Electroplankton

All the good music has already been written by people with wigs and stuff.--Frank Zappa

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It's an Interactive Random Melodic Art Generator. Or perhaps a Cooperative Organic Virtual Music Experience. If I were feeling particularly academic, that's the kind of crap I might come up with to describe Electroplankton for the Nintendo DS. But I'm not feeling particularly academic right now. In fact, I'm actually feeling detachedly sedate, because for the last half hour I've been toying with Electroplankton. And Electroplankton is about as unstructured, unacademic, and wonderfully disorganized an experience as I've found on a video game platform.

The brainchild of multimedia artist Toshio Iwai, Electroplankton transforms the DS into a sort of virtual aquarium, populated by ten unique species of tiny, smiling, sound-emitting creatures. Like singing Sea Monkeys, each species can be prompted to generate sounds, usually via the DS's touch screen. The end result is often something to which the term "music" could probably be applied.

The electroplankton are segregated by type, selectable from a menu that handily provides brief descriptions of each species' abilities. Choosing a particular electroplankton provides a two-dimensional view into its habitat. The bottom screen displays the creatures in their aquatic environment, while the top screen offers a zoomable closeup of individual electroplankton as if seen through a microscope.

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Most of the electroplankton emit musical tones in response to guidance via the touch screen. The Sun-Animalcule, for example, begin their lives as tiny eggs, placed in the water with the stylus. As they hatch and grow, they emit bursts of light and chiming tones at regular intervals. The pitch of each Sun-Animalcule's tone depends upon both its size and location. As the creatures grow, the screen color changes in accordance with a five-minute day and night cycle. Sun-Animalcule that hatch in the day produce different tones from those that hatch at night.

The Sun-Animalcule share a number of characteristics with the other electroplankton. They're incapable of producing dissonant tones, for example. Though it's almost impossible to create a conventional melody with the Sun-Animalcule, it's equally difficult not to create something harmonious. And like most of the other electroplankton, any arrangement the user designs is subject to change as the creatures interact, grow, or disappear.

Some Electroplankton, like the diminutive Nanocarp, respond to sound captured by the DS's microphone. The Nanocarp synchronize their actions to clapping, blowing, or singing by leaping into various shapes. Once in formation, a tap of the D-pad sends a wave of water across the screen, triggering the Nanocarp to "sing." Left alone, they'll swim about randomly, emitting chimes and ripples of water that prompt other Nanocarp nearby to vocalize. Tapping the screen with the stylus also creates ripples, causing the Nanocarp to chime and twirl enthusiastically.

There's huge variation among the ten electroplankton. The Lumiloop, for example, are stationary, doughnut-like creatures that hum soothing tones when spun with the stylus. The Beatnes remember and reproduce melodies with low-fi sound effects from NES games, according to beats tapped out on their bodies. Rec-Rec are fish that can record sounds from the microphone, then reproduce them as they swim across the screen, much like a simple four-track sequencer. Though it's possible to gain a basic understanding of the entire electroplankton family in about twenty minutes, to fully appreciate all the nuances each offers probably requires at least a couple of hours. There's a near-infinite number of musical variations available within each species, though, so the potential for unique experiences is limited only by the user's interest.

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Until I played with Electroplankton, I didn't realize the DS was capable of such rich, complex sounds. Some of the electroplankton mimic conventional instruments, like vibraphones or bells. Others create more otherworldly sounds. The title makes full use of stereo effects, usually by shifting tones from one speaker to the next in response to the creatures' movements. As the DS's tinny speakers simply aren't capable of reproducing the electroplankton's vibrant tones, headphones are essential to fully appreciate the experience.

The electroplankton can be enjoyed in "Performance" mode, where their actions are controlled by the user, or in "Audience" mode, where left to their own devices they'll chatter or chime melodiously to themselves. Audience mode still allows the user to interact with the electroplankton, so their actions and output can be tweaked if desired.

Though the beautifully printed 66-page manual that accompanies the title is a veritable tome, the program itself is immediately accessible, regardless of the user's age or musical ability. Electroplankton is not so much about composition as it is about experimentation. It's like fingerpainting with music. Even the messiest, most random of actions can generate something interesting, and each composition inevitably evolves to be replaced with something new. Melodies surface, then vanish. There's no way to save what you and the electroplankton create, and given that some of these creatures have minds of their own, it's often impossible to recreate a melody or a series of sounds with any precision.

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By design, Electroplankton defies the user to create something permanent. Though it's sure to be faulted by some for its lack of any save feature, it clearly wasn't intended to offer more than free-form, improvisational play. It's not a goal-oriented experience, and therein lies much of its charm. It doesn't demand or reward skill or precision, instead offering the user a chance to experiment aimlessly in a charming, melodic virtual world.

As I type this, the DS sits next to my keyboard with a school of Tracy in Audience mode, plinking away like polliwogs hopping across piano keys. Occasionally their interactions start to annoy, as they become too repetitive or complex. More often, their output is soothing and hypnotic. Whether I choose to poke or prod them into more organized symphonies, or simply let them amuse themselves, the resulting chill-out vibe they create is much the same.

During the last week, I've found myself tinkering with Electroplankton before falling asleep. I know I'm not creating anything of lasting value, and I'm perfectly content with that realization. In fact, the very impermanence of what I produce in cooperation with these creatures is highly appealing. Like skipping rocks across a pond, it's perfectly mindless, and perfectly satisfying.

Electroplankton
Official Site (Highly recommended!)
Release Date: April 2005 (Japan), January 2006 (U.S./Canada)
Developer: Nintendo (in cooperation with artist Toshio Iwai)
Publisher: Nintendo

Comments

Is it just me, or was nintendo able perform a complete turnover from percevied "dead in the water" to innovation leader? You only hear praise for the DS and it seems this will not stop when the revolution arrives (what a lame pun ;)). I sure will pick a DS up during the next months to try out the games on that platform. Thanks for the review TheFly!

For a game as utterly whacked-out as Electroplankton, I really have no idea how it was even possible to construct a coherent review without lapsing into outright dadaism. But for The Fly, mere coherence is no barrier; he blasted right past coherence and into the stratosphere known as fun. And in fact, with that talk of "the value of lasting value," he has probed the lonely, rarefied vacuum called philosophical import. Great review.

I'm finding it hard to resist buying a DS. Thoughts of the redesign are holding me back. This review is making my willpower weaken further.

However this: "There's no way to save what you and the electroplankton create" makes me wary of this game.

Sorry, this 'Rumbulating Musicated Experitode".

Gee, thanks a lot Fly. Now there's another game on my list of DS to-get games. Where am I supposed to come up with the time and money for this? Next review, why don't you think about my feelings?

Fantastic review.

Nintendo has become the slightly strange yet attractive coffeeshop poet of the gaming industry. Sure, your parents don't like that you hang out together, and you can't quite help but feel some sort of social stigma just by hanging around them. But you have really deep, meaningful conversations late into the night that you can't seem to remember well the next day. All of a sudden you wake up twenty years later in Vermont, with a little chicken coop, making a living doing carpentry for a hippy commune that supplies what you can't make yourself. And you'll think to yourself, "Nintendo did this to me... and I wouldn't want it any other way."

Jolly Bill wrote:

All of a sudden you wake up twenty years later in Vermont, with a little chicken coop, making a living doing carpentry for a hippy commune that supplies what you can't make yourself. And you'll think to yourself, "Nintendo did this to me... and I wouldn't want it any other way."

Brilliant

I've been debating whether I should get this 'game' or not. I'm musically inclined to begin with, so I was immediately attracted to Electroplankton when I first heard of it. However, I was left wondering if this 'audio finger-painting program' would keep my interest for more than a few weeks. Fly's review is really, really tempting my will to the 'buy' option at this point, and it's quite likely the best summary I've read of Electroplankton up to now. Excellent review of something that's almost un-reviewable!

Great review, Fly, as per usual :). I've been eyeing this game since I first heard about it, and I don't know how much longer I can resist buying it. Although your review proves that perhaps that I am not drunk enough to appreciate this game. To Best Buy! And then... the liquor cabinet!

Can you have different types of plankton on the screen at the same time? Gamespots review seems to suggest you can't (I'm a skimmer, could be wrong).

1Dgaf wrote:

However this: "There's no way to save what you and the electroplankton create" makes me wary of this game.

So? It's still an awesome experience, it seems. You going to miss it because you couldn't save some cool things out of it?

You know what? The "no-save" actually makes me more excited about this game, not less.

I think we've been waiting a long time for a game that would break the chain of abusive "must accomplish or die" entertainments that have plagued the game industry. Spend an afternoon playing a game and have no accomplishments, no rewards, no stats and no loot to show for it? Sounds like art to me. What you get to keep is the experience. Just like spending an afternoon at The Met, then strolling through Central Park. It may not make you 1337 (damn you), but it's good for your soul.

1Dgaf wrote:

Can you have different types of plankton on the screen at the same time? Gamespots review seems to suggest you can't (I'm a skimmer, could be wrong).

Nope, you can't. One species at a time. Apparently they're not compatible. Maybe they'd eat each other.

Imagine beaming the experience of strolling through central park straight into a chick's mind and getting laid because of it.

Now imagine her saying "WOw, if you could have beamed that straight into my braaaain I would have slept with you. But you can't, because you couldn't save it".

You dig?

1Dgaf wrote:

Imagine beaming the experience of strolling through central park straight into a chick's mind and getting laid because of it.

Now imagine her saying "WOw, if you could have beamed that straight into my braaaain I would have slept with you. But you can't, because you couldn't save it".

You dig?

I do, but I don't think that you do

How awfully presumptuous of you.

Double post.

Oh and it's 1337. Unless you meant to write 'teet'.

Damn you and your proper spelling of intentionally misspelled words!

I wasn't trying to be presumptious or ... whatever that word means. Just pointing out that the concept of using an afternoon strolling through Central Park to somehow get laid is completely the opposite of what I was talking about.

Sounds like this game would be good to play between sessions of Trauma Center: Under the Knife.

This is the best game review I've read in a while Adam, kudos on that. I've been curious about Electro for a while now but I'm still not sure how much the ol' wallet will appreciate yet another game purchase

By the way, your review made it to Kotaku.

I know what you meant about strolling through central park. I made a facile example, but I did have a point.

One can argue that part of the what makes a pleasing experience valuable to us, is that it might/can/will end. Assuming the guy that made Elektroplankton thought this too, one acknowledges the inability to save as a way to make us pay more attention to what we've created, or to appreciate its loss more.

However perhaps I don't want to lose something beautiful I made. Maybe I'd like to hear it again, or to share it with someone.

EDIT: Repetition, spelling.

DrunkenSleipnir wrote:

Gee, thanks a lot Fly. Now there's another game on my list of DS to-get games. Where am I supposed to come up with the time and money for this? Next review, why don't you think about my feelings?

I'm glad to hear that I'm not alone in this affliction. Hopefully it won't be too hard to find a copy next month when I'll have spare disposable cash again.

Sounds like a concept that would do well to merge with this, an artificial life simulator not based on Conway's rules. The union seems most necessary considering the DS's networking capabilities.

1Dgaf wrote:

However perhaps I don't want to lose something beautiful I made. Maybe I'd like to hear it again, or to share it with someone.

I understand what you're saying. What I'm saying is that need to hold onto things can be counterproductive to healty living. But that's an entirely subjective philosophical belief on my part and I will in no way hold it against you for disagreeing with it.

I agree with your point of view on having to hold on to things. However with a limited amount of space to store stuff, we'd be forced to choose which tunes to hold on to. Thus a save feature may actually get people thinking about what's really valuable and worth keeping, helping them make changes in their 'real life'.

Hrmm. *strokes goatee*

Imagine beaming the experience of strolling through central park straight into a chick's mind and getting laid because of it.

Now imagine her saying "WOw, if you could have beamed that straight into my braaaain I would have slept with you. But you can't, because you couldn't save it".

You dig?

I say its extremely rare to find a girl who wouldn't laugh at you for pulling out a Nintendo DS. I speak from personal experience. Even a girl who knows all the lines from Star Trek draws the line at pocket gaming gadgets. It is a mystery.

P.S. This review made me order Electroplankton.

shihonage wrote:
Imagine beaming the experience of strolling through central park straight into a chick's mind and getting laid because of it.

Now imagine her saying "WOw, if you could have beamed that straight into my braaaain I would have slept with you. But you can't, because you couldn't save it".

You dig?

I say its extremely rare to find a girl who wouldn't laugh at you for pulling out a Nintendo DS. I speak from personal experience. Even a girl who knows all the lines from Star Trek draws the line at pocket gaming gadgets. It is a mystery.

Times, they are a-changing. I could give you plenty of personal anecdotes about my girlfriends and I lusting after DS games, but I think you'd be more apt to believe actual data. Here's a small, limited example.

I had the--well, let's call it pleasure-- of doing some market research on magazines targeted for young girls, ages 13-18. Y'know, your Elle Girl's and Teen Vogues. I was amazed--and pleasantly surprised--at just how many Nintendo ads there are between those pages, for GBA Micros, GBA games (especially Kim Possible and That's So Raven), and of course, the DS (ESPECIALLY Nintendogs). In the April issues of five different magazine titles (Elle Girl, Girl's Life, Teen Vogue, Seventeen, and one other I can't remember), I found seventeen Nintendo ads. Seventeen. That's about as many ads as you'd find for shoes, or for tv shows, in five of the same magazines.

Okay, so it was just one month, and only five magazines. But, on the other hand, Nintendo wouldn't be placing these ads if they weren't working for them, if they weren't generating revenue. Apparently, the young female market, ages 13-18, is a viable one for Nintendo. There must be girls somewhere out there playing GBAs and DSes. (Don't you think Electroplankton could be one of those games they'd totally eat up?) Those teenagers grow up to be women gamers. And that makes me happy. Awesome.

So, even though I disagree that girls like me, who love handhelds, are a rare breed, all I can say is shiho should just give it a few more years. Then you'll be run down by all those 13-year-olds-now-18-year-old girls desperate to get the DS 2.0

I'd like to think a person doesn't lose an ability to be open to new things when they pass 18 years of age. Plus, 18 year olds are annoying. Get the damn kids off my lawn ! I'll stick with women my own age, thanks

KaterinLHC wrote:

So, even though I disagree that girls like me, who love handhelds, are a rare breed, all I can say is shiho should just give it a few more years. Then you'll be run down by all those 13-year-olds-now-18-year-old girls desperate to get the DS 2.0 :)

I've got bad news. You are rare. One-Eyed Albino Rhinoceros rare. Where you are may be the Gamer Girl Wildlife Preserve, but on a national scale, you're rare.

Well, I picked this 'game' up today and decided to give it a whirl during my lunch hour.
I was let getting back to my desk.

This should be emphasized: I'm never late getting back to work after my lunch break. I just had my headphones on and I was playing around with the various planktons and totally lost any sense of time, completely absorbed in this little world of melodic sound. It was actually very relaxing, helping to clear my mind during my break since the only thing I was concentrating on was making music.

A genuinely fascinating and very much worth it piece of software.