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Joystiq Review: Electroplankton (Nintendo DS)

"What happens when you combine a microscope, a tape recorder, a synthesizer, and an NES? Electroplankton!" - Toshio Iwai

Nintendo promised new methods of gameplay, and in turn whole new gaming experiences, when they introduced their Nintendo DS handheld system. Using the touch screen and the microphone to create an interactive mix of sight and sound, Nintendo’s latest title, Electroplankton, is a poster child for their cause, even if it’s not a traditional “game.”

While being uniquely suited for the Nintendo DS, it is very much a niche product reflected in Nintendo's decision to distribute the game solely online. For gamers interested in experimental art or music, Electroplankton is probably already on their shortlist of games to buy; but for most others, it might not offer enough to hold their attention long.

Creation station

Electroplankton’s most interesting feature might not be what it is, but rather who made it. The box proclaims it was “Created by Toshio Iwai,” the renowned Japanese interactive media artist, and the manual includes his thoughts on the game and its characters. Taken in the context of his earlier works, Electroplankton owes more to its creator than to its medium. While Iwai has created video games before, beginning with Otocky, a musical shooter for the Famicom disk system, and SimTunes, part of Maxis' popular Sim series, you'll find direct inspiration for Electroplankton in some of his other works: in this video, you see the precursors of Elecroplankton's Luminario and Lumiloop. Iwai creates systems of touch, sound, and light and although the Nintendo’s DS was built to play video games, it's a perfect canvas for his creations.

The program (remember, it’s not a game) features ten unique plankton; each one responds to your touch, your voice, or both. There are Rec-Rec, fishlike plankton that feed on sound and basically act as a four-track recorder. Record four-second clips on all four plankton, and hear them played back over a beat. There is a group of five Beatnes plankton, with geometric heads and long tails, which recreate sound effects from the Nintendo Entertainment System’s sound chip as you tap them. Hanenbow are small plankton that leap from the water to bounce off leaves, each leaf they hit creating a melody. This is perhaps the only scenario that even resembles a game: the longer the Hanenbow are airborne bouncing on leaves, the more the leaves change color. When they all turn red, a flower blooms and you continue just as you were before. This challenge, insomuch as it is one, provided the one goal in the game and, as a result, I returned to it frequently.

Does it play?
The lack of objective is difficult at first -- the program challenges you to do nothing more than enjoy it, a not insignificant task. It requires patience and concentration to relax and appreciate the subtleties of each plankton. Once you’ve become comfortable with the behaviors of all the various plankton, you can spend some time enjoying them; using the Beatnes to create your own funky Super Mario Bros. theme, or the Hanenbow to create a serene image accompanied by xylophones and drops of water. The music will continue to change dynamically, responding to subsequent touches while abandoning older ones. After creating something you’re proud of, the most frustrating absence is the lack of a save function.

If the ability to save individual tracks would have been a great addition, the ability to save tracks and lay them over other saved tracks would have been an inspired one. Use Beatnes to make the beats, layer the otherwise worthless Volvoice on top with your own voice, and throw Lumiloops on top of the whole thing. A more open-ended musical creation system, while novel, would exceed the purity and elegance of each experience.

Perhaps the most used feature was the Audience mode, where each plankton will perform on their own. This mode was added in later as a demo, to explain how each plankton worked. After following his suggestion to try "placing your DS nearby and watch and listen to Electroplankton like a CD player." Leaving the plankton to do their thing, occasionally lending a hand in their autonomous jam session, felt like a dynamic, shuffling iPod, where every new track was a surprise, greatly extending the title's limited re-playability.

Ultimately, appreciation of Electroplankton is exceedingly subjective; musical and creative types will revel in the unexpected delights, both visual and aural, while gamers looking for a more traditional "game" will lament its shallow depth and aimlessness. The experience is ephemeral, captured for a moment, you and your handheld system. It’s a solo affair, best enjoyed with headphones, and certainly not enjoyed by all.

Overall Rating: 8.0 / 10

[Note: Assigning a score to Electroplankton seems fundamentally vulgar, so I'll qualify my rating with the acknowledgement that it is a review for gamers of the gaming -- and not artistic -- functionality of the experience. While it can be thoroughly enjoyable, cautious gamers might benefit from a pre-purchase rental.]

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