Nintendo Rock: Nostalgia or Sound of the Future



With the recent release of their cheekily-monikered "Elf-Titled" album, the Advantage have brought legitimacy to a style of music dubbed "Nintendocore," becoming the first group in this genre to take covers of classic 8-bit theme songs past the LAN-party circuit. Featuring drummer Spencer Seim from post-hardcore savants Hella, the group legitimizes the project in part with their impressive underground cred.

The songs on the album range from spazzed-out level select ditties to "Kraid's Lair," a haunting boss theme from the classic NES game "Metroid." Regardless of origin, all the tracks burst out of the tightly-wound rock quartet with a depth only hinted at in their previous, synthesized iterations.

The concept, while undoubtedly gimmicky, is far from innovative; suburban nerds with Nintendos and guitars have been combining their twin passions even before the anthemic "F-Zero" theme blazed out of early-90's rec room speakers.

A full-blown scene exists today, with a multitude of bands and corresponding aesthetic philosophies; groups like the NESKimoes and their sworn rivals the Minibosses have feuded publicly over the politics of playing the theme song to "Super Mario Brothers" in concert.

In their refusal to pander to audience nostalgia, the Minibosses took the high road towards the consideration of video game music as more than a mere party trick. But even their efforts failed to expand the Nintendocore fanbase far outside the Wired Magazine demographic.

"Elf-Titled" not only raises the bar in terms of musicianship (thanks in large part to Seim's percussion), but also lends the genre some of the seriousness the "Bossies" have tried to create. The album has been released on Kill Rock Stars sister label 5RC, home to noise-rock wunderkinds Deerhoof, Hella, Xiu Xiu, and others of their ilk.

Many reviews of the album have looked to the band as a bridge between the avant-garde of rock and kitschy childhood regressions, but the stylistic resonances between Deerhoof and Double Dragon are deeper than cutesiness or coincidence.

Most of the current cohort of rock musicians are products of the much-heralded "Nintendo generation." They heard the Zelda theme song long before they bought their first Black Flag album. The effect of countless hours of repeated 8-bit symphonies on our musical aesthetic can't just be laughed off as negligible.

These years of conditioning are manifested in the work of many contemporary musicians, ranging from experimental electronic artists like Pluxus and Providence-based Marumari to geeky power-poppers and former Weezer tourmates Ozma (most renowned for their wall-of-sound cover of the "Tetris" theme), both of which paid tribute to the lo-fi gamer aesthetic in their music.

Hella start their debut album (2002's masterful "Hold Your Horse Is") with an 8-bit intro, before launching into their more familiar noise-rock stylings. Even Beck released an EP of 8-bit style remixes of his 2005 "Guero" album, borrowing the Nintendocolor aesthetic of underground video artists Paper Rad for his "GHETTOCHIP MALFUNCTION (Hell Yes)" music video.

So what is this "Nintendo music," really? Who were these mysterious video game composers, who determined the sonic environment of millions

of American teenagers from the other side of the world?

At the dawn of the home console era, technicians and engineers were finally able to bring video game music past the primitive bloops and beeps to which arcade-goers were accustomed. In 1983, the Japanese debut of Nintendo's Famicom console (released in the U.S. in 1985 as the Nintendo Entertainment System) made possible actual synthesized music in video games, continuing the technical progression that continued throughout the era of Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo.

After the release of 32-bit systems like the Sony Playstation, it became apparent that the classic age of "video game music" was coming to a close. New consoles had the processing power and storage capacity to accommodate CD-quality audio, pushing game soundtracks into the realm of Hollywood films. Today's high-end video games often feature unreleased tracks or already famous compositions from established artists.

Before its recent leap into the broader music world, game music was an insular genre, one which made the careers of aspiring composers like Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka and Koji Kondo in Japan. Only in his early twenties when he joined Nintendo in 1983, Kondo brought his classical training (and his love for Western rock music) to the "Mario" and "Zelda" franchises, and crafted some of the most memorable tunes to grace early consoles, even with a drastically limited palette.

With only five channels of sound output, it was clear that lush instrumentation was not going to be the NES' forte. These technical restrictions of the system's sound chips proved to be the main impetus behind the emergence of a unique, musically innovative "Nintendo sound."

As a genre, Nintendo music was notable for its ability to circumvent its own apparent limitations, using techniques strangely reminiscent of Baroque-era compositions. Harpsichords, like early pulse-wave synthesizers, don't have a very broad dynamic range, and the intimate chamber music then in vogue left little room for large orchestral instrumentation.

The resulting musical trends are strikingly similar to the music of Nintendo composers. Since subtle variations in volume are less likely to be noticed, Baroque composers highlighted virtuosic intertwining harmonies, wrote pieces that avoided monotony through a variety of time signatures, and incorporated non-traditional scales in their melodic lines.

Similar restrictions on the early 8-bit composers led to similar innovations. The usage of the multi-metered composition keeps the audience from tiring quickly of what is by technical necessity a short tune (most non-medley tracks on the Advantage album are under two minutes in length). The Advantage cover of the "Egypt" theme from Double Dragon III is a typical result; as it elaborates on its pentatonic sensibility with meandering guitar lines, the song brings a fresh sound to a well-worn tonal range.

While this music shares a parallel creation to that of the Baroque masterpieces, the actual arrangement of 8-bit music most closely parallels modern rock music. It is in this genre that the clearest correspondences to the Nintendo sound can be seen: the NES' sonic toolkit–two pulse-waves, a triangle-wave and a white noise channel–is roughly analogous to the set up of the stereotypical rock band, with two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer. After less than a decade of the classic game music era, the strategies adopted by console composers would be—consciously or not—borrowed by another maverick sub-genre.

By the beginning of the 1990s, early "math rock" artists (many of whom were, unsurprisingly, total nerds) rebelled against the self-imposed stylistic limitations of the punk/hardcore quartet while maintaining its traditional instrumental makeup. Underground bands like Slint, Don Caballero, Polvo, and Drive Like Jehu started to incorporate new meters, novel forms and increased technical virtuosity into their music, resulting in an appropriately neo-Baroque sound. Hearing the Advantage, who play a role in this scene, perform Nintendo songs, but one could easily mistake their music for early Shellac instrumentals, revealing the fundamental affinities between the styles.

Of course, the links of influence between Nintendo tunes and rock music wasn't purely one-sided. The popular sounds of the 1980s, responding to a challenge of ornamentation from punk rock and acoustic folk, made their mark on the Nintendo music sensibility, with mixed results. The "Woods" theme from Castlevania II sounds like a Van Halen outtake on speed, as its mathematical, shredding guitar lines lead into glorious faux-hardcore breakdowns.

Yet across the genre, cheesy overharmonized lines abound, suggesting the danger of complexity for its own sake as well as the immaturity of adolescent gamers. Again, this critique is nothing new; loftier versions of these accusations have been leveled at Handel and Bach for their own contrapuntal (mis)adventures.

These compositions may be seen as pedantic, heavy-handed, passionless or academic. But without the occasional excess of ornamentation, Baroque would never have lived up to its rococo potential, math rock would just be rock, and legions of bored teenagers would never have laid down their controllers for guitars.



--Staff writer Will B. Payne can be reached at payne@fas.harvard.edu.