Sega’s first attempt in the dance/rhythm genre comes right off their impressive showing at E3 last month. Space Channel 5 was hyped by Sega with an elaborate setting, complete with cage dancers, future-retro backdrops, and an LED display simply stating "Launching June 6, 2000!" After seeing this display, I started to gain interest in the title although the dance/rhythm games don’t really appeal to me. Granted, I went through both Parappa and Bust-a-Groove on the PlayStation, but they were finished in only a matter of hours, resulting in a short, shallow experience.
I had a gut feeling that Sega would follow the same fate with Space Channel 5 in that they would provide a short, shallow experience, and to a small extent I was right. It is short, but it’s nowhere as shallow as previous attempts. In fact, after several plays, I just couldn’t help but get back into it.
The whole environment of SC5 seems like it was taken from the strange world of Japanese anime. Seems that in the late 25th Century, an alien race of couch potatoes called Morolians, who have been brainwashed by their television, are convinced to invade Earth. But unlike in movies like Mars Attacks, these aliens aren’t here to shoot everyone to death, but the rays they shoot caused humans to dance uncontrollably.
However, to some, tragedy can turn into a success story, as a fledgling television station called Space Channel 5 ventures forward to get the true story behind the invasion. Enter Ulala, a 22-year old, pink-pigtailed, miniskirt-clad newbie reporter, being the first to arrive on the scene, thinks this is her big break to being a full-time reporter.
Aiding her in her mission is her director, Fuse, who provides audio cues to Ulala. The only way for them to beat the Morolian menace is to copy their moves, and shoot when asked to shoot.
Ulula’s investigation will take place over the course of four different reports, ranging from a hijacked spaceport, to a remote asteroid base. In each report, Ulala will be given a sequence of moves which must be copied exactly, both with control and rhythm (something that titles like Parappa lacked). Not only will she need to deal with the movements, but she must also know whether to shoot her gun (at the Morolians) or her recovery beam, to rescue humans.
As expected, the game is nothing more than a video version of Simon, but that’s where the similarities end, and the true nature of the game begins. The first thing to really notice is the game setting. To create the world of Space Channel 5, all the backgrounds are generated through MPEG-enhanced FMV, while the characters are rendered in real time. Each scene is presented in the same neo-retro, Austin Powers meets Futurama motif that the game is based on. This technique has been used to a lesser extent during the introductions in WWF Smackdown, and for some of these scenes in Final Fantasy 7.
The only difference is the PlayStation isn’t fully capable of doing what the Dreamcast does, and Dreamcast executes it well. Granted, there is some color artifacting in the FMV (visible bands of color difference commonly found on most DVD movies), and there are some visible glitches with the environment, but the effect is still stunning. And speaking of stunning, the way that Sega rendered Ulala has to be seen to be believed.
Some of the best motion capture I have seen has been implemented, and unlike stuff you see on PlayStation 2, there are no jagged edges on her at all. As for the other rendered characters, they are all impressive as well, both by the way they look, and the way they move. Even SC5’s special guest cameo character, Space Michael Jackson, is fully rendered using the same moves that made him popular in the late 80s and early 90s.
What would a dance/rhythm game be without impressive music, and once again, I am blown away with what I heard here. Right from the opening track (which does sound like it was taken from an Austin Powers DVD), to the final scene (which I will tell you without spoiling the game, is by far the most climactic conflict I have seen in a long time), the soundtrack is dead on.
When specific hostages are rescued, their specific instruments are added to the track, and when you do badly, the music goes way off key, intentionally sounding rotten. The voice acting is also above and beyond. It doesn’t break the voice barrier generated by Metal Gear Solid, but with exceptional performances by "live action anime girl" Apollo Smile as Ulala, and a very impressive Dave Nowlin as her ratings-hungry, hyperactive director Fuse, it comes a very close second. Heck, even the aforementioned Michael Jackson supplies his voice to the game as well (if just for a short cameo).
I’ll admit, I have not seen any of Apollo Smile’s performances before this, but I can see the girl knows her stuff. And thank God that Sega/AM9 kept to the Japanese version by having the command "shoot" pronounced as "chu" like it was in the import. It might be too soon to judge, but when December comes around, I can picture myself voting for SC5 as the award for Soundtrack of the Year.
Normally, I’d give a game like this a perfect 5 Gems, if only it weren’t for one thing…the game is too darn short! Put it this way, when I met with Sega at E3, it turns out that someone in attendance finished the game (I made sure not to look so I wouldn’t spoil the ending for when I played it). A seasoned rhythm player can get through the game in less than an hour.
Completing the game will allow access to alternate paths in each report, and like with Pokemon, where it might be a challenge to acquire info on all 78 characters, it still ends quickly. Then again, I’ll always go back to it so I can watch that amazing final sequence. Space Channel 5 comes out swinging right from the strong performance it gave at E3, and it succeeds! I only wish the game lasted longer, but what it presents is a fresh, stunning, impressive piece of ear and eye candy. It earns 4 1/2 GiN Gems to this masterpiece, and I look forward to an inevitable return for Ulala!