I Miss Electroplankton: The Nintendo DS' Weird and Wonderful Musical Toy

Nintendo being weird and whimsical is Nintendo at its best.

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Photo: Andrew Liszewski - Gizmodo

As a mostly passive gamer who’s never chased achievements, high scores, or actually completing most games I’ve played, it’s rare that I’ll go out of my way to hunt down a title I’m interested in. I’m more of a “hey, I guess I should play this now that it’s finally on sale” kind of gamer, but in 2005 I was obsessed with a Nintendo DS game called Electroplankton: a delightful collection of musical experiments that to this day is still a joy to tinker with.

Nintendo is no stranger to trying weird things. The Super Nintendo may have been a by-the-books 16-bit console, but games like Mario Paint made the SNES more than just a gaming machine, but a creative tool as well. Even the dual-screen Nintendo DS was a risky endeavor following the massive success of the Game Boy Advance. The DS was released just a few months ahead of Sony’s more powerful PSP and many assumed the quirky handheld wouldn’t stand a chance against Sony’s portable, but the DS and its follow-ups would go on to sell over 154 million units and inspired developers to create some truly innovative games that took advantage of its dual-screen design.

Games like Professor Layton and even Brain Training demonstrated the exciting potential of the DS’ touchscreen long before the iPhone and later smartphones popularized touchscreen gaming. But the Nintendo DS game that truly captured my attention when it was revealed at the Game Developer’s Conference, and later E3, in 2005, was a title called Electroplankton. Calling Electroplankton a game isn’t the best description because players aren’t working to set high scores, beat levels, solve puzzles, or defeat baddies. It’s more of a digital toy that rewards players with unique sounds and musical creations as they interact with it, and I decided I had to have it.

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The problem was that Electroplankton was developed by a Japanese developer called indieszero working with Toshio Iwai, a Japanese artist who specializes in interactive media, and was originally only made 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 fashion making the game very hard to find) but I didn’t have the patience to wait and decided it was the worth the small fortune I needed to spend to import the title directly from Japan. (Possibly through Lik Sang—may it rest in peace—but I don’t remember exactly.)

One of the reasons I was willing to import Electroplankton was that despite most of the game’s text being in Japanese (it had enough English in it to still easily navigate its menus) you really didn’t need an instruction manual to figure out how to use it. Learning the ins and outs of Electroplanktron through experimentation was a big part of its appeal, and right out of the box I became obsessed with it.

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Electroplankton isn’t just a single game, but a collection of ten relatively simple musical toys that each provide a different interactive experience through random creatures that—and I’m going out on a limb here—are supposed 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 changes as they navigate across the screen along those paths. In Rec-Rec, four plankton swim across the screen in an endless pattern but each one can be used to record a sample through the Nintendo DS’ microphone that plays back each time. Beatnes is a simple sequencer based on classic NES sound effects, and Volvoice lets players simply record a sample and apply a series of unique effects to it as it plays back.

This video from the YouTube channel EightBitHD walks through all ten of Electroplankton’s musical experiences, including Hanenbow, which still remains my absolute favorite. Players are presented with a plant covered in leaves sticking out of a pond onto which the plankton are launched. The creatures make a sound every time they bounce off the leaves until eventually falling into the water with a satisfying bloop. All of 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’re also changing how each creature bounces around.

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Hanenbow can be used to create complex repeating patterns of sounds but also as a sort of live performance tool, and while I don’t know exactly why it became my favorite, it probably had something to do with that particular toy providing a very relaxing zen-like experience. It was much less frenetic than the other Electroplankton experiences, and as a result it became a great way to while away the hours on long train rides to visit family. I still traveled with an iPod full of music at the time, but Electroplankton provided the perfect mix of engagement and passive entertainment, and was a better distraction than the same old scenery whizzing by the train window I’d seen time and time again.

Unlike a game that required your full attention all the time, I could tune in and out of Electroplankton as often as I wanted, while it still provided a soothing soundtrack of electronic music of my own making playing through my headphones. The limitations of the Nintendo DS hardware and the cartridges it used meant that you could never save your musical creations—a common critique of Electroplankton—but having to start from scratch every time never bothered me, and instead I thought it was part of the game’s unique charm.

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Like the cardboard Labo kits, Electroplankton ended up being a one-off gaming experiment that was never brought to later consoles. A few years after its release it was broken up and the individual instruments were sold as separate DSiWare title for the Nintendo DSi, but that was the last that was ever heard of Iwai’s creation. The backwards compatibility of the Nintendo 3DS allows me to still enjoy the cartridge whenever I want, but I’ll admit that smartphone music-making apps such as Reason’s Figure now provide a more engaging and in-depth touchscreen music-making experience. Smartphone app stores are now full of countless digital toys, but for me Electroplankton was the first to demonstrate that a game didn’t need to have a goal or keep score to keep me coming back.