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News for nerds

Back in the heady days of 2016, when VR hype was at its peak amid hardware launches from Oculus, HTC, and Sony, it felt entirely natural for the killer app to be the transformative PlayStation VR conversion of Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Rez. Here was a cult classic that just so happened to be about delving into the very depths of technology itself, with graphics perfectly suited to the high-contrast, low-resolution panels of early VR headsets, and propulsive game design that didn’t have to deal with the tricky problem of how to move your avatar around.

In 2020, the VR landscape has changed. Motion controls are the norm, and expectations are high for next month’s launch of what has to be the most anticipated VR title of all time, Valve’s Half-Life: Alyx. That’s the background for today’s launch of another PSVR version of another Dreamcast-era Mizuguchi release, Space Channel 5. In some ways, it’s a perfect fit; in others, it feels like the tech isn’t quite there.

Space Channel 5 is one of those games that came out in the early 2000s and developed a devoted following, despite bombing in terms of sales. It’s a basic post-PaRappa the Rapper rhythm-action title that sees you take control of Ulala, an intrepid intergalactic reporter who is tasked with defeating a malevolent alien invasion through the medium of dance.

The original game was very simple, requiring players to do little more than repeat D-pad directions and push the occasional action button in time to the music, Simon Says-style. The new version, Space Channel 5 VR: Kinda Funky News Flash, is essentially the same idea, except this time, your dance moves come through PlayStation Move controller swings instead of button presses.

Grounding, the developer, has made some smart adaptations for the VR format. Rather than a straight port, this is essentially the third game in the Space Channel 5 series. You don’t play Ulala this time around. Instead, you’re a rookie reporter who dances alongside her in first-person perspective. This shift means you can watch Ulala for the cues to your next moves. It also allows for some playful twists with the camera angle. Where pressing “right” on a Dreamcast controller would have seen Ulala take a simple step in that direction, in VR, you often feel like you’re dodging a laser beam that would otherwise have connected directly with your head.

Space Channel 5 is all about its stylish audiovisual presentation, and the VR version more than delivers here. The jazz-funk music sounds great, with 3D audio that places you right into the environment, and the simple, clean visuals are a great fit for the PSVR screen. The story mode doesn’t quite amount to a full-on sequel — much of the music and enemies are recycled from the two canonical titles — but it’s a well-designed game that feels fresh, makes the most of the franchise, and gives it a seamless transition into VR.

At least, that might be what I’d say if I were reviewing it on different hardware. Unfortunately, the PSVR’s Move controllers aren’t always up to the task. I’d sometimes find myself confused at why Space Channel 5 VR wouldn’t recognize what I was convinced was the right action. And this isn’t exactly Dance Central or Beat Saber. I’m generally talking about just moving a single Move controller in cardinal directions. This is pretty rough when the game makes you restart a level if you miss three motions.

I suspect this is both a hardware and software problem. Space Channel 5 VR was initially shown off on the HTC Vive, which has much more precise tracking. But I’ve played more technically demanding PSVR games without running into the same issue. In any case, this PSVR version did not work 100 percent reliably for me, which is a little bit of a buzzkill when you’re trying to get into the alien-zapping groove. I am pretty sure I would be much more into this game on the Oculus Quest, which is apparently happening but doesn’t yet have a timeframe.

If you’re all in on PlayStation and Space Channel 5 in VR is a thing that you want, I wouldn’t let this put you off. This game still bursts with style and personality, it has a bunch of modes, and it’s a perfect fit for VR as long as you’re not too concerned about putting in a flawless performance. I just hope the upcoming versions for other platforms offer up more precision. Right now, Space Channel 5 VR feels a little less futuristic than its premise.