Ungaming the System

“Chiptune” artists like Anamanaguchi move the 8-bit aesthetic beyond novelty

Apr 13, 2011 at 2:06 pm

This Oct. 18 marks 26 years since the Nintendo Entertainment System came to North America. After the NES went on accomplish the kind of colossal feats that few products do, like drumming up enough business to set the stage for an entire industry and promoting a mascot whose global notoriety rivals Mickey Mouse and Superman, the video-game console’s revered reputation still endures today. Visit Walmart for proof — chances are ridiculously good that a piece of NES-related merch is sitting somewhere in the men’s clothing department right now. You don’t see this kind of veneration for other gaming systems. Nintendo might have stopped manufacturing new copies of the eight-bit console a while ago, but the machine was so culturally ubiquitous that nostalgia for it is the sort that keeps on giving.

In another example of how profound the NES’s impact was, a thriving subculture is still dedicated to tapping into the machine’s rudimentary sonic palette to make new Electronic music compositions. Chiptune (aka Chip Music) existed before the NES, but today the genre is predominantly associated with that console. A cursory YouTube search for “Chiptune” turns up Nintendo-style covers of “Scatman” and “What Is Love,” and there have been thorough eight-bit tribute records to Miles Davis, Nine Inch Nails and Weezer. With some programming ingenuity, any song with a memorable melody takes on new, sprightly life in Chiptune form, sounding like a forgotten theme to Double Dragon II or Mega Man.

There is a problem with this, however. While several talented Chiptune composers turn around hummable little tunes, so much of this culture depends on video-game-oriented nostalgia. The genre relies on your good memories of playing The Legend of Zelda, based on a hope that you’ll feel like listening to a Chiptune artist or track because it kinda reminds you of vintage gaming. Some artists use Chiptune or similar technology to assemble music that isn’t particularly evocative of Nintendo and doesn’t reference video games at all (Crystal Castles and The Depreciation Guild come to mind). But many Chiptune-related artists have trouble distancing themselves from the imagery that’s come before.

This is why Brooklyn’s Anamanaguchi is in for an uphill climb. Their sound is a flurry of activity that joyfully teams a hacked NES (as well as a Game Boy) with Pop Punk and Power Pop instrumentation. The band initially writes all the music in coding in a program called Nerdtracker, saving it into a .nsf file so it can be played off a NES and utilize the machine’s sound chip. The process is similar with the Game Boy, though it uses a program called Little Sound DJ. Anamanaguchi guitarist/Game Boy player Ary Warnaar likens the process to writing tab sheet music and running it through a player piano.

Structurally, their work is innovative enough to push them beyond novelty status — at times, the four-piece is practically Prog — but the association with video-game music naturally leaves an imprint when those familiar synth notes come into play. However, Warnaar says that his attraction to the music isn’t founded on a sense of nostalgia.

“The sounds and hardware we’re using is older than us,” he says. “The nostalgia factor’s definitely not there. I kinda missed out on that one.”

Guitarist Peter Berkman, who founded Anamanaguchi as a one-man project, might have had an older brother with a NES, but Warnaar was never allowed a home console — only a Game Boy to accompany 45-minute commutes to school.

Instead, what draws Warnaar to the Chiptune aesthetic is its minimalist quality and the way convention can grapple with strange ideas.

“Sound-wise, it was pretty unlike anything I had heard in the electronic world when I first heard it,” he says. “I was like, ‘This is crazy. This is really low-quality sound stuff, but they’re making these awesome songs that are super high-energy.’ I like hearing stuff that should be cheesy, jazzy video-game music, but then hearing it in the sense of extremely hard Techno or really fast Punk Rock. I loved how wrong it was.

“It feels like writing electronic music, but you can take a more Punk approach, so it feels more like that influence,” Warnaar says.” It’s still using computers and computer software, but the actual process is completely different.”

Warnaar is adamant that Anamanaguchi aren’t just video-game music, but a couple of details about the band do little to buck that connection. They’re frequent guests at Penny Arcade Expo, a massive video gaming convention, and their current claim to fame is scoring Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game, a beat ‘em up available for PS3 or Xbox 360. At this point, they still reside in that murky territory between being a product of one culture (and a potential novelty) and trying to solidify their own identity.

“It’s really easy to first look at the Chiptune community and be like, ‘Oh, this is just some silly guys in their basement making bleep-bloopy music,’ but there’s a lot more to it,” Warnaar says. “It’s a challenge for all of us to overcome. If nostalgia’s what gets you into it, then that’s awesome, but you also probably quickly recognize that it’s not exactly just that.”

ANAMANAGUCHI play the Southgate House Ballroom Tuesday with Peelander-Z and Daikaiju. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.