Europe in 8 Bits – Fascination and Frustration

Europe in 8 Bits is a documentary that explores the chip music genre in Europe. Chiptune music is produced through the sound chips of legacy and discarded electronic equipment such as old computers, video game consoles, and handhelds. Think of old games such as Mario and Tetris; the music produced is from the same machines that these games are played on.  Chiptune artists modify and utilize old hardware to produce a unique sound reminiscent to old video game tunes.

Chiptune artist  Ralp shows a modified Game Boy he uses to create sounds a normal Game Boy would not.

Chiptune artist Ralp shows a modified Game Boy he uses to create sounds a normal Game Boy would not.

 

However, Europe in 8 Bits does not pinpoint a direct authority in chiptune.  As a collective whole, interviewees found hesitation and reluctance to answer the origins, definition, and schematics of chiptune.  There is a general acceptance among the answers: there is a confused understanding in why chiptune artists find the genre fascinating. Chiptune artist Patric Catani defines chiptune as music being generated on various chips, originally from 8-bit machines or consoles. Another artist Gwem explains any music can be made so long as it contains 8-bit sounds. It is not a self-contained genre, but contains multiple genres, as long as the sound of the chip, which defines the music. Early video game music had “strong music” created within the sound chips of old machines. Artist Covox credited Rob Hubbard as an influence, who composed music in games such as Commando for the Commodore 64. The music created within these video games was simple yet memorable, which entranced preceding gamers.  During the 1980s cheap mass-produced computers were available for consumers.  Video games that ran on these machines required soundtracks, but hardware limitations from the sound chip contained within was originally ill-suited.  According to Covox, video games during that era contained strong music.  Covox and Catani both state their fascination in the music, containing a “special energy, some kind of hysteria” that hypnotized them as children.

Individuals later cracked and distributed games with unique signatures called “crack intros.” Before the Internet, these games were distributed through discs. Artist Cornbeat explained groups of people called “crackers” congregated in school gymnastic halls, bringing their own machines as they “copied and copied [software for distribution]”.  In modern terminology, these groups would be labeled as “pirates,” individuals that distribute copyrighted material illegally for free. Cracker groups contained their own sound and graphics people.  Similar to graffiti artists, cracker groups present themselves with a demo containing moving graphics and sounds through the hardware that was used. Artist Goto80 emphasized the importance in pushing technology within the system to create something “new.” This pursuit to create can be described as a competition of technical merits in pushing old technologies above their limits. One not only plays the video games but also listens to its music and graphics.

Prior to the age of social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter, chiptune artists networked through a website called Micro Music.  It was a website that allowed other uses to exchange contact information and listen to user-created content. This empowered users that came from a “Do-It-Yourself” culture, as artists created their own hardware and instruments as a means of self-expression through old hardware. In addition, communities outside of Europe such as North America and Australia were able to interact with other members, including the chance to be featured.  This website was important for the chiptune genre because it was an early form of networking through the Internet.  It was also a form of distribution among other artists to share their own.

 

Micro Music as of 4/27/2014 http://micromusic.net

Micro Music as of 4/27/2014
http://micromusic.net

Critics of the genre find difficulty in understanding the chiptune genre. Remarks against the genre often illustrate confusion in regards to fascination appeal of chiptune. Psychiatrist Cándido Polo believes there may be a “Peter Pan Syndrome,” that youths, from different regions share an affinity to stay anchored in a past time while composing music (in his words, “happy using all those instruments”). Artist Goto80 described the skepticism as “many misunderstandings about what chip musicians were actually doing… it was frustrating why people did not understand what we were doing at all, and did not take it seriously either.” Essentially, this essentially conveys the one-sided nature of Europe in 8 Bits: if one does not understand the foundations of chiptune, critics question the fascination.  This also has to do with a newer generation relating and creating a new cultural pattern.  Polo traces the origins from this movement in Promethean dream of creating life.

Psychiatrist Cándido Polo unable to understand the fascination of chiptune

Psychiatrist Cándido Polo unable to understand the fascination of chiptune

 

Europe in 8 Bits did explore some of the sociological implications within the genre. Chiptune artists find old electronic equipment discarded in locations such as landfills and flea markets, taking these old objects and giving them new uses. Sociologist Francesc Hernández believed this ideology as a post-capitalist recycling movement.  According to Hernández, modern society is living in a capitalist society.  This society is a world of consumerism, which an object is never used to its full potential.  Chiptune artists use old hardware and technology that could be rebelling against this view. MC Appl Juic confirmed that people live in a capitalist society through limits imposed on technology. Giving a piece of technology 20 years of use labels hardware as limited. Chiptune artists believe that limits are self-imposed; limitations do not exist if one never stops learning.  In addition, the use of computers was very limited: other than video games, no one knew what a computer could possibly do.  The typical chiptune artist is someone that is uniquely interested in knowing the functions of technology.  He or she is willing to break apart a piece of technology and explore its functions, wiring, process, etc.

Discarded technology is dumped into third-world countries such as Ghana, as it accumulates.

Discarded technology is dumped into third-world countries such as Ghana, as it accumulates.

Europe in 8 Bits explains the genre through the artists’ point of view. However, anyone unwilling to accept the genre fail to see its appeal. This leads to a conundrum of music being an isolated listening experience. As Europe in 8 Bits explains, chiptune found success through early pirating distributions as a competition: sound and graphical teams sought ways in using limited technology to impress those that received copies. Micro Music existed before the advent of Facebook and other social media websites as a distribution and networking site, allowing individuals to share and listen others’ content. There was an already established collective that were united in listening.

 

Individuals that failed to see the appeal in chiptune are isolated in the chiptune experience. As one of the interviewees explained, the naysayers “laughed at [them]; People didn’t take it seriously and are like: ‘Grow up!’ Go and make real music.” In other words, the “Peter Pan Syndrome” effectively labels chiptune artists. However, this misunderstanding is chiptune being a non-mainstream genre. If a form of media is not mainstream, it is often criticized and not accepted. This belief exists outside of music. Through personal interests, I find electronic sports, or esports, fascinating. Esports is rapidly gaining popularity as a professional sport as gamers compete against other players for money. The United States officially recognized Riot Games’ League of Legends progamers as professional athletes and awards visas for them to come to the country to play. Despite recognition, professional gaming still face the scrutiny and label due to the definition of a “sport.”

Just like chiptune, can professional gaming challenge main-stream entertainment as a norm?

Just like chiptune, can professional gaming become a form of main-stream entertainment?

 

Europe in 8 Bits was an accidental find; I was hoping to find a documentary of video game music as a means in connecting with people. Live orchestrated music events such as “Video Games Live,” “Distant Worlds, Music from Final Fantasy,” and “Legend of Zelda – Symphony,” exist because it holds a cultural and nostalgic moment for gamers. The documentary may have been a mistake, but it explained the difficulty in niche interests in a relatable manner, including my interest in competitive gaming. I was also aware of chiptune genre through not-condoned actions in pirating games and through a livestreamer acquaintance I know. As a gamer, I knew what chiptune was trying to accomplish and the frustrations in explaining the fascination towards it. I am not sure if I would continue to research the topic, but from my current standpoint, I would approach in researching the genre through a socioeconomic approach.

 

-Kevin Tong

 

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