fuller experience than JSR, Space Channel 5: Part 2 feels like an update, rather than a full on sequel. However, it is an update that really makes this game a complete gaming experience; control issues have been addressed, visuals improved, audio enhanced and gaming modes expanded, all of which adds up to the gaming experience that Mizuguchi probably intended to offer first time round. Like other Sega titles during this time there is so much character to the game which makes it such a fun and memorable experience. It is just a shame that due to its late release and subsequent rarity that few fans will probably get to experience the game how it was meant to be played, but if you do decide to grab a copy you will not be disappointed at a slice of genuine Sega style entertainment and character who became a true Dreamcast icon. All this is even without mentioning the addition of “Space Michael"...

Interestingly, during this time Sega was looking at branching out and publishing its properities on other systems including the Vodafone mobile service in Japan. I remember picking up a rather poor version of Chu Chu Rocket during this time but there was also a Space Channel 5 themed game named Ulala's Channel. It was basically an application which featured over half a dozen mini-games ranging from a game starring Xavier Gaboot to a mission to diffuse a bomb as Pine. The service finished in 2005 so sadly there is no way to access the titles anymore but as a historical turning point in Sega's history I would be delighted to see a disc or download pack featuring these titles published for modern consoles.

1 comment:

  1. A very well written review. I only have the first one on Dreamcast. But I have both SC5 and SC5: Part2 on the PS2 as it is very cheap out here in the states.

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