By Owen Maxwell

Illustration by Malaika Astorga

When you look at your old Nintendo the last thing you probably think of is an instrument. For those in the video game inspired community known as chiptune. However, the old hardware isn’t just the inspiration for their sound but an essential component in the music.

“To me I just see it as using a limited instrument set, it’s no different than writing a guitar or piano piece, I’m just using the synthesizer of a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES),” said Jeff Roberts of Marshall Art, an Ottawa chiptune band that uses guitars on top of their 8-bit base.

Chiptune at its very essence is electronic music made using programmable sound generators (PSG for short) that are found in old video game consoles, computers, and your favourite arcade machines. Born out of video games, the genre started in the 1970s on arcade games like Space Invaders, Rally-X, and later Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. At this time chips were basic and allowed for very little modulation, which meant more loops than full alternating melodies.

When home consoles started to advance, the chips and music did too with the Commodore 64. Sega Genesis and NES (or Famicom in Japan) producing some of the most memorable tunes. It was at this time the forebears of sophisticated chiptune like Nintendo’s Koji Kondo (Super Mario, Legend Of Zelda) and Manami Matsumae (Mega Man), and later visionaries like Yuzo Koshiro and his revolutionary soundtracks for the Streets Of Rage series.

The sounds quickly caught the ears of electronic synth bands like Yellow Magic Orchestra, who sample sounds from old arcade games in their music, effectively bringing chiptune outside of a screen for the first time. The band would also end up inspiring video game composers for years to come, even as far as in-game covers.

Thanks to various new software, including trackers which allowed anyone to visualize the music and write, modern genre leaders like Anamanaguchi and Canada’s Crystal Castles push the aesthetic through club music.

To make modern chiptune, individual kits tend to vary a lot but a few basic pieces of software seem to be essential.

“Right now LSDJ and Famitracker seem like the biggest software for chiptune creation with a lot of tutorials, as well as soundchip-emulating VSTs,” said Michael Brown, creatively known as Ottawa’s TheUntimelyWound. He has many aliases over his 15 creative projects, at least half of which are chip-infused. “All of that plus a love of at least some video game music is probably essential to some degree.”

As for hardware just about everyone uses their old NES and the Game Boy, which are necessary for actually performing.

“I have a piece of hardware called a Power Pack that allows you to run your own roms on a Nintendo console so I can compose it on my computer and play it back,” explained Roberts. “If you ever hear me live or on record it’s the console reproducing what I’m writing.”

Keeping the live show engaging isn’t always easy though.

“It looks like you’re randomly hitting buttons, you could be playing Tetris for all they know,” said Roberts. He credits his band’s use of guitar for their live boost.

“You also see strong visual components with projectors showing custom animations to make it a complete audio visual, kind of like a Pink Floyd show,” he said.

The scene in Ottawa is quite small, with most of the artists named in this piece, so many have had to focus their efforts to online communities.

“I do 95 per cent of my networking and audience outreach online,” said Travis Valois aka Are You Afraid Of The Dog, who writes his chiptune as both personal music and as imaginary game scores. “I have never had a more helpful group of fellow musicians than in the Nintendocore community—mixing tips, mastering tips, compositional feedback, supporting each other’s albums, everything.”

Although not all chiptune artists have a scene to play live in, the global scene has moved out of the home studio.

“There’s a chiptune rave that’s one of the largest events at Magfest (a video game music festival), they have huge rooms at capacity with people crowd surfing to chiptune,” said Roberts, who sees a large following despite the small roster, especially in tech cities like Ottawa.

“When Anamanaguchi came a few years ago, they packed the room, so there’s definitely an audience, and there are more fans in nerdy occupations,” he said.

While some would see the hardware’s melodic limitations as a downside, Valois and Roberts enjoy the constraints.

“Being able to bask in near-constant nostalgia of childhood fun and innocence is definitely a perk,” Brown said.

“There was a period of time where I was trying to get my music into a game but it is a weird marketplace to try and penetrate. Video game design forums are filled with like 1,000 artists offering music,” said Valois.

Alternatively Roberts has broken the market, despite being the least focused on it.

“One of my non-chiptune projects is actually being featured on an indie game being put on NES cartridges,” he said. “It’s not the goal though.”

The future is bright for the genre thanks to new games, too.

“There’s a regression in indie games towards the 8-bit scores,” said Roberts. It will be hard to escape the genre soon with the 8-bit aesthetic creeping into pop music more, and even a video game inspired album on the way from Kanye West appropriately titled Turbo Grafx 16.”