In contemporary videogames, there's only one kind of sex; the kind that "sells." Most of today's games have become purveyors of the kind of obvious one-dimensional manufactured sex appeal that makes for eye-grabbing magazine covers and double-page print ads (i.e. Tomb Raider, Dead Or Alive 2), but contribute very little in terms of drama or tension to the game itself. The last time I can even remember sex playing a significant role in any game was in the two Golgo 13 games on the 8-bit NES where the lead characters constant carnal trysts furthered his James Bondian persona. And so it pleases me greatly to see that in Sega's latest music/rhythm genre release, Space Channel 5, 'sexiness' isn't something the game merely wears on its sleeve, but rather something that is ingrained into the very fabric of the gameplay.
Most of Space Channel 5's sex appeal is attributed to one thing—or, rather, character—its knockout bombshell of a protagonist, appropriately named Ulala (pronounced Ooh-la-la). Sporting hot-pink colored locks (a la No Doubt's Gwen Stefani), a wardrobe inspired by Jane Fonda's va-va-voom role, Barberalla, and a repertoire of scintillating dance moves that mimic Jennifer Lopez's, Ulala is a news reporter with all the ingredients of a virtual pop-diva in-the-making. Yet, what makes Ulala so sexy isn't rooted only in her looks. True, she may have it going on in all the right places like her skimpy outfits and tight figure, but that isn't what defines her attractiveness. She's got a charming can-do attitude, a hip swagger, and suggestively seductive dance moves that can turn heads and set your soul on fire. She's got more dimensions than those on her figure.
Like Ulalas persona, the backdrop story for Space Channel 5 is also equally out-of-this-world. It goes something like this: in the future (a campy, B-Movie-style interpretation), aliens—who look like a cross between the Teletubbies and the Pillsbury Dough Boy (and, despite what you might think, Michael Jackson makes a cameo, but is NOT one of the aliens)—have invaded earth and humans are being reduced to mindless dancing slaves after being struck by alien ray-guns. It's up to Ulala to take these aliens on, save the captured humans, and break the scoop to her viewing audience.
Being that Ulala packs two John Woo-inspired pistols like most of today's videogame heroines; you might be quick to assume her methods of dispatching these alien invaders would be far more masculine and menacing. In actuality, the game takes a strangely hip and funkadelic Broadway musical tone and the actual gameplay centers more on Ulala moving between sets and trying to out-dance her opponents into submission rather than mindlessly blasting away. This type of gameplay translates to the same kind of slaphappy Simon-says rhythm and beat-matching action that was popularized by Parappa The Rapper. Success is measured in the form of TV ratings that rises and falters according to her (your) performance. A minimum rating level must be exceeded in order to move onto the next stage.
The major difference in gameplay between Parappa (as well as its follow-up Um Jammer Lammy) and Space Channel 5 is that, in the former, the buttons you press and when were clearly defined by obvious on-screen visual cues that somewhat resemble notes on a music sheet. The same does not hold true for Space Channel 5. The controls may be strikingly simplistic, but with no on-screen visual cues, player must rely on a combination of memory, acute attention (paid to the oft busy on-screen action), and careful listening to the background music and vocal gestures that offer clues and directions. Unfortunately, the visual clutter can often make your head spin and the squeaky high-pitched Alien vocals aren't always clear. To top it off, making a mistake brings on an annoying buzz noise that's sure to ruin any sense of timing as well any hopes of salvaging the remainder of the steps. These problems make Space Channel 5 far more difficult to master than you would imagine and the frustration (especially for the rhythmically challenged like myself) sets in surprisingly quick even when compared to previous entries in the genre. Extensive practice is a must and a great deal of patience also comes in handy.
Aside from those obstacles, the game was, on the whole, enjoyable. It was hard-fought, but after continuous practice, I was finally able to excel and move on to the latter stages. In doing so, I was consistently rewarded with a visual and audio extravaganza that cleverly mixes full-motion video, life-like 3-D animation, stunning dance choreography, and catchy tunes. One thing that Space Channel 5 possesses that many other games seem to lack these days is style. Vitality simply radiates through every pixel of the games stage and character designs as well as its overall art direction. Parappa may have delivered a wildly imaginative and child-like coloring book feel, but Space Channel 5 is every bit its conceptual equal by creating a wonderfully psychedelic outer space romp that's campy, trippy, retro, and hilarious all at once.
With Space Channel 5, what we have here is a game with genuine sex appeal that isn't rooted in pubescent lust. It knows that sexiness can come from personality, style, and body language. Ulala encompasses all of those qualities while having more originality than Britney Spears, Christina Auguliera, Jessica Simpson, and Mandy Moore combined. Slick production values and upbeat music combined with challenging gameplay make Space Channel 5 a game that simply rocks—or should I say "rockets into outer space?"