Nintendo Rock: Nostalgia or Sound of the Future?
Published On Thursday, February 09, 2006 6:04 PM
Crimson Staff Writer

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 Nintendo Entertainment System (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-90s rec-room speakers.

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 on the NES, it was clear that lush instrumentation was not going to be its 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.”

The jump from 8-bit music to rock was facilitated by their similar setups: the sonic toolkit of the NES–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, one could easily mistake their music for early Shellac instrumentals, revealing the fundamental affinities between the styles.

Of course, the links 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.