Review: Electroplankton (Nintendo DS)

Review: Electroplankton (NDS)
Developer: Nintendo
Distributor: Nintendo
Genre: Music Creator
Release Date: 1/10/06

The Nintendo DS, once the subject of much ridicule for its duel screens and touch pad, has leaped into the forefront of the handheld market over the past year, and brought with it a ton of entertaining and unique games. But perhaps none of them are as unique as Electroplankton.

Electroplankton is the brain child of Toshio Iwai, one of the world’s leading interactive media artists. As the main Electroplankton website states, the game itself is a hybrid of a microscope, a tape recorder, a synthesizer, and a Nintendo; the four devices the creator loved so much while growing up. But how do all of these elements combine to make a game?

In a way, they don’t. Electroplankton isn’t a game, per say. There is no final stage, no bosses to beat, no story to tell, and no ultimate goal for the user. And while it predominantly deals with music, it isn’t a rhythm game either. Instead you are basically presented with a screen filled with microscopic sea life, a very basic set of instructions, and told to have fun.

And believe me when I say this game, if one can call it that, is a lot of fun.


1. MODES

As I mentioned, there is no story here. Instead the game is broken up into two different modes: Performance, and Audience.

Performance mode is where the majority of your time will be spent. Within this mode is a selection of ten different Electroplankton to choose from, each of which has its own set of rules and sounds. One set of plankton sounds very much like a piano, while another set produces almost trance-like hums that blend together. There is even a set of plankton that will allow you to experiment with different combinations of Super Mario Bros. sounds.

Here is a quick rundown of all ten:

Tracy – Five plankton that move along lines you draw and produce sound based on their speed, color, and position on the screen.

Hanenbow – Fires into the air and bounces among leaves creating different melodies based on leaf length, color, and position. If you can manage to change all the leaves to red, a flower will bloom.

Luminaria – A series of four brightly colored plankton that move along a set path based on the direction of arrows. When they hit an arrow, they produce a different sound based on their speed and location.

Sun-Animalcule – Place plankton eggs which gradually grow and emit sounds as they increase in size.

Rec-Rec – Four fish that continually swim across the screen while a beat plays in the background. Tapping a fish will allow you to record a sound with the microphone which will then play back on the fish’s next loop.

Nanocarp – The little plankton can be moved around with the stylus, and will also react to clapping or your voice. This causes them to produce sounds, and which they will also do when they collide with each othter.

Lumiloop – A group of five plankton that produce sound waves by spinning. That’s a pentatonic scale for you music buffs out there.

Marine-Snow – A large group of snowflake shaped plankton that produce sounds when you touch them as they spin and collide with each other. Their tones are based on the shape of their bodies.

Beatnes – Another group of five plankton, except these play a beat while recording the melodies that you tap out on their bodies and then play them back.

Volvoice – These produce sounds based entirely on what you say or what noise you make near the microphone. Once they’ve recorded a sound, they can play it back with varying degrees of distortion based on their shape.

Some of the plankton can be played in multiple ways. For instance, Hanenbow has several different leaf combinations that you can select from, while Beatnes has a number of different starting beats to choose.

Audience mode is the simpler of the two. It basically allows you to just sit there and let the computer take control. It will go through each of the ten plankton at random and create music for you. This is a good way to become familiar with what some of the plankton are capable of.

Overall there are quite a few entertaining modes here, with a good amount of variety between them. Some are more enjoyable than others, but I’m sure that is mostly a matter of personal opinion. Regardless, there is quite a bit here to experience.

Modes Score: 9/10


2. GRAPHICS

Sorry folks, but if you’re looking for an intense graphical experience filled with blazing guns and great balls of fire, you’ve come to the wrong place. But that’s not to say that the graphics are bad. Far from it, actually.

Electroplankton is a truly beautiful game, although very simplistic when you begin to break it down. It is filled with basic shapes and colors, but they all combine to create a wonderful visual experience. The plankton themselves move around the screen while the music that they create sends out waves of color, and all the while bubbles gently float from the bottom of the screen, constantly reminding you that the game is taking place underwater.

Each mode, and each series of plankton, has its own unique look and feel. Additionally, while most of your time will be spent focused on the bottom screen, the top screen displays a close up view of the plankton you are touching, allowing you to see them react to what you are doing.

Sure, the graphics are pretty basic when you get right down to it, but the entire style of the game with its cute little plankton and bright, vibrant colors, will be sure to win you over.

Graphics Score: 8/10


3. SOUND

Considering this is a game primarily based on creating music, the sound had better be top notch if it is going to be taken seriously at all. And I’m glad to say that it is.

Pretty much everything you do in this game creates a sound. Depending on what plankton you are working with you can produce everything from a simple beat to a complex melody, and it all comes out of the DS’s little speakers with almost crystal clear clarity. Or at least as clear as the DS is capable of producing.

I suppose that is my only gripe, actually. I mean, the music that you can produce with this game is absolutely wonderful at times, and to have it restricted to such tiny little speakers is almost a crime. If there was a way to connect the DS to the GameCube and allow the game to be played through my surround sound system, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Unfortunately that is not the case, although one can hope that the functionality will be presented in the future.

The only other limitation on the sound is that you will only hear what you produce, and the quality of that sound is limited to your own abilities. Fortunately you don’t need to be Beethoven to enjoy this game. Electroplankton is very forgiving and it’s not hard to produce some truly beautiful melodies with just a little bit of fiddling around. And if all else fails, you can always let the computer take over for a little while with Audience Mode.

Sound Score: 10/10


4. CONTROL AND GAMEPLAY

One of the things I really love about the Nintendo DS is how intuitive most of the games are. Especially those that depend on the stylus for the majority of play. And Electroplankton is certainly no different.

Pretty much everything you do in the game will involve the stylus. You can touch a plankton to make it create a sound, press and hold on a leaf to change it’s angle, draw a line for a plankton to follow, or rub one in circles to make it spin around.

Man, all this touching is starting to sound a little kinky…

Anyway, using the stylus as the main control is incredibly simple and it works excellent. The other buttons on the DS are used to varying degrees depending on what plankton you are working with. In some cases, the Select button will change the appearance of the screen or the tones emitted by the planktons. The A button might show you some on screen information. The control pad can occasionally be used to slow down or increase the tempo of the music you are creating. And the microphone is occasionally used to both record sounds and affect the plankton on the screen. Fortunately all of these controls are detailed extremely well in the instruction book, although most of the time you can figure out what they do just by playing around with them.

The gameplay itself is exceedingly simple. You touch a plankton, and it makes a sound. Touch multiple planktons, and create harmony. Simple, isn’t it?

No really. That’s it. That is all there is to this game. See why I said earlier that it’s not even really a game? There is no reason to play this other than for your own amusement and the chance to create some really wonderful and unique sounding pieces of music. Unfortunately there is no way to combine groups of plankton together, but each one is capable of producing its own beautiful melodies.

And here’s the rub. Once you’ve created some music, what do you do? That’s easy. Save it and create more music, right? Wrong! Know why? There’s no save feature! You can spend all day getting your plankton to move around in just the right way, but unless you’ve got a friend there to hear your work, you’ll have nothing to show for it. I suppose you could jury rig some kind of recorder, but without a battery save built into the game, there is no real way to save your progress, and that by itself is almost enough to kill any lasting appeal this game might have. After all, why put in a lot of work making music if you can’t keep it?

The lack of a save feature truly is the biggest flaw with this game, and the only real complaint I have with it. The wonderful sound and graphics, the intuitive gameplay, and the multiple modes are all practically overshadowed by this one glaring omission. It’s sad, really.

So, no save feature, and no way to put together different groups of plankton. Let’s hope that if we ever see an Electroplankton 2 that these issues are addressed, because then you would have a truly wonderful experience.

Control and Gameplay Score: 6/10


5. REPLAYABILITY

I truly believe that the lack of a save feature is going to seriously affect this game’s replayability for anyone that plays it. If you could create a piece of music, and then go back and tweak it until you had the perfect melody, than I think you could theoretically play this game forever (or at least until the sequel came out). However, without a way to save your progress you will be continually starting from scratch, and that’s incredibly frustrating.

However, even with that one serious omission, the game still has a decent amount of replayability to it. The sheer number of different plankton gives you plenty of sounds to experience, and playing the game is never the same experience twice. Especially once you start using the microphone to affect various groups of plankton.

In the end the amount of replayability is going to directly stem from how much enjoyment you gain from creating your own music. Again, I think a save feature would have gone a long way here in helping the final score, but the game still has enough options to keep you coming back for more. Just probably not over the long term.

Replayability Score: 5/10


6. BALANCE

Considering the nature of the game, this is a bit of a tricky category to score. Since Electroplankton does not have a linear game design that increases in difficulty, it’s hard to determine how balanced the game actually is.

From a pure control standpoint, the game is incredibly easy and intuitive to use. From a music creation standpoint, it is also exceedingly easy. Granted there is a certain amount of skill and patience involved in creating some more interesting melodies, and an ear for music certainly doesn’t hurt, but the game is also very forgiving, and creating music is much easier than one might expect.

Overall I’d say that the game is fairly well balanced for what it is. It’s intuitive to use, easy to play, and yet still has a level of complexity to it that will certainly take some time to master.

Balance Score: 5/10


7. ORIGINALITY

And now we’re back into the high scoring territory. I honestly can’t think of another game that even comes close to this one with its quirky little plankton and simple music creation. The only other real music creation game I can think of is the MTV Music Generator series, and that’s more like being a DJ and creating your own mixes.

The next closest game would probably be the DDR, Donkey Konga, or Taiko Drum Master series. But again, the style of play is completely different. While in those games you are given a particular rhythm to match, Electroplankton allows you to create your own rhythms and melodies without putting forth any particular goals to work towards.

Toss in the use of the stylus and the microphone, and you’ve got yourself a pretty unique little gaming experience. If you can call it a game, anyway.

Originality Score: 9/10


8. ADDICTIVENESS

Well, that depends. How much do you like music? For that matter, what kind of music do you like?

While Electroplankton does allow you to generate your own music, the type of music you can create is more akin classical or new age. There aren’t many drum beats and there are no guitar riffs. But there are plenty of piano and string tones, combined with some nature sounds a little bit of electronic ambience. You could almost relate it to those little soothing music boxes that you’re supposed to put by your bed to help you sleep. Except that this also has the Mario Bros. theme which doesn’t work so well for getting rest.

For my own part, I enjoyed this game a ton. My first time fiddling with it was while waiting in a Battleground queue in World of Warcraft, and I quickly forgot all about that. I spent the next few hours engrossed with the game, attempting to create my own distinct melodies. And when I showed it to my fiancee? Yup, she stayed up until the wee hours of the morning sitting on the couch completely entranced by the little swimming plankton and the tones they created.

Electroplankton is definitely addictive. Although your mileage may vary based on your own personal music tastes and how enjoyable it is for you to make your own music.

Addictiveness Score: 7/10


9. APPEAL FACTOR

Do you remember when you were a child? I mean a really, really small child, like, a year old? No? Neither do I. But, you’ve probably seen the various learning toys that create sounds when a child plays with them. If you are a parent, you might even have one sitting in your baby’s crib right now.

It seems that all small children love playing with things that make noise. And that seems to hold true of most adults, too. I honestly think that anyone who sat down with this game for a good solid half hour would find something enjoyable about it. There is something wonderfully satisfying about creating music, and when it is this accessible, you can’t help wanting to give it a try.

Unfortunately this game is quite hard to find. As I understand it, most stores aren’t carrying it, and the internet is your best shot at finding a copy. There is also very little in the way of advertisements for the game. For that matter, there’s a good chance that this is the first time you’ve even heard about it. And I’d imagine that Electroplankton isn’t even on the radar of the average gamer.

It’s somewhat sad, really. This is a wonderful and quirky little title that probably won’t get the recognition it deserves. And while it is far from a perfect game, it’s definitely something that I think most gamers would enjoy.

Appeal Factor Score: 6/10


10. MISCELLANEOUS

Back when I wrote my review of Killer7 I briefly discussed video games as art. It’s a debate that is still going on, and one that will likely continue for many years to come. However, I don’t think you need to look much farther than Electroplankton to see that video games can, indeed, be art. This game is a work of art. A work of interactive art.

To top it all off, the instruction manual is almost a work of art in and of itself, although one that looks like it was drawn by children. You can take a look for it yourself at the Electroplankton US website. It’s filled with tons of little colorful hand drawn instructions and even some gameplay tips. For instance, the instructions for Tracy actually suggest that you use a ruler or stencil to create different lines, while the instructions for Nanocarp actually contain an entire table of different patterns you can clap out. Normally I take a brief look at the manual and then toss it aside, never to reference it again. But with this game I actually sat down and read the manual cover to cover just because it was so entertaining.

In the end, Electroplankton is one of the most entertaining and unique games that I have played in a long time, and a great way to kick off 2006. Unfortunately the omission of a save feature and the lack of any long term appeal hurt this game in the end, but these issues could easily be remedied should they ever decide to produce a sequel.

For that matter, if one of the developers happens to be reading this, here’s my suggestions: include a recording and saving function with complete tape recorder-like qualities (stop, start, fast forward, etc), include a way to mix and match different plankton on the screen at once, include a way to allow the game to interface with the GameCube (or Revolution) so that you can play the game through a surround sound setup, and include a way to swap music with friends. Those four items would go a long way in making this one incredible experience.

As it is, Electroplankton is definitely worth playing, especially for music lovers. I don’t know that I can recommend a blind purchase, but definitely try to get your hands on a copy. As long as you realize that this isn’t your traditional gaming experience, I doubt that you will be disappointed.

Miscellaneous Score: 9/10


THE SCORES

Modes: 9
Graphics: 8
Sound: 10
Gameplay/Control: 6
Replayability: 5
Balance: 5
Originality: 9
Addictiveness: 7
Appeal Factor: 6
Miscellaneous: 9
Overall: 74
Final Score: 7.5 (Good)