Backstage: Nintendo DS as iPod games inspiration?

Six months ago, we passed on the chance to review Nintendo’s then-new DS handheld, primarily because we weren’t too excited about its features or the launch software. Since then, a few things have happened. Little compelling DS software has been released, Sony’s PSP has won plenty of mindshare, and Nintendo has re-affirmed its commitment to the popular Game Boy brand with the iPod mini-esque Game Boy Micro.

So where does that leave Nintendo DS? In our opinion, and despite the recent suggestion of game magazine editors that it’s making a comeback, it’s undeniably a novelty system – bound for a better future than the much-maligned Virtual Boy, yet still highly unlikely to approach Nintendo’s other portables in success. At least for now, that’s not stopping handfuls of programmers from experimenting with some of its novel features.

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When Nintendo sent a DS our way, the one title we were really interested in checking out was Electroplankton, a Japanese “not exactly a game” that’s planned for American release later this year. It was designed by Toshio Iwai, a renowned Japanese audiovisual artist who occasionally creates games, and had a role in the high-concept “future of play” exhibit at London’s now-defunct Millennium Dome (above). Along the same lines, Electroplankton is essentially musical art – not as much a game as a diversion or a creative playground. In Japan, the first production run is being sold as a special box set with a custom pair of headphones at a modest premium, though we’d be a little surprised if the same thing happens when it releases stateside.

Backstage: Nintendo DS as iPod games inspiration?

There are ten different fish-like plankton, each with its own themed semi-game. You choose one of the ten fish from a menu, then wade in to a watery environment that you control with the DS’s buttons, joystick, stylus and touch screen. The point of each game is the same: make music. Click on Read More below for more on this interesting title, and some of the lessons Apple might take away from it for eventual iPod gaming.
One of the biggest problems with Nintendo DS titles to date has been their “technology demo”-like approach – many of the $30 titles seem like (and were) novel ideas that someone came up with quickly and then tried to pass off as full-fledged games. In the case of titles such as Pac-Pix and Yoshi’s Touch and Go, the relationship between early DS demos and finished games was obvious: demos shown in May were released months later as short, simple games for the DS. This isn’t a smart way to build a game library, but it does get software on the shelf and sort of show people what a new system can do. For a lesser company than Nintendo, it would have been suicide, but the 16-year leader in portable gaming can sometimes get away with things that others just can’t.

Backstage: Nintendo DS as iPod games inspiration?

While novel, Electroplankton is this demo-to-game concept taken to the extreme: there are ten technology demos on a $30 cartridge, fewer than half of which will appeal to any given purchaser. Some involve voice sampling with the DS’s built in microphone, but most are ways to use the touch screen and stylus to make chime-like noises or remix existing songs. The selection screen is shown above on the lower screen, with the Japanese-language display of data on each demo on the top screen.

Backstage: Nintendo DS as iPod games inspiration?

In the screenshot above (“Rec-Rec”), look to the bottom screen. There’s a set of four fish that can be individually selected by touching the screen with the stylus. Once selected, each fish stores a short voice sample as an audio waveform in its body, and the sample plays back every time the fish crosses a certain mark on the screen. There’s a simple background beat, which when combined with four samples creates a song. Dennis’s sample was too profane to post online, but inventively incorporated dog and human noises.

Backstage: Nintendo DS as iPod games inspiration?

Then there’s the crazy arrows game (“Luminaria”). These electric fish start in the screen’s four corners, and you can reposition the arrows on screen to set the fish on specific paths from place to place. Each point on the screen represents a certain musical note, so the fish individually or together can be used to create music by traveling on the paths through those points. If you’re not musically inclined, or don’t want to fidget with the arrows individually, you can use the joystick to select pre-defined paths that make pleasant songs. And as with each of the other Electroplankton games, the top screen is somewhat pointlessly used to provide a magnified view of any small portion of the bottom screen, where all the stylus work and action is really taking place.

Backstage: Nintendo DS as iPod games inspiration?

In the demo above (“Tracy”), six fish can be set on paths you draw with the stylus, and each step along those paths sounds like a piano note. Draw something on screen and watch it turn into music, or just create paths at random and see how they sound.

Backstage: Nintendo DS as iPod games inspiration?

The best of the demos (“Hanenbow”) lets you position the leaves on screes at various angles, with or without the aid of an overlay that shows the precise angle of each leaf. A fish is launched from one leaf and ricochets off the others, making music that sounds like a wind chime or xylophone. Hitting the Select button brings up different plans with different opportunities for launching fish and making sounds. You can spit out additional fish to create more simultaneous sounds.

Aside from the fact that some people are going to reject it out of hand because they don’t get the idea of musical tinkering or don’t want anything other than a traditional game for a portable game system, there’s only one deal killer in the Electroplankton design: you can’t save anything. If you somehow manage to create beautiful music, there’s no way to store it for a repeat performance unless you hook your DS’s headphone port up to a recorder of some sort, and even then, the system has no video outputs to preserve that portion of your work. At the end of the day, that storage omission is a good part of the reason why you feel you’re just playing with a bunch of tech demos – not a completely realized set of creative tools.

Why should Electroplankton matter to Apple? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t need to mean anything. If the company’s interested in pursuing a broader handheld game agenda for the iPod, it can surely go down the “we want to appeal to the hard core” path, and quickly fall on the same sword that has helped every one of Nintendo’s challengers from Sega to Atari, Nokia to NEC to bleed cash on portable gaming. If Apple’s not interested in further iPod gaming, it can keep the same four titles we’ve been playing for a while, and hope that people don’t get too bored of them.

Or it could take Electroplankton as a rushed and unpolished example of what interactive music gaming could be like in the right creative hands. As a $30 cartridge for a Game Boy-like system, Electroplankton utterly flops when judged as game software. Even Nintendo concedes that it’s not a game, and that it’s going to be a huge challenge to market to Western game players. But as a piece of interactive art – a musical diversion that occasionally wraps you up in its controls and sounds – it’s fascinating. Portions such as Lumiloop, a boring demo that involves spinning five on-screen wheels, could be made fun with a rotary controller and some gameplay tweaks. And an iPod with built-in voice sampling and new graphics technologies could produce all sorts of cool audiovisual effects that would make the device even more social and shareable than it is already.

There’s no doubt in our minds that Apple is not going to be able to successfully compete with the likes of Sony’s PSP on the high end of gaming no matter how hard it tries – without a top-three gaming partner, at least. If that’s not in the cards, there’s still room for the iPod (or its successors) to become a worthwhile platform for experimental titles such as this one, especially if they’re inexpensive or included with the hardware. Sure, we’d prefer Space Channel 5 or something of the sort, but software like this (with recording capabilities) wouldn’t be a bad start.

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