In “Part One: Life,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—/For—put them side by side—/The one the other will contain/With ease—and You—beside—.” That must be how media artist Toshio Iwai thought when he created the ingenious and expansive ELECTRO- PLANKTON for Nintendo.
Nintendo is probably the most imaginative of the big three game and game hardware developers. Forget the technology within Mario Kart DS. Forget the beauty within The Legend Of Zelda series. I’m talking about smaller things, delightful gizmos that may or may not sell as well as Nintendo’s big names. For instance, years ago the Japanese company pulled out its hat a small plastic camera peripheral for the original black and white Gameboy. They even added a whizzing, battery-operated printer so you could take hard copies of your grainy, stamp-sized photos with you. Last year, they barked and out came Nintendogs for the DS, probably the smartest version of the virtual pet ever made.
Electroplankton was introduced to drunk and cynical journalists in a demonstration last May as part of E3. A DJ/musician from New York City took the stage and used the little DS gameplayer to make everything from trance music to disco music. Everyone in the audience ooh-ed and ahh-ed, if they weren’t retching from too much booze. But no one was exactly sure what Electroplankton would be.
Here’s the scoop. Electroplankton stars cartoon versions of plankton, the tiny, microscopic, wandering plant and animal life that inhabit bodies of water. All of these are simply drawn, and all of them are so cute and cuddly you’ll wish they were real so you could hug them.
By tapping the stylus on the DS’ touchscreen, you use the Electroplankton characters to make music. You can make little routes for the tiny plants to traverse. These routes have notes and rhythms attached to them. Sometimes, you’ll make them sound like a piano arpeggio or a booming bass in a nightclub. It’s zen meets manic, green tea meets Red Bull.
One of the modes has a red Electroplankton jumping out of the water onto a leafy plant. You can position the leaves in any way you like so that the plankton bounces off the leaves to create a tune. Another mode features about 20 electroplankton which are powered by your own voice clip, which you record into the DS. Sometimes, you’ll sound like a singing chipmunk à la Perry Ferrell and sometimes you’ll sound like an evil robot à la Alan Parsons. Still another mode asks you to record your voice or a clip on four swimming electroplankton. Behind a rhythmic drumbeat, you can quadruple-layer the sounds of your voice, even adding sound bytes from George Bush or from Lost so that the result sounds like a satirical hip hop record.
You have no idea how much fun all this layering and tapping is until you play Electroplankton, especially if you’re a budding musician or singer. And if you’re not, you’ll feel like one when you play. The only problem I see here is that you can’t seem to save your music—unless you attach the DS to your sound system or put it near an MP3 device on record mode.
Electroplankton has been criticized by some of the gaming web sites because it’s not really a traditional game. In other words, there’s no beginning and no end, no forced tasks to finish. No one wins or loses after many levels of play. Well, forget these close-minded idiots. That’s really an unfair criticism for a unique and unusual game that will be remembered for years to come, not only for its playability, but as experimental art.
Soul Calibur III (Namco) This PS2 game is far and away the best fighting game in the industry, and it gets you going without showing any blood. Beyond the intricate moves and mysterious characters, there’s a depth to the game that’s full of myth, magic and plain, old good storytelling.
Civilization IV (2K Games) I don’t usually care much about PC strategy games (there’s enough strategizing in day-to-day life, after all). But Civilization IV has been updated so smartly, the play begins easily. Along the way, you get to interact with the great leaders of history, including Ghandi. This game makes it pleasurable to learn about the past, and that’s worthy of a prize in itself.
God of War (Sony) Not since the old PC game, Wrath of the Gods, has Greek myth been given such a compelling platform. Sure, they could have explored more stories and included more gods. I mean, where’s the heck’s Persephone? But because this PS2 game is so full of adventure, great graphics and jaw-dropping action, you can expect more myths to come—in the sequels.
Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy (Rockstar) This would have been a vote for last year’s San Andreas, but this Xbox boxed set is so nicely packaged, it puts the controversial driving game series into essential perspective. Yes, it’s raw, and no one below age 18 should play it. Yet it captures pop culture in music and movies, transferring it to the gaming genre in a savvy way that no other game series has yet done this well. And where else can you get Axl Rose as a DJ?