[[Sound Off]] Nostalgia Chip: The Appeal of Chiptune

By Michael McKitterick michaelmckitt@gmail.com

Back in September 2016, Square Sounds Tokyo held its annual gathering for musicians from around the world to come and perform ‘chipmusic’ live. This genre, more commonly known as ‘chiptune’ (which is how I’ll be referring to it hereafter) or ‘8-bit’, refers to the creation of electronic music using sound chips commonly found in vintage computers, game consoles and arcade machines. If you need an example, think of the original ‘Super Mario Bros. Theme’. That’s chiptune before ‘chiptune’ even really existed as we know it today.

Chiptune setup
Chiptune tracks are often created on actual GameBoy hardware using special ‘tracker’ software

Upon watching a performance from Irish musician Chipzel (Niamh Houston) at Square Sounds, I began to wonder why so many people, including myself, enjoyed listening to music from this relatively niche genre. It seems odd, as a society, to have made so many technological advancements in music and sound quality over the past few decades and yet still occasionally rely on creating music through this method that existed purely due to technological limitations.

Let it be clear that this is not a ‘new’ genre. It has existed since the early 1980s, ever since equipment such as personal computers and video game consoles became outdated and hence more accessible to creative individuals who wished to use them for sound or art purposes. The reason I think many people see it as a new genre is because it sticks out like a sore thumb now more than ever because of, as I say, advancements in technology, as well as the simplistic nature of the sounds used in chiptune. Most people associate this genre with the soundtracks of video games in the ‘70s and ‘80s, such as Super Mario Bros., Tetris, Sonic the Hedgehog etc. The fact it has made a comeback from the 2000s onwards is bound to confuse many who didn’t think there was a market for ‘video game music’. With the release of consumer software (such as LSDJ, a GameBoy cartridge created specifically for creating chiptune music on the console) from the late 2000s-early 2010s, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people utilising these old-school sounds, including popular mainstream artists.

For enthusiasts, it likely elicits a very strong sense of nostalgia. It takes them back to a time where they were playing video games as children. In this sense, they experience a sense of loss – a longing to return to this simpler, worry-free time, and the consumption of this music genre helps to bridge that gap. It sounds odd that a certain genre could achieve this. Nostalgia is usually specific – associated to a specific artist, song, phrase or lyric – but chiptune is such a distinct and recognisable genre that it can be linked to almost any video game from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Keiji Yamagishi, composer for Ninja Gaiden, chimes in on the appeal of chiptune, and states that “it’s difficult not having any limitations. I feel like I was being tested.” It’s an interesting concept – having technological limitations could actually make you feel less pressured to outdo other artists or create something incredible – it gives you a sense of focus. This familiarity would understandably benefit both composers and listeners.

But technological advancements in music and music production have not been lost on some chiptune artists. While some do create ‘pure’ chiptune tracks, using nothing but these old-school sounds for every instrument, including drums, bass, keys etc., the majority incorporate chiptune sounds into other styles of music. This creates many different subgenres of chiptune, including one that I found particularly interesting – Nintendocore. Yes, you read that right. Take a listen to ‘Four to Six‘ by Math the Band. They have found a way (and they are not, by any means, the only artist to do this) to combine punk rock and chiptune. Two genres that are very different from one another, but they somehow work. Other examples include EDM mixed with chiptune, courtesy of the aforementioned Chipzel (which, as a sidenote, works wonders live) and even orchestral rock (Curious Quail’s Rallying Cry). I’m not sure why any of these work, but they do. I’m the last person to be listening to punk rock, but throw some chiptune in there and I love it. It brings that sense of nostalgia and familiarity to any genre it’s paired with – it’s hard to explain

However, the (potential) problem with chiptune is that it generally doesn’t have lyrics. Much like the video game soundtracks it emulates, chiptune creates its melodies through instrumentation rather than vocal work. This makes it harder to break through into the mainstream, which is why many notable songs that feature chiptune (such as Ke$ha’s ‘Tik Tok’) simply sample it and use it sparingly as a background instrument rather than the main focus. A few artists, however, have created chiptune-centric tracks with vocals, such as the Somerset-based duo You Love Her Coz She’s Dead. These artists, however, very rarely see mainstream attention. Perhaps the most mainstream artist who can be considered ‘chiptune’ would be Crystal Castles, but even then, it seems to take a back seat to EDM in their songs.

Chipzel live
A shot of Chipzel performing live in 2015

This, ultimately, leads to it becoming a very niche genre, and seen by many as ‘hipster’ music because of the fact it is a fairly-recent trend that is outside of the mainstream. And the fact it is so niche is amplified whenever someone claims to have done this technique for the first time. This happened as recently as February 2016 when Killscreen ran a story about a musician who had used a Sega Genesis sound chip to create a remix of some music from Sonic the Hedgehog. He said he believed he was the “only producer within the contemporary music platform that’s using that sound chip.” Needless to say, this pissed people off – so much so that they had to change the article to account for the massive amount of chiptune artists who pointed out the obvious oversight in Killscreen’s reporting (and the man’s ability to perform a quick Google search).


Maybe it’s an acquired taste. I know plenty of people who describe chiptune as simply “noise” and don’t see the appeal, which is fine, I see where they’re coming from to a certain extent. But in the right hands, these simple sounds can be a very powerful tool. Take a listen to the Spotify playlist and see what you think. There’s a wide variety of different chiptune tracks there for you to make up your mind about this relatively unknown genre.

Whether you love it or hate it, just don’t try and claim you invented it.

[[SOUND OFF]] is a series of student-written features on artists/albums/music worth checking out

Leave a Reply