B-Sides: Chiptunes

I was lucky enough to attend a SXSW screening of Blip Festival: Reformat the Planet, a documentary about chiptunes, an underground music form that uses hardware from old video game consoles, like classic Nintendo Game Boys and NESes, to create new, original music. Most of this music bears little resemblance to 8-bit video game music (except, of course, for the sound quality); it's more like bright, happy amped-up techno, the kind of music that makes you feel like you're going on an adventure. Reformat the Planet tracks the creation of Blip Festival, a four-day chiptune extravaganza that happens in Brooklyn and features artists from all around the world. The movie is just 82 minutes, but is packed with great live footage, interviews and insights into the chiptune-making process.


YMCK live

Among the few female artists featured in RTP are YMCK (Japan), Bubblyfish (New York) and Coova (Tokyo). We are all late to this 8-bit game, apparently, because YMCK released their first album, Family Music, in 2004.

Reformat the Planet shows the music-making process of different chiptune artists - some incorporate other instruments, like guitars, vocals and saxophones, while others just DJ on multiple Game Boys that have been recoded to play chiptune loops at the press of a button. There is also some exploration of the visuals of chiptune live shows, which involve a lot of neon-bright pattern-heavy visuals and 8-bit images (pixelated Mario, etc) projected onstage behind the artists. All that rousing concert footage full of colorful flashing lights combines to create a sort of anime seizure vision, which is fun to watch but occasionally felt like staring at a strobe light; I was not the only member of the audience to walk away with a newly-acquired eye twitch.


Top: Coova, bottom: Bubblyfish

The diversity of artists and depth of analysis in RTP illustrates that chiptune isn't just a big nostalgia trip for people who played Zelda. There's plenty of great songwriting behind the novelty of the machines, and some of the artists have no history of gaming at all - they're just artists, musicians and engineers experimenting with a new form. The artists interviewed invoke hip-hop and punk as other genres that weren't considered "real music" during their genesis but eventually became recognized as pioneering forms. And more than anything else, chiptune music is fun: everyone involved in Blip Festival looks like they're having the time of their lives. Nobody at Blip Festival is making any money, which lends the genre an artistic purity; at least during the period that RTP documents, the genre is still unsullied by the drama of corporate involvement and competition for profit.

Reformat the Planet premiered in 2008 is still making the rounds at various film festivals; it played at SXSW in Austin, Texas along with its shorter, slightly more comprehensive follow-up, Reformat the Planet 1.5. RTP will be screened this year at the Melbourne International Film Festival and International Amsterdam Film Festival, as well as the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle.

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