Creative, quirky, and satisfying but with significant weaknesses.
I love music. I love making music. I love it when people make music in unusual ways. This is why I came to Electroplankton with so much optimism.
I recently had the good fortune of finding an Electroplankton cartridge in an Irish GameStop and could barely help myself from being obnoxiously excited about it.
For the unfamiliar: Electroplankton is a ga--excuse me. Electroplankton is mostly not a game, at least in the most academic definition of the word. Electroplankton could best be described as untraditional music creation software.
In each of the ten separate modes of Electroplankton, the player/performer/composer/conductor uses the stylus (and, on occasion, other controls on the DS) to manipulate tiny little creatures who, as a result, create music. The interaction feels great more often than not and I don't think I ever had an occasion in which the controls felt unresponsive or slow. Obviously, this is so important to the experience as the whole idea behind Electroplankton is to create a very tactile piece of music-creation software.
So, on a purely technical level, Electroplankton is successful. But what about the core design?
It's hard to talk about Electroplankton as a whole, because it's really ten separate modes that have little to do with each other except in theme. The modes don't interact and there is pretty much no persistence to speak of in the "game". This has been the most common criticism of Electroplankton: that there's no way to save or replay what you've done. But honestly, if anybody was enthusiastic enough about the "game" and music creation to want to save something they've done, they would take the simple steps necessary plug the DS's headphone jack into some piece of hardware and record their performance. You just need a 1/8" stereo cable and practically any computer.
However, my criticism of Electroplankton is that there is less reason to want to save a performance than the designer Toshio Iwai may have wanted you to believe. Of the ten music creation modes, there are definitely some ones not worth experiencing more than once or twice. These tend to be the ones that you record sound with the microphone for: namely Rec-Rec and Volvoice. If anybody reading this review is considering buying the parts of Electroplankton on the DSi Shop, I'd recommend leaving those two be. Volvoice especially seems especially disappointing as the tenth and final mode (on the menu, there's no unlocking to be done) among some other much more interesting ones. Volvoice seems like it was designed for very young children. Ones who are especially easily amused. Even at that, I just can't imagine someone enjoying it for more than a half an hour. But maybe I'm missing something. Rec-Rec and Volvoice are pretty underwhelming and, if you want to do what those two modes do, there are better ways to do it.
Honestly, that's a big concern with many of the modes: there are better ways to do it. The mode named Marine-Snow is a good example of this. The mode is successful in that it allows for a tactile and unconventional way of making music, but it all feels very random. Even though you have direct control over which of the Marine-Snow Electroplankton will generate sound, they get jumbled around the screen and there's no way anybody would remember which little guy generates which note. It's not totally unlike if somebody gave you a piano that played a random note no matter which key you pressed. It's kind of fun for a while, but not especially rewarding and not something you'll likely want to come back to a lot.
Like I said, more than one of the modes suffer from this problem. Too often you find yourself wishing the control you had over the music creation was just a little more robust. The mode named Luminaria is probably my favorite of the ten, but it's lacking what would likely be a very easily-implemented feature. The way it works is that you basically design paths for these four separate Electroplankton to fly through and, as they hit each junction of their path, they generate a note. You can start them each one at a time after defining their route, but you can't stop them one at a time. You also have no control over each of the four individual voices. The piano is always playing notes the fastest and there's nothing you can do to change it. It's this lack of control that keeps Luminaria from being a truly original and dynamic way to create music. I hope that Toshio Iwai's more serious music-creation interface project, the Tenori-on (Wikipedia page), addresses some of these concerns and improves some of the ideas present in Electroplankton. I'm not familiar enough to say.
Some of the other modes are pretty cool as well, though.
Beatnes allows you to make music with what essentially amounts to a sequencer that controls NES sound samples. It's decent fun, but fairly restrictive and too similar to more traditional ways of producing electronic music.
Lumiloop is likely my second favorite mode. You use the stylus to spin one of five creatures which create ambient tones in a pentatonic scale. It's pretty simple, but also pretty satisfying if you're a fan of anything like Robert Fripp's Soundscapes.
Hanenbow is definitely one of the highlights as well. You rotate leaves on plants to affect how a little Electroplankton launched towards the plant bounces down into the water below. When the creature strikes one of the leaves, it generates a tone. Another soon follows and eventually you have a pretty interesting percussive pattern going, which you can affect in big ways by moving just one leaf a little bit. This mode certainly feels like one of the most interesting and creative attempts at unorthodox music creation of the whole package.
Nanocarp is pretty cool for the same reason that some of the other modes are frustrating. You likely won't feel 100% in control of it, but it's fun to see what sounds come out of your actions. It's got some interesting depth to it in that the little creatures featured in the mode will arrange themselves in different patterns based on different sonic input you may direct at them with the microphone.
Tracy is a neat idea that just feels a little too out of control. You're given a handful of different plankton (voices) to guide through the water with your stylus and, unlike Luminaria, you can stop and start them individually. Unfortunately, once you get going, the whole thing tends to feel chaotic and not melodic enough. That isn't to say it isn't interesting. If you're buying each of these modes separately on the DSi Shop, I'd recommend going ahead and getting it. It's probably worth $2 and I wouldn't be surprised if someone got much more out of it than I have.
The one remaining mode, Sun-Animalcule, just seems flat to me. I just don't get it. It seems kind of boring and not especially interactive. Maybe it'll get more interesting if I spend more time with it, but it just didn't grab me. I even upped the tempo to the max and it just made me want to do something more engaging.
Sadly, a significant problem that Electroplankton has is that, to do any serious live music creation, you need two game systems and two copies of the game (as well as a mixer of some sort, etc). To have sufficient depth and flexibility afforded to you to be seriously creative, you really need to be able to run more than one mode at once or at least more than one instance of a mode at once. You could record tracks separately with one system, but that takes most of the fun out of using it. Electroplankton's strengths are in its feedback and opportunities for spontaneous creation, something that would be lost in recording track-by-track.
Even if you did set up two or more game systems and wanted to spend your afternoon on a city street doing a little busking with your unusual tools, your palette is pretty limited. At the end of the day, Electroplankton's ten modes tend not to feel like much more than toys. Few if any of them approach a level of depth that make them approachable as musical instruments.
Electroplankton is disappointing in some regards and definitely not for everybody. The only aspect of Electroplankton that even approaches gameplay is that you can make a flower bloom if the leaves in the Hanenbow mode are struck by enough of the little creatures thrown at them. However, it's extremely charming and a lot of fun if you can ignore some of its shortcomings. Personally, I love it, but I would have adored and championed it at every possible opportunity if it was more robust and consistent across all ten modes.