Videogame (1999). United Game Artists. Designed by Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Platforms: DC (1999), PS2 (2002), GBA (2003), PS3. Win (2011).
2499 CE. Aliens have invaded Spaceport 9 and are forcing people to dance. Hotshot reporter Ulala, host of Ulala's Swinging Report Show and member of Space Channel 5, has been sent to the source of the trouble to investigate. Ulala must fight for her ratings, as well as against the aliens all over the Space Station.
Space Channel 5 is a rhythm videogame in which the player controls the character of Ulala and must match dance moves to those of the invading aliens by pressing "up", "down", "left", "right" and "shoot" buttons on the game controller. The closer Ulala's moves match the rhythm of the aliens, the higher her rating will be with her viewers. If the player misses moves or breaks the rhythm, Ulala's ratings will fall and eventually her show will be cancelled, leaving the aliens to overrun the station.
Space Channel 5 sits firmly in a tradition of campy rhythm and music games that use dancing characters to play out a fairly simple narrative plot across a number of increasingly complex game levels. These include Parrappa the Rapper (Sony Entertainment 1996, PS1; 2007, PSP) and Umjammer Lammy (Namco 1999, PS1, Arcade; 2008 PS3). Unlike other dance games such as Dance Dance Revolution (Konami 1998, Arcade), the games require players to match moves by using the controller or keyboard, instead of physically dancing. The score is dependent on how close the player keeps to the rhythm, as well as hitting the buttons in the right order. Bonuses in the shape of hearts are provided for being in synch with the music; these serve as the player's lifeforce.
Ulala battles against a number of enemies throughout the game, including the alien Morollians, other reporters, and rather unusually, a brainwashed version of pop icon Michael Jackson ("Space Michael"). In the second iteration of the game, Space Channel 5 Part 2. (2002 United Game Artists, DC, PS2; 2011 Win, Mac, PS2, PS3, XB360) designed by Yumiko Miyabe, Jackson plays a far larger role and is more benevolent, coaching Ulala in his characteristic moves and using some of his trademark noises and whoops. Jackson voiced the character of Space Michael in both versions, and many of the dance moves in the second game are clearly influenced by his music videos. The second game had a limited international first release during 2003, and was later released for download via the Steam platform in 2011. Space Channel 5 Part 2 is largely thought to be the better game, due to its greater length, extended gameplay and extra modes. The player is also able to customize Ulala's appearance by unlocking various costumes throughout the game, an option not available in the first iteration.
Ulala is perhaps a more savvy version of Leeloo in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (1997); and her appearance, as well as that of Spaceport 9, very much mirrors the artistic aesthetic of Besson's film. Ulala's own minimalist appearance – partway between a Manga pin-up and 1950s cheesecake idol – has also made her popular with gamers; she has become a minor icon of the Sega brand, appearing as a character in fifteen other games, most of which require multiple selectable characters or have levels that are indicative of Sega's portfolio.
Ulala is also an early example of an iconic female protagonist in videogames, which possibly accounts for her relative popularity and inclusion in later games. This demonstrates an obvious effort by gaming companies to include female characters in videogames, but also points to their relative paucity. [EMS]