Electroplankton and the DS’s limits

Clive Thompson’s Wired.com column about Electroplankton and music programs reminds me that my review of Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time (belated, I know) and Electroplankton is up here.

I felt the same way about Electroplankton as I did about Nintendogs: It’s a great start, but because the DS isn’t very powerful there isn’t much to do. Thompson is right when he says that “today’s music software has learned something important from games: Creative tools work best when they inspire playful activity.” But he’s wrong when he says the game is “modeled after the music-editing software professional sound engineers use to produce songs. And the results, in the right hands, can be remarkably similar.”

On the contrary, there are no results in Electroplankton — or at least not lasting ones. The DS has no storage or memory cards, so you can’t save any of the music you create. Each of the 10 music generators is confined to a very small number of sounds or sound patterns, and there’s no combining among them. There’s a little playful activity, but you’re confined to the limits of that particular plankton’s sounds.

Thompson mentions the “Rec-Rec” plankton, which could have been the game’s highlight: “You sing a line or clap a beat into each of four fish, and they mix it together into a song. That’s basically a four-track recorder, the same tool the Beatles used on many of their albums.” Sure, Rec-Rec is like Abbey Road studios — if George Martin had recorded Ringo’s drumming out of sync with George’s solo, while using not even first-generation recording technology but crude prototypes that rendered every sound as a distorted mess. Not to mention that the four fish can record only about six seconds of sound at a time.

That plankton encapsulates everything wrong about the game. The DS microphone is a joke, as everything played back is covered in fuzz. The processor can’t handle real-time recording; when you try to sing in time, it starts recording two seconds in. You can’t control the background music. And you can’t even save the crappy “recordings” you make.

If the DS touch screen and Nintendo’s openness were combined with the PSP’s guts, this could have been a landmark game. There would be websites full of Electroplankton songs, all created under Creative Commons licenses. Some 7-year-old genius would compose a full symphony on a handheld. Nintendo could hold a contest to put the best Electroplankton compositions in a future game.

But the DS is what it is. Maybe next time.

— February 13, 2006

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