I originally planned to start the new Tomb Raider a couple weeks ago, but after news started pouring out of Boston, I really wanted to play something a little less violent and a lot less stressful. In the end, I chose to revisit Space Channel 5: Part 2, Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s rhythm game and groovy space reporter simulator.
In some ways, this switch was appropriate, as the original Space Channel 5 shares some of thematic genealogy with Tomb Raider. The world of Space Channel 5 evokes the tomorrow of the 1960s–all shiny corridors, clean lines, and bright colors–but it’s inevitably through a 1990s lense. Released only three years after Tomb Raider, it takes a hint from the the same commercial appropriation of the riot grrrl movement, featuring a female protagonists that can both wear skirts/shorts up to here and still save the day. Space Channel 5 double dipped in the decade’s 60s/70s nostalgia, starring Ulala as its go-go-boot-donning, fearless space reporter, though she does less reporting and more day-saving with her dance moves.
In the end, Space Channel 5 proved to be more of a proof-of-concept game for its more ambitious sequel, Space Channel 5: Part 2 (originally released in 2002), which features real-time-rendered backgrounds in its levels, a longer campaign, a prolonged Michael Jackson cameo, and musical numbers (though most of the lyrics consist of adding syllables to “Ulala-la!”). Part 2 is also the most widely available of the two games, now with HD remakes on Xbox LIVE, Steam, and the Playstation Network. I never played the Dreamcast originals, but I did play the initial ports of both games on the Playstation 2 before re-purchasing Part 2 for my Playstation 3.
Although the short, pre-rendered sequences that bookend the campaign look especially dated on an HD TV, the rest of the game holds up surprisingly well. At its most basic level, Space Channel 5: Part 2 uses a combination of visual and sound cues to create increasingly difficult patterns for players to memorize and play back–occasionally removing one or the other for an additional challenge. This is all wrapped up in a story about a devious faction called the Rhythm Rogues that is sweeping the galaxy and causing people to “dance silly” against their will. Naturally, only Ulala can stop them by countering with her own expert dancing and twin heart-beam guns. As Ulala rescues involuntary dancers, they follow her through the level, becoming her own personal dance troupe. Rescuing more civilians leads to more elaborate choreography. Therefore, while there are costumes and accessories to unlock along the way, the real reward of correctly replicating one of the game’s patterns is the witnessing the spectacle of Ulala and a full dance troupe.
As can only be expected of a game about dancing space reporters, Space Channel 5 presents its threats to Ulala and the populace with both good humor and a kind of earnestness that seems to characterize a lot of Japanese games from the decade. By this I mean that when Ulala and the Rhythm Rogues declare a “waltz battle,” it’s not just meant to be silly, but it’s also meant to be taken seriously in the context of its world. There is no winking at the audience; it is what it is. That amounts to a weird, endearing kind of sincerity that justifies everything–especially its grand finale that is more grandiose than a rhythm game’s has any right to be. At its heart, Space Channel 5’s fantasy is an appealing one: despite how far-flung and increasingly diverse the greater galaxy is, all of its problems can be solved through forming one “funkified force.” It’s comforting, even.
An aside: although there are half-hearted stabs at undermining Ulala and her sexuality–a tentacle porn joke that lasts 5 minutes and is never revisited again, a weird aside about Ulala’s underwear hidden away with an unlockable costume–Space Channel 5: Part 2 is arguably one of the few mainstream games to pass the Bechdel Test. Ulala’s competitor for the top story as well as the head of the hilariously named Space Police are both women, and the three eventually join forces (along with an ambiguously-gendered alien reporter and Michael Jackson, naturally) to form a band in the face of evil (also naturally).
Also, although he was apparently replaced in Part 2, the original voice actor for the character Jaguar in Space Channel 5 is Jeff Kramer of Deadly Premonition fame. Super relevant!