In the Realm of the Senses:
Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Synthesis of Synaesthesia & Video Gaming
Part III: “Hey there, space cats…”
With AM Annex disbanded, Mizuguchi and a group of former AM6 employees came together to from a new Sega division, AM9.
AM6 itself had been split into various teams, most notably the Panzer Dragoon series’ Team Andromeda.
With his new division, Mizuguchi had one clear objective: to combine music and gaming with the awesome power of Sega’s new Dreamcast console:
“My inspiration was music lovers, and the music fans that exist and the game fans that exist. They’re huge, huge areas, both — but there was no sync between the two. Up to that point, we had a technology problem. It was impossible to use sound in game design. Timing games, or the sound effects getting the music, that was impossible at the time.”
It was around this time that he saw the musical STOMP:
“[I thought] this is a great musical, with the music, dance.” After that, he went to many musicals, and thought about why musicals are so fun. “How can we design that kind of feeling in the interactive process?”
Engadget, MIGS06: Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s keynote liveblogged (sorta), 8th November 2006
“STOMP inserts a little bit of [a] game in between acts … one of the performers comes out and claps once. The audience doesn’t know what’s happening, but when he claps again, they join in. Then the performer claps twice, and so the audience claps twice. This goes on, and the clapping patterns become faster, and finally people laugh. We looked at how simple clapping could create so much fun, simply a routine of call and response using memory and reflex and rhythm.”
Mizuguchi and AM9 had been instructed by Sega to create a game for the “casual female” market.
“This was the first I’d heard of casual female gamers, so I didn’t really know what to do. I personally interviewed a lot of young girls, trying to find out what they like.”
GamaSutra, E3 Report: The Path to Creating AAA Games, 20th May 2005
Mizuguchi’s research showed that while men liked good-looking female characters, women valued personality, preferring characters they could look up to as an older sister or a friend. Having a female protagonist who men would lust over would also invoke jealousy:
Keeping those points in mind, Mizuguchi had Ulala’s CG model redrawn a number of times to make sure she didn’t look too seductive, and gave her a somewhat male-like, casual, and care-free personality. For example, she just didn’t care if her underpants showed a bit while she danced.
Aiding him in catering to this demographic was Yumiko Miyabe. Having worked in the art departments for Sega Saturn games such as Clockwork Knight, NiGHTS into Dreams, and Panzer Dragoon Saga, she would draw up the concepts for most of the characters in AM9’s debut title, eventually becoming the project’s art director.
Mizuguchi did not want to alienate the existing predominantly male market, and his findings also showed that while women preferred puzzle games, male gamers “want to be on top, they want to accomplish something and be the champion.”
Working alongside Miyabe at AM9 was Takashi Yuda, whose most famous contribution to the gaming world was the conception of Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s Knuckles the Echidna.
Building upon Miyabe and Mizuguchi’s concepts, Yuda presented Mizuguchi with a concept video of a reporter for a game centred around a space-based news station Channel 5 called Ulala who would take down evil robots with a combination of blasters and high kicks:
“I think one of the key inspiration sources for all of us was Barbarella, and once we started really defining what the game was, we started taking it further and further. I remember all of us laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of some of the later characters in the game, just spacey and as nutty as you could make it!”
Core Gamers, Jake Kazdal: An American Gaijin, 16th September 2008
With the action was set against British composer Ken Woodman’s 1966 track Mexican Flyer, this would eventually be the main theme of what would become AM9’s Space Channel 5:
“When we approached [Woodman] about the soundtrack, he was really surprised that somebody wanted to use his music, more than thirty years later.”
IGN, IGNDC Sits Down with Space Channel 5’s Tetsuya Mizuguchi, 6th October 1999
While Mizuguchi was pleased with the concept of the female space reporter, he was not content with the execution, feeling that “Ulala’s fighting style was too cool and stylish” and her overall movement too stiff.
Mizuguchi also decided that instead of shooting robots, Ulala should engage in a series of dance-offs with a race of cute alien enemies dubbed Mororians (the name would change to Morolians in Western versions):
GSN: Where did the name Morolians come from?
Mizuguchi: It’s actually a joke that started because of one of our artists. Her name is Mayumi Moro and we’d often use her last name around the office, so we just decided to use a derivation of it for the characters in the game. She thinks its funny.
Gamespot, Sega’s Tetsuya Mizuguchi Interviewed, 14th March 2000
In its early stages Space Channel 5 played like an interactive music video, with button prompts onscreen while the music played in the background. Mizuguchi sought to make a game that instead played more like STOMP and the other musicals he had recently seen, with a “Simon Says” style call and response routine. When the developers responded that was not the direction the game was currently going in, Mizuguchi took various steps to align them with his vision.
First, he devised a conceptual design document to help find the “soul of the game”, with the first element being the human desire to be a hero or heroine. Mizuguchi outlined a series of steps to help players achieve this:
Step 1: Increase number of followers and get the highest rating.
Step 2: Play an active part, be unique, save people, be helpful.
Step 3: Feel the rhythm, stay in the groove, beat the aliens with dance steps, and don’t forget to be sexy (he laughs at this last step).
IGN, Tetsuya Mizuguchi speaks about the soul of Space Channel 5, 24th March 2000
To help the team perfect the game’s rhythm-based foundation, at one point Mizuguchi stripped the interface of all advanced visual elements and graphical effects besides text so the developers could focus on the gameplay.
As Space Channel 5’s producer, Mizuguchi went to great length to ensure that the development team honed their animation skills so players would feel more affected by the characters’ expressions. He saw his team as a group of mountain climbers with himself as their guide:
“I must assume that the mountain climbers will get lost, and it is my responsibility to give them proper guidance, or else they won’t succeed. So until I can give my team proper direction, we never begin to climb the mountain of game creation.”
The Space Channel 5 team was in particular need of guidance as some of them had never worked on a game before:
“There were 10 at the start of the project, but right now, there are 24. The average team member age is about 27. A lot of the people here come from the consumer section of Sega, so there are team members who worked on Panzer Dragoon from Team Andromeda, people who did Sonic. But with a lot of the team, it’s their first time creating a game — they’re very fresh.”
To this end, Mizuguchi saw that everyone at AM9 attend a six-month “comedy workshop”. To being with he had them practice a series of freeze drills:
Mizuguchi had a pantomime artist give the artists and production designers pantomime lessons, at one point instating the pantomime artists as a full team member. While some of the animation was accomplished via motion capture, the pantomime artist helped the team’s animation crew hand-draw the Morolians’ movements:
“We look at a lot of pantomimes, and study how to create animation that will make people laugh and get a big reaction. There’s a little bit of everybody on the team in the game — a few people on the team did some dancing for the game, which we edit and re-mix. Straight motion-captured data isn’t that interesting; we need to edit it to move it away from reality. Some people on the team study about pheromones and what makes the main character so attractive. How can we make the gamers think she’s really sexy?”
Team Pheromone was thus created, with Miyabe among its four members.
“It’s not the case that technology and CG technicians are necessary to make the best games. A great artist, somewhat skilled in the art of expressing comedy and tragedy could make an enormous contribution to a game like Space Channel 5.”
It was this expression of emotions and desire to create dramatic highs and lows for the player that Mizuguchi strove for now that his games had left the arcade.
In one session, he had the team hop around the floor in a group while looking and pointing a finger in different directions. In another, he had the team pretending to break through a glass wall and then say something funny.
One of the main objectives, according to Mizuguchi, was for his staff to acquire some understanding of the psychology behind making people laugh. He said he believes there are systematic ways to get people to feel different kinds of emotions.
Gamespot, Mizuguchi headlines TIGRAF fest in Tokyo, 10th November 2003
Yuda exploited the Dreamcast tech to combine polygonal models with streaming video backgrounds. The sheer amount of video and audio took up “99.5%” of the game’s GD-ROM (the proprietary disc format that Dreamcast games came on, so-called “Gigabyte Discs” that could hold up to 1.2GB of data).
GSN: One of the things we really liked in the game were all of the little jokes. For example, the tutorial option at the beginning of the game — when you select it, it just tells you to go read the instruction manual. That was classic.
Mizuguchi: We actually wanted to do more jokes like that, but we had to cut a lot out because of the space we used up on the GD-ROM.
Space Channel 5 was first unveiled to the public at the Autumn 1999 Tokyo Games Show on the 17th of September.
Mizuguchi was keen to stress the emotional element of the game in interviews:
“We’re currently at thirty percent completion, but it’s not enough to be entertaining yet. The current dancing and game design is basically a prototype. We need to create several dramatic climaxes through the game, and want to make everyone cry at the end…
“We want to give you a giant feeling of accomplishment on the spiritual side when you’ve finished. The simplicity of the game helps us get our message across — and if a million people play it, we want to really think about what we’re trying to say. You know, I don’t really like the scenes when you’re actually shooting the aliens — but there is no killing in this game.”
With three weeks left of development, news of the game had reached the ears of the King of Pop, who had a special request:
“We were laaaaaate [in development], like almost beta, I want to say? And one day, [Shuji] Utsumi-san, who was the head of Sega’s development at the time in Japan — who is now the president of Q-Entertainment with Mizuguchi-san — came into our office.”
“We were in a remote office, we were not down at Haneda’s main corporate office. We were up in Shibuya, we had our own office up there with a couple smaller teams like AM1 and CSK. And we had sort of an impromptu meeting, and he’s like, ‘So, umm… I just got back from the states, and…’”
Kazdal continued, adding a little background on Utsumi: “He’d helped launch the PlayStation. He’s oldschool, he’d been around forever, he’s done a lot of cool stuff. He said, ‘I had a meeting, and umm…it turns out Michael wants to be in the game.’ And everyone was like, ‘What? Michael? What are you talking about?’”
“And he was like, ‘Yeah. Michael Jackson. He saw the game and he loves it and he really, really wants to be in it.’ And we had like a month left. And we were like, ‘What the hell. Let’s do it.’ So we buckled up and we just made it happen, and yeah, it was super-awesome.”
SiliconEra, How Michael Jackson Willed His Way Into Sega’s Space Channel 5, 27th February 2005
On the 27th of November 1999, Sega took over Shibuya with Space Channel 5 billboards and banners, and setting up a stage in the centre of the bustling Tokyo district.
Standing on stage alongside Mizuguchi was Shoichiro Irimajiri, who had been appointed President of Sega Enterprises after the failure of the Sega Saturn, deciding that Sega should focus on their next console.
When the Dreamcast was first unveiled on the 21st of May 1998, one of the tech demos presented to show off the console’s capabilities was a floating Irimajiri head. The demo was created by Sega’s greatest talents, with Mizuguchi himself overseeing its development along with Sonic Team’s Yuji Naka, and AM2 lending their motion capture devices that would go on to be used for Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue.
Irimajiri was a firm believer in the power of the Dreamcast, and as he stood on stage that day in Shibuya declaring that Sega would dominate their competitors, he was interrupted when a group of Morolians jumped onto the stage and started dancing.
One of the aliens held a sign that explained their fiendish plot — on December 16th, the Mororians plan to invade the Earth, enslaving us all by making us dance uncontrollably.
IGN, Mororians Wreak Havoc in Shibuya, 29th November 1999
Unfortunately for the Morolians, Ulala was there to save the day, busting out her killer dance moves along with Mizuguchi.
With the Morolians defeated for now, Mizuguchi went on to demo the first stage of the game on a huge screen across the street:
Japanese gaming magazine giant Famitsu also ran a lottery for readers to get their hands on a promotional Mil-CD entitled Space Channel 5: Ulala the Movie.
The Mil-CD was yet another proprietary format developed by Sega for the Dreamcast that added images and video to CDs. While only nine titles were ever released, and even then only in Japan, the format’s unsigned code led to hackers exploiting the technology to allow the Dreamcast to run pirated games via burned CD copies, though it is thanks to this exploit that independent games are still developed for the Dreamcast to this day.
On the 16th of December 1999, AM9’s first game hit the Japanese market.
With its tongue-in-cheek humour, ’60s-influenced groovy art design, and ’70s-inspired funky beats courtesy of composers Naofumi Hataya (who had collaborated with Mizuguchi on Sega Rally Championship) and Kenichi Tokoi, Space Channel 5 was not only a stark departure from Mizuguchi’s racing titles for the arcade, but also quite unlike any other game on the market.
When players would successfully repeat a series of dance moves against Morolians or rival space reporters, not only would their View Rating would go up, but they would free human hostages who would go on to join Ulala as backing dancers. Ulala could also poach musicians from her rivals’ entourages, who upon enlisting with the Channel 5 reporter would play a little fill from their instrument of choice, such as busting out a funky sax solo.
Mizuguchi had not abandoned his quest to provide a total sensory experience despite leaving the arcade: if a player had a Jump Pack in their Dreamcast controller, it would vibrate each time they missed the beat.
“Everybody has rhythm, be it good or bad.”
In my case it was most definitely bad; without the visual button prompts of music games such as Dance Dance Revolution and having to rely on my own sense of rhythm, I never managed to complete the first level when I played it on a demo disc as a 12-year-old. Still, the game’s unique style and sense of fun endeared it to me, and as of writing all these years later I have extremely belatedly made it to the final stage.
While the Japanese release credited the voice of Ulala as “Herself”, for the English language dub the talents of the bubbly Apollo Smile were employed:
In the months leading up to its June US release, Sega of America set about to make Ulala not only a new Sega mascot to go toe-to-toe with Sonic the Hedgehog, but a multimedia pop culture figure in her own right.
A collaboration was announced in January 2000 with SuperMega Media to launch a show on MTV News the following year called Ulala’s Swinging Report Show, and that film studio Columbia held the rights to make a movie. Neither the show nor a film were ever made, and SuperMega Media’s other big project, the oft-forgotten movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, was both a critical and commercial failure.
“I really wanted to watch this on MTV,” said Mizuguchi, “and I heard the pilot got great reactions in the test showing, but suddenly it was never used. I still don’t know what happened, but perhaps it had to do with the actors’ union, and their reaction to it,” he joked.
“Because of this, though, Vodafone [a cellular phone giant mostly unknown in the US] came up to me and offered to employ Ulala as their cyber agent, their onscreen navigation gal. She became the world’s first real-time 3D CG cyber agent on phones. She danced when the phone rings and asks how the conversation was after hanging up. It sold 8 million units in Japan!”
From the 11th to the 13th of May 2000, Sega battled it out with Sony and Microsoft at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). While Sony showcased Hideo Kojima’s much-awaited Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (with the now infamous “bait-and-switch” trailer implying that series stalwart Solid Snake would be the protagonist) and Microsoft wowed crowds with Halo, Sega organised a series of dance shows for its more offbeat titles, Jet Set Radio (renamed Jet Grind Radio in North America due to US trademark issues) and Space Channel 5. Opening and closing with the “Mexican Flyer” theme, the show also had Ulala grooving to The Wiseguys’ 1998/1999 hit “Ooh La La” as her name was spelled out on screen as well as some vintage 2000 breakdancing:
Though Space Channel 5 did not fly off American store shelves upon its 6th June 2000 US release, Sega remained undeterred to push Ulala as the next big gaming icon. From 11:30 to 13:30 on the 15th of June Sega held a premiere event for the game at Universal City Walk’s Cinema Plaza in LA. After “Ulala” strutted her stuff on the red carpet, there was a “funky fresh” dance routine, followed by an Ulala lookalike contest.
By the end of the event gamers had a chance to test out Space Channel 5 with Sega rolling out a few of their Dreamcast-laden trucks from the console’s “Mobile Assault Tour”.
With write-ups and mentions in Time Digital, Newsweek, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, and Wired, in the eyes of Sega it seemed that Ulala was poised for world domination.
After having sponsored the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) which coincided with the US launch of the Dreamcast on the 9th of September 1999, in August of 2000 Sega announced that Ulala would be presenting Best Dance Video that year. When the VMAs rolled around on the 7th of September, though, Ulala was nowhere to be seen, with Kid Rock and The Rock instead on hand to present Jennifer Lopez with the award for “Waiting for Tonight”:
While Sega of America had paid for Space Channel 5 to feature in the film adaptation of Josie and the Pussycats, further hoping to win over the growing number of girl gamers with their budding female icon, it was too late for Ulala and the Dreamcast; the console was discontinued on the 31st of March 2001, with the film bombing at the box office upon its release on the 11th of April that year.
In April 2003 Lady Miss Kier of the band Deee-Lite filed a lawsuit against Sega, claiming they had user her likeness and trademark “ooh-la-la” to conceive of the character Ulala. She told the Los Angeles court she had first heard of the game after rejecting a request from Sega of Japan in July 2000 to use the band’s “Groove is in the Heart” to promote Space Channel 5 in England and potentially Europe. Sega of Japan was able to prove that the Japanese development team had never heard of her or her band and that the character of Ulala was substantially different from Lady Miss Kier. Having lost the case, Miss Kier was initially ordered to pay Sega’s legal fees of $768,000, later reduced by a trial court to $608,000. For budding entertainment lawyers the case file for the appeal can be found here.
Space Channel 5 only managed to sell 86,340 copies on the Dreamcast in North America. PlayStation 2 ports arrived on the 15th of March 2002 in Europe and 12th of December 2002, but it was only thanks to Agetec’s “heavy wrangling” with Sega that American PS2 owners got their hands on Space Channel 5 on the 18th of November 2003, now bundled with the game’s sequel.
A stripped-down version of the game titled Space Channel 5: Ulala’s Cosmic Attack was released for the Game Boy Advance in Europe on the 6th of March 2003 and the US on the 17th of June that year. While it received middling reviews, developer Art Co., Ltd. would go on to work with Mizuguchi on PlayStation Portable titles Every Extend Extra and GunPey.
While Sega of America had failed to establish Ulala as a new Sega mascot despite numerous marketing tie-ins and appearances, development on Mizuguchi’s next project was already well underway…
“I have another title in pre-production. I’m researching how far we can use the Dreamcast as an image and audio synthesizer. On this project, I’m taking into account the worldwide market and I think my experience of arcade games will be very profitable. I’m trying to incorporate the essence of an arcade game into a console game. It will be a kind of ‘toy’ using music and sound.”
IGN, Inside Dirt on Sega of Japan’s Secret Project, 22nd October 1999
GSN: Do you have any new surprises that you’re working on?
Mizuguchi: Oh yes, we do.
GSN: What’s it like, any hints?
Mizuguchi: Well, it’s different. It’s a mixture of an arcade game and a consumer game — it’s like a new generation game.
GSN: So it’s not a racing game (smiles).
Mizuguchi: Nope, it isn’t (smiles).