Music! Aliens! Pirates! Michael Jackson?!
If I were to talk about this strange game within the context and confines of a regular old video game reviewing site, I’d be sure to let you know that the original Space Channel 5 was one of the last games on the Sega Dreamcast. That it had a sequel that wasn’t released in America, and is your basic Simon-says sort of rhythm and music game. Then I’d also clue you in to the fact that the kind folks at Agetec and Sega revived both games for the PlayStation 2 late last year and that this package is certainly a must for those who like strange musical-based games that aren’t hard to master but provide hours and hours of replay value.
But seeing how this is PopMatters, I’m not entitled to stick with the same old, same old video game reviewing process. In fact, we’re encouraged to get into the real nitty gritty of the broader popular culture impacts these games have and how they relate to our search for cultural entertainment on a wider plane. This is most fortunate, as Space Channel 5: Special Edition is brimming with some of the strangest, most satisfying pop culture elements that I’ve ever witnessed in all my years of video game addiction. And trust me, after you’ve sat through plenty of great music-based games, turning the rock over that was hiding this gem was nothing short of revelatory.
For what it’s worth, I will toss the proverbial Cliff’s Notes bone out to you. In this game, you are the fabulous character Ulala (pronounced “ooh-la-la”) who is a reporter for Space Channel 5 and has her own snazzy Swingin’ Report Show. During the course of her adventures, Ulala must out dance her enemies, and free various hostages. Oh yes, it’s all very ‘60s-like in its undying optimistic themes of naiveté through pop tunes and dance. The whole “We’re gonna levitate the Pentagon through a mass grooving” formula, if you will. And truth be told, Ulala’s groove and accompanying soundtrack is straight out of Swinging London. That means a huge dash of Austin Powers mixed with a dollop of “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and the best suits The Who ever wore during their Mod days.
But add to that a weird, tripped-out ambiance that feels like everything was dipped into acid (the ‘60s favorite, not what’s in your car battery), and you begin to get somewhat of an idea of what’s going on here. Before you know it, Ulala’s saving everyone from old ladies with canes and doubled-over backs on floating platforms to cruise ship personnel and a captain that look like they were taken straight out of Yellow Submarine. My favorite moment was when I had to help Ulala rescue some school children. When they were safe and sound, they joined in the music making, with one young lass chiming in on her xylophone. Surrealism at its best. Oh, and there was also the part where the mayor was trapped by a large man-eating plant that spat out a level boss to which the voiceover literally said, “Looks like a turd!” Fascinating.
Then there’s the whole other subtext running amok here dealing with pirate airwaves. Ulala is constantly trying to snatch scoops from a rival pirate station (think back to those glory days of Radio London, even if you’re too young), not to mention other TV networks. It’s as if Battle of the Network Stars made a trippy return via a video game, only this time there’s no Telly Savalas sweating it out in a dunk tank match against Jimmy Walker. No, this time it’s Ulala versus those who would dare to take over the world by making its residents dance, for God’s sake. Yes, the formula here is strictly 100% Japanese. The Western world would have had to thrown in some extreme pop punk to “make it work” had it had its chance. Luckily it didn’t.
So yes, there’s this whole strange b-movie vibe running through Space Channel 5, and it doesn’t get any better than when Ulala has to duel it out. And I’m not talking about the dance duels, either. I’m talking about the guitar and drum solo levels. Watching her kick ass with a rainbow electric six string on a floating fountain of dancing waters is something that must be seen to be believed. Then there’s the drum solo rock fest that pits Ulala and a Space Channel 5 employee against a fleet of sexy space police vixens. Perhaps only Roger Corman could have dreamed up something trashier, or Salvador Dali something more surreal.
But the cream on the entire cake is the fact that Michael Jackson makes an appearance. What is it with this guy and video games? He appeared in other titles like Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round 2 and now here he is once again as Space Michael. And yeah, it’s really him, there’s no mistaking it. Granted this game was developed way before his latest alleged sexual abuse scandal, but one can’t help but feel a little creeped out when he thanks Ulala for saving him and the children here. I’m only left to wonder how much a piece of the pie he got from Sega and how much of his typically bizarre input he had over the game’s development. Still, it’s not every day you get to bust out moves from both “Beat It” and “Thriller” in a video game.
So there you have it. An old game given new life that manages to capture a veritable cornucopia of pop culture craziness that borderlines on severe hemorrhaging. This is easily one of the most bizarre games I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy, as one of the best music/rhythm games currently available. If Ulala is ever brought back again, I hope she gets to battle Fred Durst and put him away once and for all. I think that’s some serious justice we could all be happy with.