For anybody in the tiny Venn diagram of users who have heard of and are anticipating this week’s Space Channel 5 VR, I have very bad news: it’s the worst value proposition of any PlayStation VR game ever made. And while this Dreamcast-era revival’s issues could be forgiven in isolation, the game’s mix of price, brevity, simplicity, and ho-hum aesthetics makes it a bummer for anybody with hopes of a new, solid VR-dancing option.
Space Channel 5, for the uninitiated, is a beloved rhythm game made by Sega for the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2. It pioneered a “mods in space” aesthetic, as if a groovy British dance club from the ’60s took off in a rocketship. Its star, an intrepid “space reporter” named Ulala, engages in Simon-style dance battles with monsters; she watches a pattern of button taps to the beat of the music, then responds in kind. It’s similar to rhythm-gaming classics like Parappa the Rapper.
The best thing I can say about Space Channel 5 VR: Kinda Funky News Flash!, which is currently a PlayStation VR exclusive, is that it neatly translates the original game’s formula to a version with motion controls. The original game limited its players to tapping four cardinal directions and a single button, while SC5VR replaces all button taps with arm motions. Move your hands up, to the sides, down, or forward, then mix and match these for approximately 15 dance moves.
You might expect my negative intro to mean that this Wii-like stuff is a failure, but as controlled by PlayStation Move wands, it’s really quite solid. For starters, the controllers’ gyroscopes appear to track motions even when players move outside the PSVR tracking system’s limited gaze, which means you don’t have to fear waving your arms too aggressively in real life. More importantly, SC5VR‘s development team understands the realities of arm and body fatigue, and how players do or don’t remember a variety of poses, in choreographing its levels. You’ll only get one or two weird pose options mixed into a particular 45-second routine, like the “raise your arms in a flex” move or the “one hand straight up, one to the side” L-shape. And even at the highest tempos, the dance moves can still be done at manageable speeds as opposed to the lightning-fast button taps of the series’ first two games.
Unfortunately, SC5VR doesn’t include support for sit-down play, as it includes a few moments when players must physically side-step as a dance move, and there’s no “accessibility” toggle to let seated players otherwise enjoy the game. (It also requires a pair of PlayStation Move wands, as there’s no gamepad-only mode.)
Did the Morolians handle the sound design?
The above is ultimately a solid foundation for a VR rhythm game; we honestly haven’t seen such a classic rhythm-gaming system work this well in VR. (The closest is the Hatsune Miku VR dancing game, which is best left ignored.) So how did Grounding Inc. (which includes some of the series’ original devs) mess this one up?
First is the abysmally short runtime. The campaign weighs in at 27 minutes, and it’s broken up into four levels. I didn’t go into SC5VR expecting an epic campaign, since the first two games in the series ran at roughly 90 minutes, but the brevity isn’t just a bummer from a bang-for-buck standpoint. When a game is this short, its scant selection of music is far easier to scrutinize. These four songs are a far cry from the catchy original games, played back mostly in low-grade MIDI, and some of them cling tightly to a low-resolution sample of the original game’s theme. You have to dig into SC5VR‘s menus, which include a wacky dictionary about each of the game’s NPCs, to find one bodaciously catchy bossa nova song. Its infectiously catchy horn sample, as spliced with modern DJ trickery, mostly makes me wonder where that inventiveness was for the rest of the brief game’s soundtrack.
The runtime is padded by an additional “challenge” level, which stretches to nearly 10 minutes—and it’s the only place you’ll find half of the game’s dance poses. These easily could have been mixed into a “second quest” of remixed original levels, if not an unlockable option to play remixed levels from the original Dreamcast games. Instead, they appear in an uncreative dump of marathon dancing as opposed to the campaign’s balance of dancing, resting, and wacky exposition. (Though, as another criticism, the game’s script and plot have some serious logical gaps, with a new trio of rivals almost instantly becoming Ulala’s friends after a single showdown.)
SC5VR‘s dancing worlds are remarkably unmemorable, as they all take place in simple, static rooms. Monsters from the original game reappear as relatively low-polygon models, so it appears that little effort was put into generating new content. The sound design makes “giant crowds” of nearby monsters and fans sound like a tiny gallery of interns being mic’ed at the last minute. And the game’s dancing characters share identical animation routines and nearly identical body and face proportions—which looks weirder when you’re surrounded by dancers in VR than when you’re playing the original games on a decades-old console.
Broadcast signal lost
Between all of the above issues and a lack of storytelling to explain the original series to newcomers, I struggle to recommend SC5VR to anybody who owns PlayStation VR. The worst part is that the game’s solid core gameplay is a clear sign that its dev team could have made an excellent and unique VR rhythm game instead of rushing this scant disappointment out for $40.