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For Funk’s Sake: A Space Channel 5 VR (Kinda) Review

Let's just rip this Band-Aid off right now: Space Channel 5 VR — developed by Grounding Inc. for the PlayStation VR — is absurdly overpriced and hardly anyone will buy it.

I purchased the original Space Channel 5 for $40 back when it launched on the Dreamcast in 2000. Adjusting for inflation, that translates to $59.85 in 2020 dollars. By that standard — and only by that standard — would most people consider this $40 sequel a decent value. I cracked open a beer while downloading Space Channel 5 VR. That was a little over an hour ago (as I begin writing this). I’ve already blown through its anemic four-stage story mode and dabbled in its repetitive 100-stage marathon mode. I've seen nearly everything the game has to offer and my beer is still cold.

There isn’t a lot to do in this game is what I’m saying.
These are SC5VR's modes...and really only a couple of them are distinct game modes.
Space Channel 5 VR is an improbable sequel to the relatively obscure 20-year-old Dreamcast rhythm series. And damn, does it double down on that obscurity. SC5VR can only be played in virtual reality, and only while standing up, and only by flailing around with a pair of PlayStation Move remotes. It's exactly as niche as it sounds. I’m just trying to imagine the subset of Dreamcast fans who also fondly remember Space Channel 5, and happen to own a PSVR, and also have a pair of working Move controllers, and whose expectations for VR rhythm-based games haven’t been completely spoiled by the amazing Beat Saber and Rez: Infinite.

There are six of us. I’ve done the math.

The game's full title is Space Channel 5 Virtual Reality: Kinda Funky News Flash!, which is more of a synopsis than the name of a video game. We can also abbreviate it to SC5VRKFNF! in case that's any less ridiculous. In a weird hipster way, SC5VR’s commitment to remaining obscure is appropriately on brand for a Dreamcast throwback title and I respect it. However, that also means I won't hold my breath for a physical disc release.

OK. So now that I've railed against the game's profound lack of value and marketability, how is it?
Pretty damn fun, as it turns out.
The best way I can describe Space Channel 5 VR — both in terms of its premise and aesthetics — would be if a Hanna-Barbera crossover went awry. Like if the Scooby-Doo crew did the time travel thing, solved their mystery, and went back home...except Daphne was left stranded in a future space city. After working through that understandably traumatic situation, she briefly dated Judy Jetson, and then paid her way through journalism school with a night gig at a go-go bar. Seeking to reinvent herself, she dyed her hair pink, adopted “Ulala” as a pseudonym, and eventually landed a prestigious career as an intergalactic TV news correspondent.

You are Ulala’s intern.
Insomuch as Space Channel 5 VR's story even matters, it kinda has one and it's kinda dumb.

The galaxy is under attack by a giant fidget spinner while a mysterious alien force is hellbent on enslaving humankind— not for maniacal lab experiments or organ harvesting — but to feed an insatiable appetite for dance. Ulala is the would-be hero but because this is a first-person VR game (and presumably because Grounding needed an excuse to show her on screen at all times) you get to follow her around as a junior reporter/back-up dancer. Through a series of interstellar dance battles, you’ll mimic various “Simon Says” commands as you up/down/left/right/chu/dodge/pose! your way to the galaxy’s salvation. If you've played the original Space Chanel 5, it's basically the same shit but with Move motion controls.
You might have thought I was joking about that fidget spinner...
I've always had a soft spot for the original Space Channel 5 but after revisiting it last week, I was surprised by how much of a chore it felt like playing. I got through most of it, rescued Michael Jackson, grooved out to the 1966 acid jazz hit "Mexican Flyer" (also featured in SC5VR) and I really can't think of much else that's interesting about that game. I mean, its soundtrack obviously still slaps but even that’s available on Spotify now. To me, Space Channel 5 feels like less of a game I would "play" and more of an arduous thing to “get through." (R.I.P. Nostalgia)

Not so with SC5VR.

I’ve written before about the vaguely pseudo-apocalyptic futuristic aesthetic of many Dreamcast-era games. Space Channel 5 is the opposite of those. It's bright. It's chipper. It's groovy. However I feel about playing it today, the original Space Channel 5 was instrumental in helping to define the Dreamcast's unabashed charm for me. And luckily, the VR sequel retains that vibe perfectly. In a way, Space Channel 5 VR almost feels like getting sucked into one of Sega’s "It's Thinking" TV ads from 1999. I personally consider that a good thing but your mileage may vary.
Apollo Smile...is not Ulala's voice actress in this game.
Broadly speaking, rhythm games fascinate me because they strip players of nearly all agency yet remain compelling when they distract us from that fact. I’m convinced the genre is at its best when it physically invests players in its rhythm and flow, whether via motion controls, quirky peripherals, telekinesis, or whatever. Provided those tools are reasonably seamless, they can help connect players more naturally to the experience. They lend a satisfying kinetic feel which becomes necessary in lieu of the lack of flexibility and experimentation inherent to these games' stringent structure. At the very least, when rhythm games reduce the space between our real life and in-game actions, we become more easily immersed in their cool sensory stuff.

Put another way: the more of an idiot I look like while playing a rhythm game, the more fun I’m probably having.

And so it is for Space Channel 5 VR. Honestly, the best thing I can say about my all-too-brief playthrough is that I probably looked like a bumbling dolt the whole time.
To be fair, the Move controls certainly aren’t perfect but they do feel surprisingly intuitive and accurate considering the decade-old technology they’re based on. And although I thought I’d be bummed about SC5VR’s lack of standard DualShock support, I’m not sure I’d use it anyway. The motion controls, VR presence, vibrant presentation, and catchy soundtrack all come together in a way that perfectly suits the kind of experience that Space Channel 5 always tried to be.

Space Channel 5 VR is a simple but highly enjoyable game. Although it still relies on the similarly rigid play structure of the original game, it feels far more forgiving, both in terms of input flexibility and fail states. For instance, you will only fail a stage after screwing up three combos in a row and the game gives you more leeway in the timing and motions for some of the dance commands. Sometimes it even let me perform the correct moves by accident.

In all, SC5VR is far more fun than stressful. Unlike the original game, I have yet to curse it for being a conniving little turd and failing to recognize the inputs I had so obviously nailed (ignoring, of course, all the ones I didn’t). I also feel like SC5VR gives me a pretty decent workout. I’m still a bit sweaty in case you needed to know that.
All about that lore? At least there are a bunch of character bios to read.
It says something that I just wish there was more of the game to enjoy because, sadly, I don’t see many people getting two Andrew Jacksons’ worth of play out of it. As much as I wish to support the devs for crafting a fun game and doing their part to preserve the Dreamcast spirit in the modern era, I can’t help but recommend waiting for a Kinda Funky Flash Sale.

Abysmal value aside, SC5VR is more than a fitting homage to a prolific Dreamcast title. Grounding Inc. did a solid job adapting the series for VR and I can’t shake the feeling that, two decades later, Space Channel 5 finally plays as it was always intended.

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Thanks for reading! You can also find me on the Saturn Junkyard’s TitanCast podcast and on Twitter (@VirtuaSchlub) where I like to share random musings and shoot the shit with cool people about the video games.
So what do you think? Will you be joining Ulala on her foray into VR? Or will you be sticking with the Dreamcast originals? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.

7 comments:

  1. Completely agree! Was loving the game until I saw the title of the 4th report was “The Final Report”. Then I got worried! About 5 minutes later, I could tell this was an end boss fight and then the credits started rolling (which this sequence ended up being longer than the level itself!). Very disappointing in the games length, and it’s such a shame because what there is, is fantastic and they nailed the Space Channel 5 look and vibes! I also feel lime they should have moved through the enviroments like the old games, rather than just being completely stationary on the spot. They should have used the shot / rescue features more and let you build up a posse of characters behind you as you dance through the stage. Feels like a missed opportunity to have a fully fledged Space Channel 5 game, whereas they have sort of passed off a tech demo as a full game!

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    1. Great point — it really does feel like a tech demo. It seemd like most devs and publishers have worked out some pretty decent value models for these types of scaled-back VR experiences over the years. Many of those projects are unapologetically tech demos — which is totally fine — but they generally don’t charge more than $10-15 for them. Or maybe everyone else has been undercharging this whole time...I dunno. Games are hard to make.

      I would be curious to know how Sony and Grounding arrived at the $40 MSRP. My hunch is they saw limited appeal for new audiences (even at a lower price point) so they opted to ask more from fewer existing fans, hoping their nostalgia would make them more likely to buy it anyway.

      Honestly, SC5VR was always such a niche prospect, I’m surprised it even got green lit in the first place.

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  2. Wow that's a ridiculous price to gameplay ratio, especially since VR games are usually priced accordingly. It's hard to find a VR game retail for more than $20, unless it's a mode in a full game like in RE7 or is just packed with content.

    I have SC5 Part 2 on Dreamcast, but haven't played it much. I was looking forward to this as I like to get every good PSVR game I can, but this seems to be a wait-for-a-75%-off-sale game.

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    1. Yeah, a 75% discount sounds about right for this game. I imagine they’ll drop the price immediately after they get through the first round of us suckers. I’d give it a few weeks at most.

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  3. Cracked me up - love the humour in this review! Great job Brian. Also: I probably won't be getting this on VR. Wasn't a huge fan of the originals so little here for me.

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    1. Thanks, Tom! For all this time, I really thought I enjoyed the original game so I was very surprised to learn this week that I didn’t. Maybe if someone figures out a way to make it compatible with the Samba maracas, that might change.

      It’s also unfortunate because, especially releasing at the end of the PS4’s product cycle, it’s a perfect storm for SC5VR to become lost to history sooner rather than later. Even if it does drop in price soon, everyone will have already moved on.

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