Forty years ago, Gunpei Yokoi, a product engineer for Nintendo, sat on a commuter train in Kyoto and watched another passenger idling away the journey by playing with the buttons on a pocket calculator.
Yokoi smiled quietly to himself as he realised just how absorbed his fellow passenger had become in his own little world of abstract play; but how much more absorbed might he be, wondered Yokoi, if he had something more engaging to play with than numbers?
An idea began to form in Yokoi’s mind.
The digits on the calculator screen, he reasoned, were nothing more than the pre-formed segments of its liquid crystal display; they could easily be reshaped to create animated graphics. And the numbered buttons and mathematical operators? Well, they could surely be relabelled and simplified to create a control interface.
This was an unorthodox approach to design that Yokoi called lateral thinking with withered technologies. He would take cheap, well-understood technologies and imagine how they might be recombined and used in novel and innovative ways.
When he looked at the calculator Yokoi saw something different from everybody else. He saw a simple and very playable handheld electronic game.
The result of Yokoi’s thinking and design was Ball, a handheld electronic game in which the player controls the arms of a juggler as they attempt to keep several balls in the air for as long as possible. It was the first in Nintendo’s popular Game and Watch series and a direct ancestor of the Game Boy.
Fifteen years later, Oliver Wittchow was a design student at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg.
As he was preparing for his final-year project, he found his brother’s old Game Boy in a drawer at home. For the first time, Wittchow looked closely at what was—by then—little more than a digital relic.
He looked beyond the slab-sided plastic case of the handheld console and saw something nobody else did - an unusual but very characterful musical instrument. Wittchow spent months learning to code, hacking his Game Boy as he went along, and turning it from a handheld game into a powerful portable music workstation.
By the spring of 1998, he had a working software prototype, Nanoloop, which he entered into a lo-fi music contest at the Liquid Sky club in Cologne.
On the night of the competition, Wittchow was nursing a heavy cold and he remembers his software glitching almost to the point of collapse - but the crowd loved it. They loved the sound and they loved seeing a familiar toy reimagined as a musical instrument. Spiritually, Wittchow was applying Yokoi’s philosophy and breathing new life into a tired old platform.
This is the spirit of chiptune, a vibrant culture of lo-fi electronic music production and performance that grew out of the first generation of video game consoles and home computers.
It’s not so much a style of music as an approach to music-making. Instantly recognisable, it has a cheery, blippy sound that will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the early 1980s, playing on Atari consoles, ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s.
That retro sound places chiptune on a musical timeline that pulls in influences from video gaming, film and television, and from multiple musical movements. It encompasses everything from the experimental work of electronic music pioneers like Pete Samson and Max Matthews at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Bell Lab in the 1960s, to the raw aggressive posturing of late 1970s punk.
But chiptune isn’t simply recycled video game music, and it’s not something that has only nostalgic appeal.
Many chiptune musicians are too young to have been born when that first generation of hardware was already obsolete and yet they have embraced its sound. They seek out and hack vintage devices and reimagine them as musical instruments, in the process giving that 8-bit sound a very contemporary edge. It’s the sound of techno-counterculture and geek rebellion.
For example, Sonic Death Rabbit, a chip-fusion two-piece outfit, use Game Boys alongside toy guitars, turntables, and screaming death metal guitar. They construct performances that rely as much on the audience’s understanding of the cultural weight of the toys and games they use as the sounds that they create.
Through a process of reframing and recycling, games consoles that had been worthless piles of junk become characterful musical instruments that make a hip, retro statement.
Chris Mylrea, a musician from Port Melbourne, gigs all over the world with his instrument of choice - an old Atari VCS console that he has wired up to a bank of effects pedals on a guitar-styled body. The instrument’s name? The gAtari. It’s surely crying out for a cover of the Beatles’ classic, While My gAtari Gently Beeps…
Such inventive recycling of hardware is a refreshing counterpoint to the relentless drive of technological progress. Users might drift to new hardware that boasts more memory, faster processors and better sound, but by looking at these machines from a different perspective we can recast and reinvigorate them and explore the untapped potential that lies dormant within.
Technology, after all, is only as useful as we make it. Chiptune shows us that there is, indeed, many a fine tune played on an old fiddle.
Associate Professor Kenny McAlpine is the author of Bits and Pieces: A History of Chiptunes.
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