Sometimes it’s hard to categorize a game. Is it strategy or puzzle? Is it an action game or a shooter? And then something like Electroplankton comes along that isn’t really a game at all; it’s more of a tech demo or music composition app. Whatever you want to call it, it’s one of the most interesting and innovative titles on the DS, or any platform for that matter.
Electroplankton‘s ten interactive musical modes (the plankton) are the brainchild of Toshio Iwai, one of the world’s leading media artists. Iwai has numerous artistic awards and prizes under his belt, but don’t let that fool you; this isn’t some snobby piece of art for artists. If you have a single creative bone in your body, you’ll find something to like.
As you interact with each type of plankton, they create sound in their own distinct way. Most of them use the DS’s touch screen; like an overeager prom date, touching, moving, or rubbing them brings out all kinds of sounds. The first plankton, Tracy, follows a line you draw, playing different notes. The speed and direction the sound depends on the speed and direction of the line, and experimenting with multiple lines can result in an orchestra or a third grade public school band recital.
Other plankton have different “rules”. The Animalcule is placed where you tap the screen, and lets out a single note as it grows. Where you place them determines the pitch, so placing several in different places creates music (hopefully). Lumiloops emit harmonic tones when spun with the stylus, and Luminaria follow arrows you form into a path, sounding tones as they go.
The DS’s microphone is well represented too. Nanocarp respond to sounds you make by rearranging themselves into different patterns. Rec-rec is a four-channel sequencer that “eats” microphone input and repeats it, so you can combine voices or ambient sounds into your own music track. Volvoice is a simple sound recorder with sixteen different playback modes that distort, reverse or repeat the sound input.
The favorite Electroplankton in the MyGamer testing labs is by far Beatnes. It’s a five-channel sequencer that emulates the NES sound chip, giving you a background beat (Kid Icarus saw the most use) and five scales of Nintendo sounds plus a few classic effects. Tap out a measure and Beatnes repeats it four times, letting you layer melodies and harmonies, creating your own song.
The thing is, with Electroplankton all you do is make music. One, Hanenbow, could be called a minigame if you stretch the meaning far enough, but you’re experimenting here, enjoying the interaction with the plankton and the aural results of your input. Most of the plankton have different modes themselves with different sounds or instruments, but with the exception of Beatnes these are mostly things like piano, vibraphone, or chimes. The results are amazing, but you have to be especially fascinated by the process of creating music itself to really get the most out of it.
Of special note are the two main menu options, performance and audience modes. Performance mode lets you free with the plankton, but audience mode is a kind of demo, where you can see exactly what each one does. Sometimes audience mode comes up with something you never realized you could do, showing you all your options. Better yet, you can still interact in audience mode, adding your own touch.
Electroplankton may be all about sound, but there’s not much to say about the visuals. The DS’s bottom screen is the static, watery homes of each plankton, with faint ripples and little bubbles from your touch. The top screen is a magnified view of the often hard to make out plankton. The plankton themselves are smiling little unicellular creatures, just what you’d expect to find in a glass of water ordered at a diner (minus the smiling faces). Though everything is animated perfectly, there’s not much more to the graphics.
The one thing that’s sorely missing is any kind of save feature. Electroplankton‘s music is ephemeral; once you create it and experience it in the moment, it’s gone forever. There’s no way to save a particularly nice track you’ve laid down with Beatnes or that once in a lifetime sound you grabbed with Volvoice. Apparently you’re expected to connect the DS’s headphone jack to a tape deck or PC and record anything you want to save, but a built-in save feature would have been so much better.
That’s really all there is to Electroplankton. If you want a peek into Iwai’s creative process, the excellently published manual has a few pages devoted to explanations of the origin of each plankton. It’s a creative tool, it’s a music application, it’s something you play not in the sense of playing a game, but in the sense of playing an instrument. There’s no winning or losing, no blood, no running over prostitutes, no sniper rifles. See, I just lost 95% of the readers who actually stuck with me this far. This is probably the game that should come bundled with the DS, but if you have an ounce of creativity, you owe it to yourself to order Electroplankton.