Where would Minibosses be without Samus Aran and Jimmy Page? On the day of its release in 1987, pre-teen Aaron Burke picked up Metroid, an action game for the Nintendo Entertainment System that debuted Aran, a daring bounty hunter in space. A longtime science fiction/space fan, Burke fell hard for Metroid and, in turn, grew closer to video games.
"I really liked the soundtrack to Metroid, and it was spooky. I used to play it at night and have all the lights out," says the guitarist of Minibosses, a Phoenix instrumental four-piece with an unusual history. "I used to love playing [Metroid], wandering around not knowing where I was going at first. That's the first time I ever had an experience with a video game where I was completely in love with it."
Some three years, Burke experienced another profound connection -- this time to rock music. While playing Dungeons & Dragons at a friend's place, his buddy put on Led Zeppelin III. Burke had never heard the group before.
"I liked music okay, but I wasn't in love with yet. [III] was the perfect D&D album," he says. "When 'Friends' came on, it was scary as hell to me, and I loved it."
Catching Page and company's work led to Burke's purchasing and wearing out his own copy of III, then getting to know Led Zeppelin's other records. Around this time, he also got into Metallica. Burke's affection for these bands spurred him to learn how to play guitar himself.
The loves for Nintendo games and rock music converged in the 1999 creation of Minibosses, a band that specializes in rock versions of Nintendo tunes. The group, which formed in Massachusetts but moved to Phoenix in 2000, lifts the tinny, simple scores of 8-bit games like Super Mario Bros. 3, The Legend of Zelda, Punch-Out!!, and, of course, Metroid, and transforms them into three-dimensional covers and medleys.
With their formation, they became one of the earliest and most important names in "Nintendocore," a loosely defined, occasionally maligned genre that mixes conventional rock band playing/writing dynamics with old game tunes and, in cases unlike Minibosses', the low-tech synthesizers old game systems used to generate that music. In the early 2000s, the band's reputation grew both in Phoenix and online, with Minibosses moving from midweek opening slots at local clubs to weekend headlining slots, earning press in big outlets like Wired and NPR, and performing alongside notable, non-niche rock outfits like Queens of the Stone Age and Local H.
"At the beginning, [the interest] was mostly a 'wow' factor. People were surprised like, 'Oh, I never thought of that. That's weird that a band would play video game music live,'" Burke says.
For listeners, 1980s and '90s nostalgia is a huge part of the appeal of a band like Minibosses, but nostalgia didn't figure into why Burke initially wanted to cover Nintendo music. What fascinated him was these songs' composition and purpose: They were created under the restraints of extremely limited technology, resulting in short, simple melodies that looped in perpetuity.
"I love the idea of a composer [having] the guidelines that he or she were possibly given: 'Here's the level. This is the kind of feel we want. Write something that's 90 seconds, that repeats, that's not going to make someone kill themselves,'" Burke says. "For games like Zelda and Metroid, I've logged hundreds of hours, and I never, ever get sick of those songs, and that was super-fascinating to me."
Burke emphasizes the notion of having fun -- especially when it comes to concerts -- as the main reason Minibosses remains active. The band isn't the priority in Burke's life today that it once was, what with he and other members also participating in projects like Sweetbleeders and ROAR. While history shows that Minibosses is a crucial name in a genre that's since totally blown up -- YouTube is saturated with 8-bit interpretations of conventional songs and creative covers of video game tunes from all eras -- Burke hesitates to call his band pioneers.
"Probably, technically, we were, but I would never throw that in anybody's face because if we didn't do it, someone else would've," he says. "We were pretty early in it, but I don't really think that we created something out of nothing. It was going to happen anyway."
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