Like most 20- and 30-somethings in the 21st century, I grew up with two little red buttons under my thumb, spending a decent portion of my leisure time having adventures with Mario, Link and Mega Man. I have fond memories of shouting frustratedly at the television screen when “Kid Icarus” wasn’t going my way (which was most of the time) and triumphantly winning the rat race in “Battletoads” over and over again. In their own little way, early video games did have a lasting impact on my life which I can still recognize every time I’m faced with a problem and ask myself, “What would Solid Snake do?”
Just as lasting as the games themselves is the music within. If you listen closely, many of those songs sound derived from classic rock and metal sounds of their time, and that’s because they often were. One of my favorite video game music composers, Koji Kondo, has cited Deep Purple and ELP as inspiration for the “Super Mario Bros.” theme. And you can hear by the Minibosses’ rendition of the “Super Mario Bros. 2” soundtrack that these tunes can sound just as natural when presented with guitars and drums as they can in their stripped-down electronic state.
So it should come as no surprise for me to reveal I kept a mixtape in my car for a long time that was full of songs from some of my favorite games of my youth. And, yes, part of that is because I loved the games. But another more important part is because it was just damn fine music. Yeah, maybe it was a little unconventional, but you try driving around on a lovely spring day with the “Battletoads” theme coming out of your speakers and not bopping your head to the rhythm (which I had a car full of friends doing once and it was magical).
An interesting thing has happened within the past decade: Chiptunes are now a “thing.” Many people still call it “video game music” or “8-bit,” but these are not songs composed for the console; they’re for your stereo. You won’t be listening to this music to reminisce about fighting baddies in some fantasy world; you’ll be playing it for the same reason you play your other records — to hear a song that makes you feel good.
One of the bands best known for bringing chiptunes into the mainstream is Anamanaguchi, whose tune “Airbrushed” was featured in “Rock Band,” and which also provided the soundtrack for last year’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game.”
The band’s success was further cemented by its Daytrotter session earlier this year. My introduction to Anamanaguchi was on the Pterodactyl Squad’s 2009 compilation of 8-bit Weezer covers, which also includes tracks by other fairly well-known chiptune bands, I Fight Dragons and Unicorn Dream Attack. It was that album that opened my eyes to the broader reach that chiptunes have acquired.
If you know the right places to look on the Internet, you can punch up your music library with plenty of free or low-priced electronic goodness in a snap. Anybody with the proper equipment can post their work at 8bitcollective, and anybody with an Internet connection can download it for free. Head to CrunchyCo for plenty of albums and compilations by some of the finer chiptunes artists around. Even Bandcamp has a pretty decent collection of stuff to choose from, including great albums by Zen Albatross and Disasterpeace.
Admittedly, the genre remains in relative obscurity, as electronic music styles often have. It’s not your standard music, and it’s probably difficult for many people to consider chiptunes outside of a gaming context. But if you give it a chance, you may just find it’s pretty rad. And there are different kinds of chiptunes for different tastes. Some are for the hardcore danceaholics, others for headbanging heavies, and of course there are also those that you can just lean back and chill out to (ex. the very many chiptune variations on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”).
It’s tough to pick favorites, but the chiptunes artists that get the most plays in my library are CCIVORY, Fighter X, Seanbad and Knife City. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing most of them perform at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle. If you think listening to chiptunes is great, be sure to find some time to hear them live. It’s the same music, but just like any great live show, there’s a kind of energy that you can only get in a crowd that’s come together for a mutual appreciation of an artist. As long as you don’t mind a little sweat.