On 21 April 1989, Nintendo launched its handheld "grey brick" and the Game Boy has since proved to be a gateway for the portable gaming habits of the 21st century. A cultural torpedo, the Game Boy was responsible for eliminating gender divides in gameplay (in 1995 Nintendo announced that 46 percent of Game Boy players were female), and possibly for the world's first batch of selfies, when they released the utterly bizarre Game Boy camera and printer that enabled gamers to print low resolution images of themselves on a tiny piece of paper.
Its association with music is a long one; everyone knows the sound of the Game Boy - that distinctive plink on rebooting the console, or the 8-bit arrangement of Bach's French Suite No. 3 in B Minor you find on the classic tile-falling puzzle game Tetris. Inevitably, towards the end of the millenium, artist and musicians began aestheticising default Game Boy sounds to create entirely new compositions.
Oliver Wittchow is arguably the leading pioneer of the genre "Game Boy music". In 1998 he wrote the program Nanoloop, a real time Game Boy sound editor that generates sound from within the device and is restricted to raw, rectangular waves. By 1999, Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot began using Nanoloop onstage and released We Punk Einheit, an album consisting entirely of Game Boy sounds, under the name Nintendo Teenage Robots. In early 2002, the first Nanoloop–only album was released by the now defunct Disco Bruit label, and it called upon the contributions of well known experimentalists such as Merzbow and Das Politics.
In 2003, Malcolm McClaren tried to get a piece of the action as Game Boy music's popularity surged, but the ex-Sex Pistols manager and clothes designer couldn't quite garner respect from the artists known as "chipmusicians". Upon being introduced to Game Boy music by two collaborators, McClaren declared the genre "the new punk" and wrote an article for WIRED excitedly embracing the retro–futurist benefits of using Game Boys to make music: "the Velvet Underground of the 21st century, the next step in the evolution of rock and roll." However, his good intentions were badly received and resulted in an angry open letter from a chipmusician called gwEm who derided McClaren's misunderstanding of the genre's history and corrected his assumptions about the way the music was made. Undeterred, McClaren released Fashionbeast Party in 2004, a four-track EP showcasing the talents of chipmusicians and er, the Wild Strawberries.
Whilst Game Boy music may not have pervaded the mainstream's consciousness as McClaren may have hoped, it certainly continued in fine fettle as a subculture. Artists such as DJ Scotch Egg performed regularly across the UK in the 2000s and the emergence of "new-rave" may have helped Game Boy music to run alongside it as a weirder little brother, as audiences and artists became receptive to synthesizers and a fast paced, digital, dancey, sound.
In 2007, the major label Astralwerks released 8-Bit Orchestra – a compilation of music featuring cover versions of Kraftwerk songs by leading chiptune artists such as Oliver Wittchow and gwEm, with the final tracklisting decided by Ralf Hutter of the band. Hutter said at the time, "It is mind stimulating, the minimum/maximum coming from sound levels and thoughts and ideas. Like Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express are very basic and elementary ideas, but they offer a pattern or concept for improvisation." Check it out below:
As people found new ways to modify old technology and embrace a staple leisure activity from their youth, Game Boy music experienced a surge in popularity and cultural relevance over the mid-2000s. But it now feels as though the genre may have gone as far as it can, restricted by a limited soundworld and its inherent subservience to faddishness. It used to influence musicians who weren't even remotely associated with the movement (see "Idiot" by producer James Holden), and while demos still happen and artists still work with the medium, the sound appears to have faded from the references of electronic musicians.
But if you wanna fire up all that latent, 8-bit creative desire, click here to see a tutorial on how a Game Boy song is composed, just to get you started.
Happy 25th birthday, Game Boy. Thanks for the memories and the music. Do you have a favourite chiptune? Let's hear it.
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot
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