Think ‘Nintendogs’ Was Strange? Try Making Interactive Music With Plankton

Nintendo's unconventional 'Electroplankton' is latest video game that really isn't a game at all.

It looks like a game, it plays on a handheld gaming system and it comes from Nintendo, but according to the man who created it, “Electroplankton,” the newest title for the Nintendo DS, isn’t a video game. What’s more, he says, it’s art, something he says most video games are not.

So what is it?

“If I talk to people who love music, I would say ‘Electroplankton’ is the future of interactive music,” said the program’s creator, Toshio Iwai. And to those who aren’t interested in music, Iwai describes it as “a fun thing, a new experience.”

Playable only on the dual-screen, touch-sensitive DS, “Electroplankton” is an interactive music-and-light show. When the game was first announced, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata described it as a means for people to see sound. The program consists of 10 modes, each based on a cheerful yet somewhat ghostly type of plankton with names like Nanocarp and Lumiloop. Tapping the plankton, tracing them or sometimes even just clapping or blowing at them (using the DS’ built-in microphone) causes the little creatures to shift, jump or ricochet, and with each move they make new sounds. Essentially, bothering the sea life becomes a method for making music.

The Tracy plankton follow users’ hand-drawn paths. Where the paths are drawn on the screen affects the notes the plankton sound. The speed with which the line is drawn affects the number of notes played. Different-colored Tracy sound like different instruments.

The Hanenbow plankton automatically launch from a leaf at the lower part of the DS’ bottom screen toward a tree. The user can tilt the tree’s foliage to manipulate how the Hanenbow bounce off. An ideal pattern sends the plankton tumbling down a staircase of leaves, each bounce plinking a different note for a xylophonic effect. The Hanebow launch systematically, creating a looping rhythm as each plankton ricochets back down.

As Iwai said, it’s different.

And it’s not a game. “The word ‘game’ has a very limited image,” Iwai said. “If I say this is a game, people will expect some typical element of games [like scores, goals, etc.]. So I would say this is not a game. However, I don’t mind if people say ‘Electroplankton’ is one of the futuristic style of games.”

Since the DS was launched in the U.S. in late 2004 Nintendo executives have promised that the system’s unconventional design would make possible some unconventional software. Between the expected DS offerings of conventional puzzle, strategy and “Mario” games, Nintendo has already delivered a sprinkling of that promise, including the worldwide hit puppy simulator “Nintendogs” and the 2005 Japanese sales sensation “Brain Training,” which wasn’t so much a game as an interactive mental workout routine.

Not every DS oddity has been a hit, and “Electroplankton,” despite praise for its novelty and execution, didn’t fare all that well in Japan. The week it was launched in Japan, “Electroplankton” ranked just 16 on the country’s Media Create game sales charts and never climbed into the top 10. Some fans in Japan blamed price, saying it shouldn’t have cost as much as a full DS game. Launched in America this week, the game will indeed cost as much as a regular DS game, but will only be available online and in Nintendo’s flagship retail store in New York’s Rockefeller Center.

David Hollands, a New York DJ, said he “kind of fell in love with the game” when he discovered it in the spring. He had been hired to DJ Nintendo’s annual E3 press event in Los Angeles and got lost in the quirky title.

Hollands said “Electroplankton” let him create music in a manner he never had before. He didn’t start, as he normally would, with a tune in his head. Instead he began with gesture sketched on the DS touch screen. “I would draw ideas or letters … or a circle inside of a square,” he said. “You think of lines and you think of patterns and you think of doing something visually and letting it talk back to you using audio. I had never thought in that way before.” (A video of Hollands composing music with “Electroplankton” can be seen at his Web site, www.minimalwage.com.)

Iwai has been thinking that way for a long time. Described as an “interactive media artist,” his work has adorned TV sets for children’s shows and the walls of museums fitted for digital installations. In 1987 he created a game for Nintendo called “Otocky,” which he explains was a shooting game that let players create music. He created the unreleased “Sound Fantasy” for the Super Nintendo (which he calls “musical painting software”) and titles for the PC and PS2.

He said “Electroplankton” was inspired by a microscope he loved using as a child. “When I was thinking of ideas of new software for Nintendo DS, I realized that Nintendo DS looks like a microscope,” he said. “The two screens are the lens and the glass plate of the microscope, the stylus pen is like tweezers. Then I got an idea to create digital planktons which react with the stylus pen and play lights and sounds.”

He created the game on a PC and then worked with Nintendo producers to get the program running on the DS. He even got his name on the box, something that hasn’t even happened for Nintendo’s star game-maker of the last 20 years, Shigeru Miyamoto.

Given that Iwai is primarily viewed as an artist and that “Electroplankton” has even had a museum showing in Japan since its launch, the question naturally arises regarding to what extent video games should be viewed as art. Iwai said the same could be asked about movies. “From my point of view, video games could be art as well,” he said. ” ‘Electroplankton’ is commercial software but my private artwork too. But currently most video games are not artistic because the creators’ awareness and aim are different.”

If “Electroplankton” finds its audience, maybe fans will see more video titles exhibited in museums. But in the meantime, they’ll have to stick to making music with Tracy and Hannebow.