Ever since I played some of this retro-rhythm game on the demo disk that came with my PS2 ten years ago, I’ve been wanting to try the whole thing out. As the title indicates, it’s actually the second installment of the Space Channel 5 games, but the first one was only ever released on the Dreamcast. Part 2 was first published by SEGA in 2002. It has since had a port to the PS2, and a HD version is now available on Steam, which is how I was finally able to pick it up and try it.
Party time with my Space Squad of Space Primary School Kids in the Space Park
The plot of this game is very straightforward and the characters are lovable and quirky. A crew of evil dancers known as the Rhythm Rogues (Odori-Dan in Japanese) are kidnapping people and forcing them to dance with hilarious – I mean horrifying – flailing motions. This culminates in the kidnapping of President Peace and an attack on Space Channel 5’s headquarters. You play as Space Channel 5 reporter Ulala while she’s filming her Swingin’ Report Show and saving people to the time of whatever great dance track is playing in the level. The story and game itself is very short so I won’t say anything more to avoid spoilers, but the narrative is minimalistic and mostly told through very short cut-scenes. Interestingly a lot of the details and world-building are left for the interested player to find in the level descriptions and character profiles. The game is obviously meant to be light-hearted and fun, so the minimalism didn’t devalue the game for me even though I’m a fan of some infamously plot-heavy J-RPGs.
The game is set in a world that can only be described as Space Disco. The player character, Ulala, is a far out, can-do action woman, who lays down the moves and blasts robots with lasers (to the beat, of course!). Many of the characters are recurring from the first game, but it’s not really necessary to know who everyone is right away because the gameplay is more important, and they are all briefly reintroduced at some point. Additionally, you can always check them out in the character profile section. This is fun to visit because you can unlock items for Ulala to hold during gameplay by talking to characters in this section, which is extra motivation to save them all and get those high scores.
There is a cast of colourful and interesting characters, most notably Space Michael, who was actually voiced by Michael Jackson and only speaks English even though in most versions of the game everyone else is talking in Japanese. As a linguistics nerd I think it’s pretty cool that everyone can speak their own language in the Space Future. Since I played this after Michael Jackson had passed away, I found it a bit weird at first. But it’s pretty cool that he can live on in some way through the game.
Space Michael doing his Space Lean
As far as design goes, the game is simple yet versatile in all aspects. This was a necessity, given the limitations of the Dreamcast. It’s plain to see Space Channel 5 was made with a very specific gameplay concept and art style in mind, and I think this focus is what makes it so memorable and unique. It only takes a few hours to pass the 6 main levels, but I couldn’t really say I’d finished with it until I’d rescued most of the people and completed the alternate version of each level. There is also another mode called Ulala’s Dance, in which you have to pass 200 levels of dance moves being thrown at you without messing up once. If you like dressing up your characters, this mode lets you unlock new costumes, including skins for other characters in the game.
It can take quite some time to get used to matching your button presses to the song, but it can be funny how everyone just tries to keep going no matter how badly you do, or at least they will until your hearts drop to 0. On a computer keyboard the only buttons you have to worry about are ‘Enter’ for start, the directional keys, and the letters s and d. The game can also be played with two players, where one person does the arrows and the other does s and d. This is actually really hard when you’re used to doing everything yourself!
Like any rhythm game, it can get incredibly frustrating when you just can’t quite get the timing, or you keep accidentally pressing the wrong button over and over. However, the game does reward you for putting effort into getting good at it with different cutscenes and different dialogue cues depending on your performance in the prior segment. For example, in the level shown below, if you fail to save the Bird Mistress (pictured right of Ulala), then you will have birds pecking at you as you walk to the next stage of the level instead of doing your victory march. But I really love how everything you do is based around the timing mechanic, including dance battles, battle of the bands, shooting your laser pistols, and clearing obstacles or striking a pose to get to the next area and get your ratings up.
DOWN, DOWN, DOWN!
The game’s age definitely shows in the low polygon count and the sometimes frightening NPC faces, but it’s more than easy to tell who people are and what they’re doing. Despite these limitations, the animation and choreography in Part 2 is actually really great, especially when you’re getting everything perfectly correct. Given that all your moves come from the same six buttons, this means that animation sequences can cut over each other in a way that isn’t strange once you’re used to how the game looks, so what Ulala is doing almost always directly corresponds to what you’re pressing. The short dancing cut scenes between blocks of gameplay usually look good, and they give you enough time to have a short break and refocus, or to get used to a new tune or tempo. I’m not sure, but I suspect they also disguise the fact the game is loading up the next stage of the level.
In many ways, this game plays more like an arcade game than a home console one, but it is from the early 00s. For example, there’s no option to quit back to the main menu in between levels. This either wastes your time while you load up the next stage then quit out of that, or tempts you play the extra 20+ minutes it’ll take to do the next stage. After you complete the first 6 levels, new versions of them become available. Some of the button sequences are different, and you get to rescue new characters. It’s a nice way of extending gameplay and replay value without having to introduce too many new assets. This might be considered lazy these days, but it would have been a necessarily economical use of production time and storage space back then.
It would be neat if Ulala made a comeback when we get motion technology in dance games working better. I, for one, wouldn’t say no to more quirky settings and characters! Just don’t make it another Sonic ’06 SEGA, please…
Space Channel 5: Part 2 is a short, yet fun and entertaining rhythm game. It looks good and works well when you take into account that it’s from a couple of gaming generations ago. It’s simple, colourful and fun, but also genuinely challenging. There are a few issues that make it seem like it was designed more for an arcade than a console, but the minor frustrations don’t amount to much in the end. Overall it would be enjoyable to play over a weekend or two, and if you end up really loving it there’s the potential to spend a lot of time on unlocking secrets and trying to get a perfect score on every level. I would recommend giving this one a shot if you love the World of Ham trope, psychedelically colourful 70s discos, or other rhythm-based games. If you’re looking for something plot-heavy to marathon on, or graphical limitations bother you, this one’s probably not for you. – Get down, Space Cats!