"Can I play drums on one?"
"Let's do Metallica!"
"Dude, I have to get this now that I know they have Duran Duran on there!"
For the Minibosses, locals who've drawn national attention playing covers of classic Nintendo soundtracks as a four-piece metal band, video games and music have always gone together like ToeJam and Earl. In the wider world, that's not always been the case, but it is now. While Rock Band and Guitar Hero are both among the best-selling and most beloved games of the decade — and might be the most obvious manifestation of the massive videogame/music crossover under way — they're only a small part of it. Never has video game-influenced music been as commercially viable or artistically relevant as it is right now.
Bands like Minibosses and California's The Advantage have found a nice little niche playing covers of classic game music, often for conventions of moneyed geeks. Other acts are drawing inspiration from the sounds of the eight-bit world to create chiptune soundscapes that are among the most interesting electronic music out there right now. Advantage drummer Spencer Seim has a side project called sBACH that plays all original music using the palette of sounds available to '80s programmers. The band blew me away at Modified Arts last month.
Crystal Castles, a Toronto band named after an Atari arcade game, play a ferocious brand of danceable chiptunes that are among the year's top albums on review aggregator Metacritic, racking up points by scoring well with Mojo and Pitchfork while, perhaps just as tellingly, getting panned by the always-out-of-step Alternative Press. Their self-titled debut will be near the top of my year-end top 10 list.
I even hear an echo of game music on Kanye West's brilliant new record, 808s & Heartbreak, which is built around sparse, synthetic melodies and beats created on another antiquated '80s gadget, the Roland TR-808 drum machine. Other than the vocals, many of the songs wouldn't sound out of place on a gray cartridge.
Really, in some ways, it's a surprising phenomenon. Why would songs composed largely with the goal of remaining un-hummable, so as to remain un-annoying through repeated playing, stir such strong feelings? And why would today's musicians, with access to any instrument sound they want on sophisticated modern synthesizers, be so enamored of the robotic sounds of the 8-bit era?
Part of it has to do with the original songs, certainly. Nintendo hired skilled composers to write the music for its games, and, in the chiptune scene, names like Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka and Kenji Yamamoto have become the sort of touchstones that Spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone once was for progressive-minded rock bands. The importance of the original compositions is not lost on Ben from the Minibosses, who says 8-bit games needed quality music to be playable.
"With modern games, they use a lot of, like, ambient music. You know what I mean? They can use sound effects and whatever a lot more, but with older games, they just had the MIDI card beeps, so if the song construction wasn't good, it sucked. So for a lot of the older games, they're really well-written songs."
Miniboss Aaron Burke says the more the band digs in to the songs, the more they appreciate them. Burke, who founded the band with Ben Baraldi and Matt Wood while at UMass (the guys moved to Arizona together so Ben could take a job at Intel), says they were one of only two rock bands covering video game music when they started out, and the chiptune scene was tiny. Now, a handful of bands around the country do what they do, and even more are experimenting with chiptunes. He thinks it's a Revenge of the Nerds-style reckoning, where society at large comes to understand and accept what the guys in the band have always been about.
"The video game culture and geek and nerd culture is just definitely more accepted now, and it's cool to be a geek and cool to be a nerd, and when I was a kid I got beat up and picked on," Aaron says.
"I can remember I was in seventh grade, one of my friends, I walked up to him and I was like, 'Nathan, check out this thing' from, like, Nintendo Power or something, and he was like, 'Ben, are you going to talk to me about video games again? I don't want to talk about video games anymore. I'm trying to be more popular,'" says Ben. "It is nice to know that geekiness and video games have become much more accepted."
Right now, it's not so much merely accepted as it is incredibly hip. Take Alice Glass of Crystal Castles, which topped influential British music mag NME's 2008 "Cool List" last month. If NME is right (and it usually is), the coolest person in the world right now is a chiptuner. Plenty of people are eager to imitate, shelling out $80 for homebrew Gameboy cartridges that'll let them create their own compositions using the Nintendo handheld's primitive soundcard. It's not too hard to make a jump from this phenomenon to suggesting Ben Baraldi — hanging out in the living room of his Chandler home playing Batman for the NES while his wife stands nearby with their infant daughter — is some sort of Lou Reed figure, having been doing the video game music thing long before anyone other than his friends thought it was cool.
For some reason — and none of the Minibosses, or me, is quite sure why — these old games, and their music, are universally beloved. Possibly it's the '80s obsession we've been living through in recent years: Maybe chiptunes came in with skinny jeans and stunna shades. I think it's probably more than that. I mean, put in proper perspective, it's not an exaggeration to say the Mario Bros. games are a cultural treasure on par with the Beatles catalog. With a legacy on that level, maybe we can say, imitators are inevitable.