To call Electroplankton a game would be a bit of a misnomer--there is no competition, no objectives to be met, and no points to be scored. Rather, this new project from self-proclaimed media artist Toshio Iwai is better described as a collection of interactive multimedia art installations that you can take with you. There's truly nothing quite like Electroplankton on the Nintendo DS--or any video game system, for that matter--and there are moments when it can be beautiful and completely enrapturing. But without any sort of disciplined game structure, and by relying heavily on user input--while simultaneously marginalizing it--there's not much to keep you coming back.
Despite its focus on music, Electroplankton isn't a rhythm game--or any kind of game, for that matter.
It's easy enough to toss around a lot of quasi-intellectual language when talking about Electroplankton, so we'll try to keep that to a minimum--instead, let's get down to what Electroplankton actually is. Imagine a set of synthesizers that you can manipulate through the familiar microphone and touch screen interfaces of the Nintendo DS, and you're pretty close. Electroplankton is comprised of 10 such musical toys, and a playful visual style is employed to give the impression that each takes place in some sort of bizarre petri dish--or perhaps a very musical aquarium--filled with different species of plankton that can produce sound and light when you interact with them.
The Tracy type of plankton come in groups of six, and will create piano tones as they retrace over lines that you draw on the touch screen. Each of the Tracy plankton are color-coded, and each color has a sort of preset pattern it plays through; but the shape of your lines and the speed at which you draw them greatly effect the pitch and the speed of each plankton. Additionally, you can use the D pad to speed up or slow down the shared speed of all the plankton. Tracy is a good introductory plankton, and it can be fun to discover the sounds that different polygonal shapes, or perhaps your own name, will produce, though it's difficult to create anything that would be recognizable as "music," and what you do create almost inevitably degenerates into a cacophony of noise.
The Hanenbow plankton like to launch themselves out of the water, creating xylophone-type sounds when they bounce off the leaves of plants growing out of the water. Using the stylus, you can play around with the angle of the leaf that they launch out of the water from, as well as the position of the leaves they bounce off of. Not only will the tones created differ depending on which leaves the plankton hit and where on the leaves they hit, but a plankton that hits the same leaf multiple times will create different tones. Because the plankton launch out of the water at a constant rate, it's easy to create progressions that overlap "in the round," which can become dizzying as you crank up the speed at which the plankton launch. Hanenbow is one of the most fully realized plankton, with several different plant configurations, and it features the closest thing you'll find to a goal in Electroplankton: Hitting the same leaves repeatedly will cause them to turn from green to red, and if you can make all the leaves on the screen turn red at once, the plants will blossom into small flowers. Festive!
The Luminaria plankton actually has its roots in "Composition on the Table," an interactive art project that creator Toshio Iwai originally unveiled in 1998. Here, four plankton sit on a grid of directional arrows. The plankton--each of which travels at a different speed and creates a different type of sound--will follow the directions that the arrows point, generating a specific tone every time they pass over an arrow. You can change the direction of the arrows simply by tapping them, or you can affect the direction of all the arrows at once using the D pad; if you want to make things a little more random, you can press and hold on an arrow with your stylus and it will begin spinning on its own automatically. You can create some pretty intricate patterns with the Luminaria, though it feels oddly limiting that you can rotate the arrows only clockwise.
Each plankton has its own unique interface, along with a bit of personality.
Of all the plankton, the Sun-Animalcule type seems the most like an actual microbiological creature. Tapping the touch screen will cause very tiny plankton to appear and start pulsing with light and sound at regular intervals. Like the Tracy plankton, the Sun-Animalcules will create different sounds depending on their placement on the screen, as well as on the patterns in which you place them. After they're placed, the Sun-Animalcules will start to grow, and the sounds they create will very gradually shift, until they reach a certain size and pop.
The Rec-Rec plankton works like a four-track recorder that loops every four beats. Four fish-like plankton scroll across the screen while a drum beat plays in the background. Tapping a plankton will cause it to record whatever sounds the microphone on the DS can detect over the next loop, after which it will immediately begin replaying those sounds. The Rec-Rec plankton is far and away the most functional in Electroplankton, and the sorts of musical patterns that will emerge when you layer seemingly random noise is genuinely amazing. The compelling sounds that you can create with the Rec-Rec make it all the more unfortunate that you cannot save any of your work.