Electroplankton passes for a delightfully entertaining app but a feature impoverished game

User Rating: 6 | Electroplankton DS
Japanese media artist Toshio Iwai's Electroplankton may be called an app in today's electronic universe, or perhaps dubbed an interactive soundtrack. On the back of the box is what appears to be a track listing; it is the list of the ten canvases, each inherited by a unique breed of electroplankton. All ten stages are available from the start, and there are no objectives within or extras to unlock. The only thing to do is to play with the electroplankton. Overall, it is a thin package, lacking features to serve as incentives for returning to Electroplankton's world.

Each of the ten breeds of electroplankton are musical creatures, responding tunefully to various actions that revolve around the touch screen and the DS microphone. The famed Hanenbow stage-featured as a level in Super Smash Bros Brawl-consists of a tree with seven moveable branches and a leaf resting upon the waters on the lower left side of the screen. A fish shoots from the tip of that leaf every couple of seconds in the direction that you have it facing. You can move the leaves on the tree to various angles and watch the fish bounce around from leaf to leaf as other fish join in to create a melody that may be slow in tempo or frantic. Some stages, like Hanenbow, contain various set-ups. In Hanenbow, you can choose between a few set-ups in which a slightly different shaped tree sits in the fray.

Whereas Hanenbow focuses on manipulating the interface's environment, stages such as Tracy/Trapy revolve around controlling the electroplankton. The six tracy/trapy electroplankton follow paths you draw for them, making music as if they were climbing stairs made of piano keys. The length, direction, and curvature of the lines determine the pitch. In Tracy/Trapy, as with the other nine interfaces, the tools for making music feel extremely limited, but with some careful construction, some truly infectious tunes can be created.

Though there are only ten stages, the means of making music are varied. Lumiloop, for example, is extremely simplistic. Others, such as Luminaria, present more challenging set-ups for creating complex pieces. Lumiloop is essentially a disc spinning mini-game where you can spin up to five disc shaped electroplankton to either the right or left. They emit large, smothering orchestral sounds, illuminating a light from their centers that spread throughout the screen. And when one Lumiloop's light crosses over other spinning Lumiloops, it slightly changes their notes. Luminara is piano based: covering the screen are several rows and columns of arrows that the four Luminara follow. By turning the arrows you can control where the Luminara travel. Each of the Luminara travels at its own set pace, and it is possible to create a short but neatly flowing piece.

Rec-Rec focuses on layered voice loops set to a hip-hop beat. You simply record up to four vocal sounds by speaking, rapping, or singing into the DS's microphone, each within a 4/4 time signature, and listen to the potentially insane result. Volvoice, as the name indicates, is a voice manipulation program in which you may record a vocal bit of short longevity and hear it in sixteen different ways.

Fiddling around with the ten multifarious interfaces is a lot of fun. On top of that, Electroplankton excels in its simplistic yet smooth graphical presentation and genuine, well-crafted music. Its glaring problem is its lack of features, extras, and most detrimental, not being able to save any of the music you create.

Electroplankton was released as a full-priced Nintendo DS game back in 2003. At that time, smart phones and apps were not at the disposal of many average Americans. Today, you can find similar apps and games for download for cheap prices. Nevertheless, I have not (though I am quite inexperienced with downloadable apps), to this day, seen a music creating tool with a more charming and wholesome presentation as Electroplankton. It was, at the time, a unique interactive experience on a Nintendo DS cartridge. It could not be called a game, however, and many critics were quick to point this out. With all of the stages being available from the start, there are no redemptive replay value qualities.

There are no challenges to be conquered, no progress to be made, no points to score, and with no way to save any of the work you produce, Electroplankton is an experience that is nigh impossible to cherish in a meaningful way. One could get creative and use his own means to record his musical creations, but considering that the "game" itself provided no way of allowing the user to fully experience its only form of playability, this mistake must be seen as a fatal flaw.

To this day, Electroplankton is a rare Nintendo DS title. I was surprised to find it at a nearby retailer for under fifteen dollars, used. Despite it being extremely shallow in features, Electroplankton is a gem for the collector. And though it is a starved package, its music making mechanics are extremely clever, and its presentation joyful. It is too bad its potential was not fully met, for it easily could have been one of the must-play experiences in the handheld's strong library.