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KORG DS-10

Score: 80%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: XSEED Games
Developer: AQ Interactive
Media: Cartridge/1
Players: 1 - 8
Genre: Editor/ Simulation/ Classic/Retro

Graphics & Sound:

The KORG DS-10 "game" is really less of a game and more of a new instrument for KORG, a synthesizer packaged neatly in a Nintendo DS wrapper. The entire thrust of KORG DS-10 is to give aficionados of retro synthesizers something to geek out over. Music game this ain't, since there isn't anything to do other than create music using the tools provided. In gaming terms, this would be comparable to an editor. The presentation is spare, but bears an uncanny resemblance to the old MS series of KORG-made synths from the late '70s, like the MS-20. You'll find the same kind of analog knobs, the same kind of patching interface, and the same kind of plain keyboard that someone buying a KORG synth thirty years ago would have seen. This is likely to come across as more than a little bit curious to the uninitiated, and we puzzled over why more of the KORG history wasn't packaged with KORG DS-10. Think of the way that classic arcade compilations have given us lots of backstory, art, and promotional materials related to our favorite games; KORG missed an opportunity to educate people on the legacy behind these machines. This would have served a dual purpose of making the game more fun to play and drawing players in more quickly.

If the visuals are quirky, the sound is even quirkier. Synth devotees will immediately know what they want to do, even if they need to master the up/down screen configuration of KORG DS-10 before beginning to make music. Newbies will wonder what to do beyond hitting the "Play" button, until they spend some time with the instructions. There's nothing wrong with not being pick-up-and-play, but there's no easy way to jump into KORG DS-10 and make music, which is a bit problematic. Sure, you can plunk around on the keyboard, but it's easy to misunderstand the controls. The musical quality with headphones is great, but you can't get any real depth of sound without headphones. KORG DS-10 is something you'll play in quiet moments, when you have time to really dig into the subtleties of the different synth sounds, the beats, and the sequencing mechanics. It's not a hard game to play impulsively. Once you master the basic controls, you'll be surprised at how often you come back to KORG DS-10 to fool around with a beat in progress. The sounds are authentic, but so is the interface, which means making memorable music is a big challenge for the novice.


Gameplay:

The most surprising thing about KORG DS-10 is that it supports multiple players, up to eight in one session! Judging by fan vids on YouTube, this feature hasn't been maxed out yet, but it's only a matter of time before the first KORG DS-10 orchestra pops up online... Jamming with other friends that have this game is a great feature, plus you can swap data between systems and remix your friends' beats. The available features in Multiplayer Mode are somewhat limited, compared to the solo gameplay, but the tradeoff is worth it if you can find a few friends with their own copy of the game. The solo play is a basic mix of creating sequences, fiddling with customizing sounds, and playing over tracks in real time. Whether you like to play keys, edit waveform, plug in patches, twiddle knobs, punch sequencing buttons, or build complex layers of sound, KORG DS-10 has something for you. The instructions included in the manual are all you'll have to unlock the mysteries of the game, but the basics of making a beat aren't that hard to master.

Much like the classic synths mentioned earlier, KORG DS-10 comes with two distinct voices, or synth module, plus drums. Within each synth, you can select from a bank of sounds and either use the stock sound or edit to your heart's content. Putting a sound down against a track can be done a few different ways. The KAOSS pad allows you to tweak the sound and the sequence dynamically by drawing on the lower screen. The tweaks you make using the pad can be controlled by a binary switch on the left-hand side that shows exactly what you'll change by drawing on the pad. If KAOSS is too chaotic for you, there are simpler ways to edit a sound, like a keyboard or a grid with on/off dot notation. If all these seem too simple and limited, start patching away, plugging wires into the module and creating sounds that may be completely new to the world. The editing screen for each synth sound is a tweaker's dream, and will seem like familiar territory to synth-heads out there. If you don't know what "attack" and "decay" mean, you probably shouldn't spend too much time editing the synth, but the people that know will be glad to see this kind of depth built into KORG DS-10. Creating custom sounds, beats, and entire songs is simple enough once you master the controls, and the only thing we didn't find was a way to upload finished tracks, similar to the system created for Beaterator. A missed opportunity, to be sure!


Difficulty:

I feel like a broken record talking about the learning curve for KORG DS-10, but it's real. If you've played around with a KORG or any other traditional analog synth in real life, you won't have difficulty grasping the concepts, but you'll still have to get used to navigating the double screens and submenus. We like how KORG DS-10 attempted to keep things simple and scaled back - rather than adding anything fancy like notation or long-form menus explaining features, KORG DS-10 retains as much of the real-world analog austerity as possible. Behind control knobs and patch cords, you'll have to learn the terminology of different wave forms, and the physics of sound behind a VCO. What is a VCO, you say? Go to Wikipedia, young grasshopper... The manual included with KORG DS-10 is unusually extensive and deep for a game, showing a sincere attempt to clarify at least the basic concepts. It will definitely get you started, and help you find your way through all the basic features of KORG DS-10, if you are patient. A demo track is included to show you the kind of music KORG DS-10 is capable of producing, which you can deconstruct or add to as you see fit. The raw power of KORG DS-10 is a good thing, but it will be unsettling to players looking for a fast and easy payoff.

Game Mechanics:

The dual screens are used wisely, with a mechanic we've seen in RPG games and some Action titles. You can tap a button to switch the top and bottom screens, allowing you to feel as if you're controlling more than you actually are at any single moment. Pulling apart a specific beat or line is easily done using the sequencer view, and you can tap any open square on a grid, to turn on or off a note. When you're dealing with keyboards, the vertical axis relates to pitch, versus the drum sequencer that stacks different types of percussion along the vertical and lets you program your pattern in along the horizontal. The keyboard option is available when plugging in a melodic line, and you can then switch screens with a single tap, to modify the tone and timbre using a synth edit screen. This screen, and the associated synth patch screen, make it possible to morph the actual sound by everything from basic attack/sustain values to advanced wave settings. All this can be done through experimentation, but you'll be happier when you can understand the "why" and "how" behind the sounds you are making.

Saving custom sounds and beats is possible, and there is a library of tracks that you can build on your DS. We would have liked an option to upload tracks to some kind of online community, but sharing with friends through the Multiplayer Mode is a good way to keep your library fresh. The reason people are still so infatuated with analog synths is the almost infinite amount of customization available, and KORG DS-10 provides a true experience in a small package. Because it honors the KORG legacy, anyone not familiar with basic synthesizer programming should allow some time to ramp up; anyone can make good music with KORG DS-10, but it doesn't give its secrets up easily.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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