The Weird and Wonderful Nintendo DS Musical Toy
As a mostly passive gamer who has never chased achievements, high scores, or completed most of the games I’ve played, it’s rare that I go out of my way to seek out a title that interests me. I’m more of a “hey, I guess I should play it now that it’s finally on sale” type of gamer, but back in 2005 I was obsessed with a Nintendo DS game called electroplankton: a delicious collection of musical experiences that, to this day, is still a pleasure to tinker with.
Nintendo is no stranger to trying weird things. The Super Nintendo may have been a classic 16-bit console, but games like Mario Painting makes the SNES more than just a gaming machine, but a creative tool too. Even the dual-screen Nintendo DS was a risky business after the resounding success of the Game Boy Advance. The DS came out just months before Sony’s more powerful PSP and many thought the original handheld wouldn’t stand a chance against Sony’s handheld, but the DS and its follow-ups would go on to sell over 154 million units and to inspire developers. to create truly innovative games that took advantage of its dual-screen design.
games like Professor Layton and even brain training demonstrated the DS’s exciting touchscreen potential long before the iPhone and later smartphones popularized touchscreen gaming. But the Nintendo DS game that really caught my eye when it was revealed at the Game Developer’s Conference, and later at E3, in 2005, was a title called Electroplankton. Call electroplankton a game isn’t the best description because players don’t work to set high scores, beat levels, solve puzzles, or defeat bad guys. It’s more of a digital toy that rewards players with unique sounds and musical creations when interacting with it, and I decided I had to have it.
The problem was that electroplankton was developed by a Japanese developer called indieszero in collaboration with Toshio Iwai, a Japanese artist specializing in interactive media, and was originally only available in Japan. After a positive reception, there was speculation that Electroplankton may eventually see a wider international release (which eventually happened in 2006 but in a limited way making the game very hard to find) but I didn’t have the patience to wait and decided it was worth the small fortune I had to spend to import the title directly from Japan. (Maybe through Lik Blood– may he rest in peace – but I don’t remember exactly.)
One of the reasons I was willing to import electroplankton was that although most of the game’s text was in Japanese (it contained enough English to easily navigate its menus), you really didn’t need an instruction manual to figure out how to use it. Learn the ins and outs of Electroplanktron through experimentation was a big part of its appeal, and from the start I became obsessed with it.
electroplankton is not just one game, but a collection of ten relatively simple musical toys that each offer a different interactive experience through random creatures that – and I’m venturing here – are meant to be electronic versions of plankton. In Tracy, players used the DS stylus to draw paths for six plankton characters that each make a different sound, but their sound and pitch change as they navigate the screen along these paths. In Rec-Rec, four planktons swim across the screen in an endless pattern, but each can be used to record a sample via the Nintendo DS’s microphone which plays each time. Beatnes is a simple sequencer based on classic NES sound effects, and Volvoice allows players to simply record a sample and apply a series of unique effects to it during playback.
This video of the EightBitHD YouTube Channel go through the ten Electroplankton musical experiences, including Hanenbow, which still remains my absolute favorite. Players are presented with a leaf-covered plant emerging from a pond on which plankton is thrown. The creatures make a sound each time they bounce off the leaves until they eventually drop into the water with a satisfying bloop. All the leaves are adjustable (and you can refresh the game to vary the size, shape and number of plants) and as you move each leaf you also change how each creature bounces.
Hanenbow can be used to create complex repeating sound patterns, but also as a sort of live performance tool, and while I’m not sure exactly why it became my favorite, it probably has something to do with this toy particular offering a very relaxing zen-like experience. It was much less frantic than the other Electroplankton experiences, and as a result, it has become a great way to spend hours on long train journeys visiting family. I was still traveling with an iPod full of music back then, but electroplankton offered the perfect blend of engagement and passive entertainment, and was a better distraction than the same old scenery whizzing out the train window I’d seen time and time again.
Unlike a game that required your full attention all the time, I could log in and out Electroplankton as often as I wanted, while still providing a soothing soundtrack of electronic music of my own making played through my headphones. The limitations of Nintendo DS hardware and the cartridges they used meant that you could never save your musical creations – a common criticism of electroplankton– but having to start from scratch each time never bothered me, and I rather thought it was part of the unique charm of the game.
As the cardboard lab kits, electroplankton ended up being a unique gaming experience that was never ported to later consoles. A few years after its release, it was dismantled and the individual instruments were sold as a separate DSiWare title for the Nintendo DSi, but that was the last we heard of Iwai’s creation. Nintendo 3DS backwards compatibility keeps me enjoying ite cartridge whenever I want, but I admit that smartphone music-making apps such as Reason’s Figure now offer a more attractive and detailed touch screensic manufacturing experience. Smartphone app stores are now full of countless digital toys, but for me electroplankton was the first to demonstrate that a match didn’t need to have a goal or score points for me to come back.