• Electroplankton Review - Nintendo DS

    Electric plankton. Who comes up with these ideas? Evidently Toshio Iwai, the creator of Sim Music and Music Insect, thought it would be good to have an update of the concept for Nintendo's new hardware. This is not a game; this is more a chill-out and improvisation tool, aiming to be an interactive work of art. A piece of art that takes advantage of the touch-screen interface and delivers an all-together new and different aural experience.

    Two choices are presented on boot-up: performance or audience. Performance is a direct interface to the plankton to create some music, whereas audience has the program produce some music for you (although you can still interact manually). There are ten different plankton to play with, each offering a unique musical performance:

    Tracy - Each plankton can have a route traced on screen, which it follows obediently about. The pitch and speed of the music depends on where and how fast the route was traced. When several are going at once, it can either result in glorious melody or banging cacophony.

    Hanenbow - Little flying plankton creatures leap out of the water to land on the leaves above. The angle of every leaf can be changed to combo the plankton about to create a melody. Not only that, but the sound of each leaf changes the more frequently it is landed upon. The angles of the leaves can be displayed so you can "program" a combo and give the angles to someone else to reproduce it.

    Luminaria - A grid of arrows is populated by four "sun" music icons. Each sun has a different speed and each area of the grid a different pitch. The angle of the arrows determines the route the suns take and can be turned around in eight different directions.

    San-Animalcule - Not only the sun here, but the moon as well. Touching the screen starts the creation process with the element growing and building up their resonance and tone. Day can be switched to night and vice versa, and both sun and moon icons have their own sound (and can co-exist strangely enough). When it grows too big, an element can be touched to "pop" it out of existence.

    Rec-Rec - Being able to record voices will always lead to amusement. This is a four track recorder that allows any sample to be taken via the microphone and then replayed endlessly together. The tempo can be sped up or slowed down to affect the replay of the voices and the backing beat can be changed to suit.

    Nanocarp - Ever grow sea-monkeys? These look a bit like them. They also can respond like them as well as speaking into the microphone or pressing Select changes their formation. Touching one sounds a tone and any nanocarp within resonance range are then triggered, causing a chain reaction of sound.

    Lumiloop - Five circles are on screen, and can be rotated in both directions using the stylus. Either direction produces a different resonating frequency and the speed of spin determines the length of note. This one wholly sounds like a mellow orchestral work at times.

    Marine-Snow - Snow-like plankton are laid out in a regular pattern on the screen. Touching each one produces a certain note and it swaps over its position with the previous plankton touched. Each plankton keeps the same frequency regardless of where it is on the screen. There is also the ability to sweep the stylus over the screen to produce a crescendo of notes.

    BeatNES - The plankton that has the closest ties with producing a real "tune". All the backing beats and musical notes are based on NES sounds, and tapping out a tune on the hanging tails or head itself will make it repeat another four times in sequence before vanishing. A plankton to definitely "jam" with here.

    Volvoice - Another one that will see a lot of use especially after a group have had a few to drink. Record your voice via the microphone, and then perform a wide variety of audio tricks on it including distortion, reverse, reverb, chipmunk and slowdown.

    In all honesty, it is very hard to describe the detail, interaction and response the plankton give back in each section. Everything is so fluid and dynamic; tuneful music can be created so easily, but also more complex series can be created once the user is familiar with a particular plankton. Pictures do not do the title justice either as they merely show what is going. The only true way to see what all the fuss is about is to either watch a video or pick up a copy yourself.

    For a title destined to probably stay in Japan, Electroplankton has a very Western-friendly interface and manual layout. There is almost no in-program text to speak of (and even that is in English) and all interaction is done visually. Whilst there are a variety of controls, they are all explained pictorially within the manual rather than just via text, making it easy (with a little experimentation) to understand how to get the most from each plankton.

    Most of the control is via the stylus. This interacts with the plankton directly, assigning them course and speed, or just triggering their abilities or musical tones. The D-pad is usually assigned to either producing a unified trigger for all the plankton, altering the playfield in some way, or changing the tempo or pitch of the sounds. Select either resets the playfield or changes some of the presets such as plankton formation or sounds. That's about as complex as it gets; the rest is up to you.

    Everyone who comes into contact with Electroplankton is liable to become captivated by the little digital organisms on screen. Needless to say, everyone will also have their favourites to play with. There is enough diversity and difference between all ten areas to ensure they provide surprise and something new each time they are played. Which, it has to be said, was most likely the aim and objective of the project in the first place.

    To begin with, it may seem that the sections produce some random results when tinkering about position wise, and that the program itself does more for you than because of you. However dig a bit deeper and with some trial and error, it is noticeable that things can be influenced directly. Figuring out which positions trigger which tones, the rate at which new notes are introduced and the way of interacting with those already in play is part and parcel of bonding with the program and essentially, in a way, getting "better" at it.

    Electroplankton is a title that allows the user to relax, to sit back and just play and interact with what is on offer, rather than worry about completing some objective or getting the high score. The easiest way to sum it up would be to compare it as an aural version of one of Jeff Minter's light synthesisers. It has the same variety and flexibility of choice, and gives back to the user as much as they put in. Indeed, Mr Minter himself is a big fan of this, which is no shock. Those who also want to enjoy something completely offbeat are invited to attend and try it out for themselves. "Readers' Writes" Competition 2nd place winner, Matt Dunderdale (mattSix) says:

    Electroplankton is not a game, nor is it a music-making utility. Electroplankton is 'concept software'; as DS carts are to music albums, Electroplankton is to Sgt. Pepper. Electroplankton can be musical, producing beautiful and surprising melodies. They are equally capable of producing garish dischordance, random scatterings of fractured notes and mind-numbing repetitive drones. And these are all equally 'acceptable' outcomes of playing with them!

    Electroplankton's genre, 'touchable media art', manages to both perfectly categorize the title and succeed in telling you very little about what to expect from it. Naturally, if you know something of media art and the works of Toshio Iwai, you can ignore that last statement, and probably the rest of this paragraph. Electroplankton is better categorized by what it doesn’t offer: It isn’t a game because there’s no way to 'win' or 'compete' at playing with it. It lacks the flexibility of a 'true' digital musical instrument, you can't explicitly compose music within it and there's no way to save any arrangements you might make, other than by recording your performance externally.

    If the notion of interacting with virtual, autonomous ‘creatures’ of light and sound for no other reason than simply the experience of playing with them doesn’t peak your curiosity, you’re probably not going to see ‘the point’ of Electroplankton and you could save valuable gaming time by not reading any further. The rest of us may come to find it to be both dogmatic yet inspiring, logically structured yet chaotic, and challenging whilst fun. Electroplankton is a collection of ten individual ‘species’; each with something different to offer and demanding of specific consideration. But whilst all Electroplankton are equally special, some 'plankton are more equal than others...

    Beatnes, Volvoice and Rec-Rec are by far the most accessible 'plankton available, and also the least likely to hold your attention for any sustained period. A child can build enjoyable 8-bit game sample filled sequences by prodding the body parts of swaying Beatnes as they briefly 'remember' and echo your quantized taps. 4 distinct sets of voices and accompaniments are available, but only Famicom otaku will want to hear these in anything more than short bursts. Volvoice 'absorb' vocal audio from the mic then repeat your words over and over, speaking in one of 16 different voices. As you can say anything to it, there's no limit on what it can produce but reverse word games aside, there seems little to play with for long. The Rec-Rec fish are an easy to use four-voice sampler. Playing with their tempo and the selection of 8 accompaniments (including silence) enhances both the range and ease of sequence creation with them, but their immediacy trades off heavily against flexibility.

    By rights, Lumiloop should fall victim to the same fate; the 5 of them simply 'hum' when you draw circles on them, and the selection of timbres they can resonate is very limited. But the process of making sound with them has a curiously hypnotic effect; spinning the pulsating, smiling hoops to create expanding circles of colour and ever-changing harmonies can be entrancing. Sun-Animalcule share this hypnotic quality, after being ‘planted’ they grow, 'shine' and disappear throughout the cycle of their days and nights. Creating constellations of suns and moons produces musical arrangements, and watching them sparkle and glow as time passes can be mesmerising. But whilst allowing for ‘relaxed’ interaction, Sun-Animalcule can also be difficult to play; cacophonies will abound if you've not spent some time experimenting first.

    The same can also be said of Tracy and Marine-Snow, which can both seem erratic with respect to ‘musicality’. Tracy swim the vectors you draw, which sounds straight-forward, but they are highly sensitive to the precise velocity of your stylus stroke. A subtle mastery of this interface is required to create anything but fierce, arpeggiated dischord. Marine-Snow 'chime' only when you touch them, but move whenever 'played'; forming an exquisite keyboard of snowflakes that changes it's layout constantly when struck, returning to an ordered arrangement only after 'rest'. The depth of your curiosity and patience are the only true limitation all these species share with respect to the ‘music’ they can be coaxed into producing.

    Unlike all those described so far, Hanenbow and Luminaria exist in an environment you must interact with in order to influence sound creation. The variables involved are always simple, but their interdependencies can produce a staggering complexity. Hanenbow are regularly projected into the air to bounce off the resonant, precision angled leaves of differing plant formations and the sonorous walls of their world, until they 'plop' into the water they came from. Leaves can become excited by the dynamics of these impacts, changing in timbre sympathetically and the effect of the smallest of adjustments in position can result in unpredictable outcomes. Hanenbow exist in a noisy little Zen-garden of experimental rhythms and tonal sequences; you can easily lose yourself playing with them there.

    Luminaria are inspired of Toshio Iwai’s prior works - they seem to have evolved from ‘Composition on the Table, 1998/99', a physical, table-top interface with which those interacting could direct the movement of lights in order to indirectly influence the production of sound. Once touched, they move endlessly at different speeds over a grid of arrows that direct their motion, with each resonant, 8-way arrow being either fixed in direction or in motion itself, and each tone varying in timbre by the Luminaria passing over it. Previously, experiencing this kind of interaction was the preserve of visitors to media art galleries; with your DS you can experiment with them in private to your heart's content, or perform with them wherever you wish.

    Lastly, Nanocarp are the only species of 'plankton to exhibit any truly random behaviour. All other species can sound chaotic, but actually produce sounds strictly as a function of your input and the 'laws' of how that interaction is made manifest audibly. But the 16 small, but beautifully formed Nanocarp swim unpredictably about the screen, each at a different, variable speed and in random directions. Each Nanocarp has a specific tonal resonance, with timbre varying by interaction. A pulse can be made to 'strike' them all as sequences from one of four directions, the ripples created by touching their water also affect them. With practise, they can be 'commanded' to assume pre-configured musical and geometric formations beforehand, or they can be left to wander around either to create unique formations or simply to bounce off the walls of their world like a digital wind chime.

    Both aesthetically and conceptually, Electroplankton forms a coherent whole, a well-rounded, diverse package of interactive entertainment that could satisfy either casual curiosity or intensive experimental scrutiny. Art can be challenging, contradictory and rewarding - in these respects, at least, Electroplankton is no different.