When is a game not a game? When it's a fish-based music synthesiser of course. And that's the deal with Nintendo's strangest DS games to date.
While the promise of Electroplankton is simple – to rub, poke, tease, tap and guide the various neon-glowing creatures floating onscreen to generate sound, music and melody – it's also worth stating that these words could never do the actual experience justice.
It would be like comparing a 10,000 foot sky-dive to a photo of a parachute. Even an ocean of images can't communicate the delicious sonic depths you can explore via these tiny glowing fish.
And that's the first thing you'll realise as you start to play with this goldfish bowl of audio delights; this is an experience that is open to all comers, regardless of any previous experience writing music.
Indeed, according to the game's creator, Japanese designer Toshio Iwai, Electroplankton isn't even a game, but a piece of art. It's obvious from the outset that visually this experience is unique, not only to the DS, but to gaming in general.
Gone is the familiar cluttered user interface, in favour of clean visuals with an organic twist. The fluorescent fish float, swish and swim around the screen, inviting you to coax sound from them simply through experimentation with your stylus.
The title screen is a statement of intent, flooding your ears with the sound of an orchestra tuning up and set to an immersive underwater ambience. Two options are presented: Performance Mode and Audience Mode. In Audience Mode the DS conducts the plankton for you, creating new pieces of sub-aquatic music at your request. Electronica fans will note that this mode is somewhat reminiscent of Brian Eno's Generative Music software (at least if he'd collaborated with Nintendo in an underwater studio with an orchestra of odd glowing fish…)
If you can't help but get in there and touch, that's OK too. Although Audience Mode is controlled by the DS, you're free to stick your stylus in at any point and take over. Yet if making music is what you want to do, then Performance Mode is really the option for you. In all, Performance Mode presents 10 species of Elecroplankton to play with.
While you might want to hear about all of them in detail now, half of the fun is in discovering, investigating and experimenting with them yourself. It's probably best if we wet your electric Piscean appetite by just describing a few of our favourites.
The Lumiloop are a happy breed of circular plankton. Looking and sounding somewhat like ambient sea-donuts, sound can be teased out of them by spinning their bodies at varying rates with the stylus. If you're searching for a little more rhythm to your underwater orchestral antics, the Rec-Rec may be the perfect choice instead. Using the DS' microphone, the four Rec-Rec can gobble up any sounds you make and play them back in time with the beat of your choice.
Much like a very simple four-track sequencer/sampler combination, with a bit of imagination and some dope lyrical skills, you could be making fish-themed Public Enemy-style tracks with an underwater flava in no time.
There's no high-score system, no power-ups and no end-boss to speak of. The only issue is that you can't save your melodies. Otherwise, exploring this innovative and absolutely entertaining game – and rubbing happy, glowing fishes until they release beautiful melodies – is one of the most enriching experiences you can have on your DS.
Go on, take the plunge.Electroplankton: On sale from April 21st.