Review by Jaspertine

"The most fun you'll have not playing a game"

I'm not even going to humour the notion that this game is a mere tech demo, so let's get that out of the way right now. I am, however, at odds with the notion that Electroplankton is, in fact, a game, though to be perfectly honest, I'm not quite sure why. If you were to argue that a game needs to have an objective, then technically, Animal Crossing isn't really a game either, nor is Mario Paint, and there's two other titles that have given me no shortage of enjoyment over the years. Also, to think of EP as a kind of digital musical instrument, like Jam Sessions, is also not entirely correct, as it doesn't really allow you to compose your own original material. Perhaps the description of musical toy technically fits, but I'd like to think of it more as a series of interactive songs, with the general tune sketched out by the composer (Toshio Iwai) but open ended enough that the user (you) fills in the specifics.

You start the "game" by selecting between Audience and Performance mode. In Performance, you're left to interact with the plankton yourself, while in Audience, the computer will give you a little show all on it's own, though you still can manipulate the results to some extent. There are ten different plankton to choose from, each one with it's own unique behaviour and musical properties.

While the exact details of your contribution vary from one plankton to the next, the theme remains fairly constant. In each case, the tune is pretty much worked out, and your job is to constantly alter the parameters so that the music keeps changing in exciting ways. Anyone whose ever tried to work with algorithmic music or random note generators will know why this is such a big deal. Also, by using an interface of dancing fish instead of a music sheet or midi timeline, it is much easier for the non-musician and non-computer expert alike to handle the subtleties within the game.

Of course, none of this would be worth mention without reasonably decent sound, and EP does a fairly good job of offering a diverse range of sounds at a reasonable level of quality. It can be rather obvious at times that individual notes actually derive from the same sample being played at different sample rates (rather like speeding up or slowing down a tape recording) which seems a rather odd decision when one considers the DS's audio capabilities. My best guess is that it was done this way in order to prevent lag, which I have yet to experience with any of the ten plankton.

Needless to say, in order to get the full effect, you're going to want to avoid using the DS's internal speakers, which are ill-equipped to handle complex polyphony. A good pair of headphones will go a long way in this department. Personally, I found the headphones that came with the game fell a little short in terms of quality. They look great, and it's a nice touch that they're there, but an extra ten bucks spent on some decent headphones will pay off. I've also found that the game sounds pretty decent when played through my computer speakers.

The graphics are at least pleasant. In most cases, only the bare essentials really make the cut, and whatever other visual elements are there generally stick with the game's overall nautical theme. My biggest complaint with the visuals (and really, my biggest complaint with the game overall) is that the top screen is essentially wasted space. The main action of the game (understandably) all takes place on the touch screen, and the top is merely a close-up of some of the bottom screen's activity. It's framed in order to resemble a microscope, and the X and Y buttons allow you to zoom in and out, but there doesn't appear to be any way to actually choose what it is the microscope looks at. This is a minor problem, and hardly takes away from the game, but with no limit on what the top screen could have potentially shown, it comes across as a rare lapse in creativity on what is otherwise an entirely brilliant design.

Also, while it's fairly obvious that the real action of the game takes place in Performance mode, I've found Audience to be greatly lacking in terms of how it performs. The AI, for instance, tends not to have much imagination. On some plankton, it seems to be almost entirely incapable of understanding what to do, and on others, it makes the same decisions pretty much every time. It's also a bit of a nuisance that you can't simply choose which of the ten plankton you want to hear and let it play out. Instead, you start with a random plankton and must use the L and R buttons to cycle through them until you find the one you want, and the fact that they cycle on their own every couple of minutes only compounds the problem. It's hardly the crime of the century, especially given that it does nothing to take away from the endless fun and joy of Performance mode, but much like the top screen issue, it just feels incomplete.

The ten plankton of this game are as follows, Tracy, Hanebow, Luminaria, Sun-Animalcule, Rec-Rec, Nanocarp, Lumiloop, Marine-Snow, Beatnes and Volvoice. Since it's easy enough to find detailed information on the exact mechanics of each one, I'll only go over them in broad strokes.

Tracy involves drawing a series of lines which the plankton then follow, using location and direction to determine the notes. The D-pad changes the tempo. While Tracy has the potential to create all kinds of wonderful, swirling melodies, I personally find this plankton very unpredictable. There's a razor thin line between the highest and lowest notes. You can clear an existing line by tapping it, but if you miss, then you can end up sending another plankton to plunk away at the same note over and over again in a rather annoying fashion. I've also removed lines by accident on many occasions.

Hanebow is a personal favourite. In it, you have a series of leaves, for which you can adjust the angle. One of the leaves (the solitary one) fires little plankton into the air. These plankton then bounce off of the other leaves, playing a note each time they do. The part of the leaf they hit determines the pitch, and if a leaf had been hit enough times, it will turn red, and play a different instrument. If every leaf turns red, a flower will appear. Many gamers take this as a kind of goal.

In my opinion, Hanebow much sums up the spirit of the entire game quite beautifully. Those tadpole-like creatures will produce one exotic, seemingly chaotic melody after another, without ever being random or algorithmic in nature. If you focus too hard on trying to get the flower to appear, or try to hard to control the music, then you miss out on the entire experience.

Luminaria is the easiest plankton to understand. You have four star shaped plankton on a grid of arrows. Each arrow is a musical note, and each of the four plankton run across them at different, polyrhythmic speeds. As they land on an arrow, they play that note and then move in the direction to which the arrow points. You can change the direction of the arrow by tapping it, and if you leave the stylus on the arrow for a long enough time, it will spin around, sending the plankton in a potentially different direction each time.

If it's your first time playing Electroplankton, this is a good starting point, but over time, it will prove to be one of the more redundant plankton. There is a real lack of overall variety, and while spinning the arrows can change things up a bit, it's only slightly better. The one thing Luminaria does to best, though, is allow you to create repeating melodies, and then change them in very subtle ways over time.

Sun-Animacule, on the other hand, is capable of a fairly wide range on ideas, and is equally difficult to understand. Using the D-pad, you change the background between varying points between day and night. Tapping the screen will create either a sun or moon, depending on the background, and their position on the screen will determine their note. Suns produce a "ping" sound while moons have more of a "hum." As time goes by, they get bigger and eventually disappear of their own accord. This plankton can become quite confusing, and it's all to easy to flood the screen with way too many suns and moons, which doesn't exactly help.

Rec-Rec would seem at first glance to be one of the more diverse plankton, but really falls short. You have a series of pre-recorded drum loops, and four fish. The fish swim across the screen in time with the drums, and each can record it's own digital audio loop through the DS's microphone. Since you can't actually change the volume of the drum loop, it's best to just turn it off, which can be done, along with adjusting the tempo, using the D-pad. Trying to record audio into the DS quickly becomes a nightmare, as everything seems to end up either too loud or too soft. It can be quite an eye and ear opening experience to place four completely random sounds over one another and hear how they interact, but most of the time you're either just going to get either a series of whispers or massive distortion with little ground in between.

Nanocarp are another group of plankton that seem to have a mind of their own. Each time you tap the screen, it creates a ripple, and plankton that come in contact with it will play a note, as well as momentarily spin around. Do nothing and they simply swim about on their own, speeding up and slowing down at random, and playing a note whenever they bounce off the edge of the screen. They also respond to the input of the microphone, but this turns out to be the least interesting aspect of their activity. What does stand out is the fact that they will continue to produce pleasant sounding music whether or not you interact with them. In fact, as I type this, I'm listening to the sounds of Nanocarp just doing their thing without my interference.

Lumiloop is my second favorite plankton, but that has a lot to do with the fact that I generally like soft pad sounds and atmospheric music. In a nutshell, you spin them around, and they produce ambient tones, spin them faster and they add overtones in higher octaves. You also get different sounds depending on the direction. It's simple, colourful, and fun, although it does represent a lack of diversity. This seems to be a common theme throughout the game. The more control you're given from the start, the less variety there is in the end.

Marine-Snow is a fun distraction, but lacks the depth of some of the others. Here, you're given a series of snowflake-shaped plankton and each one plays a different note when tapped. Each time you tap one, it switches places with the previously tapped plankton, then slowly lists back to it's original position. The whole screen quickly becomes a mishmash of different plankton and it's impossible to tell which note is which, gradually leading to more and more randomness in the tune. It can sometimes be fun to just slide the stylus across the screen and allow it to crash into different notes, but for the most-part, this plankton can be played blindfolded and half asleep without actually sounding any different than it does when you're fully aware of what you're doing.

Beatness is cute but also rather silly. You select your background music, which is derived from classic NES games, and you tap various objects on the screen in order to trigger different musical notes or sound effects derived from said game. This creates a loop that will play a few times then fade out. This affords you enough time to create layers of sounds and melodies, but since they fade away so quickly, you must constantly come up with new ones. I suppose if chance music isn't your thing, then this would be a bit more appealing, but I just don't care for it.

The last of the plankton, Volvoice, is also microphone based, and as such, suffers from many of the same problems as Rec-Rec in terms of the DS's limited microphone capability. Here, a singe recording is "fed" to Volvoice, and he will say it back to you, but in different tones depending on his shape. These include saying it backwards, sped up, down-sampled and so on. It can be fun to hear your voice altered in funny ways, but aside from that, there's really nothing to this one. Incidentally, I've found it to be a great way to torment the dog.

One last point that warrants mention is the fact that there is no "record" function to be had. Any sort of tune that you create is lost the second you stop playing it. This has been a point of contention for a number of gamers, but personally I find it to be inconsequential. This game is not really about making music in the "write a song" kind of sense. In a way, the song is already written, and you're merely interpreting it. If you were given enough control to actually compose original material, then the ability to record it would make more sense.

On the whole, I'd have to say that I'm entirely satisfied with what this (non) game has to offer, although I'm well aware of just how esoteric it actually is. If you have the chance to view a demonstration video of the game, you should be able to tell if it's the kind of thing you'd be into. It might not actually be a "real" game, but as far as I'm concerned, it outshines a lot of real games in terms of sheer fun factor.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 02/19/08

Game Release: Electroplankton (JP, 04/07/05)

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