The Brains And Boxes Behind Blip: Six Video Game Consoles To Use As Instruments, And The Geeks Who Love Them
NYC's annual three-day Blip Festival, which starts tonight, is the world's most important celebration of "chiptune" music, wherein gamers-turned-composers write songs using their favorite ancient video game consoles. Wanna see how the sausage gets made? Let's take a look at the consoles that will serve as the backbones for the festival's music.
Riding high on the success of their popular Pong machines, Atari ushered in a sea change when they released the console that would come to define the early home gaming era for years. The release of the 2600 marked the shift from dedicated one-game arcade-style systems to platforms with removable game cartridges. And then they started licensing the most popular titles from the arcade machines and releasing them for home use, thrilling ravenous fans who couldn't get enough of Pac-Man and Space Invaders. You may find this machine in the hands of cTrix at the tail end of the Friday night lineup, perhaps when he's coughing up the abrasive spurts of his song Triple Pump.
This weekend's champion of this odd Milton Bradley-produced monochromatic box, a platypus of home-entertainment electronics if there ever was one, is longtime 8bitpeoples stalwart minusbaby. Well, maybe also this guy:
This disastrous entry into the video game market was distinguished by its built-in screen--one circa-1982 ad boasted: "Take it anywhere! Just plug it in! It's your own personal arcade!" Nintendo wouldn't release the Game Boy for another seven years, so the Vectrex actually qualified as a portable even though it had all the finesse of a dorm fridge. Minestorm, the Asteroids clone that was built right in for cartridge-free play, always crashed at level 13, making the Vectrex debatably one of the worst consoles of all time (though in Mr. Monopoly's defense, the linked review seems to concern itself mostly with making Valtrex jokes). It did have two major advantages: the built-in handle made disposing of it easier when you eventually decided to move on to an Atari; and its clunkiness makes me feel especially smug about writing all this on a tiny netbook 30-ish years after its release.
OK, seriously though: minusbaby raves about this thing's audio, even if he might have used it more for its graphics chip and his vector artwork than for musical purposes at first. Aussie mad scientist little-scale, who was himself one of the highlights of last year's Blip Festival, is working on developing a new MIDI interface for the console, so maybe we'll hear from it more in the future.
(And speaking of the future: somewhere today a beautiful baby girl was born, and when she gets to be my age she's going to write nasty things like this about the iPad.)
Nothing but love here for Ultrasyd, whose stronger pieces balance chiptune's occasionally comical approach to melodic overindulgence with a maturity that almost seems out of place--and it certainly doesn't hurt that his web site has the most 8-bit audio equipment porn you'll probably ever see in once place, or that he gives his songs titles like "Bouncing Banana" and "Reboot Your Cat". His archives are actually sort of organized according to the systems used in each song, so it's especially easy to track his use of the grimy basslines emitted by the "Colour Personal Computer" introduced in 1984 by the British electronics corporation Amstrad, which has since given up on consumer products entirely to focus on IP and satellite TV devices. The CPC actually used the same sound chip as the Vectrex; make a beeline for the song "&0D4A" if you want to hear it, or better yet, compare the CPC song "Lonely Robot" with the version he released for the Atari ST.
Amstrad founder Alan Sugar, who serves as Donald Trump's counterpart on the UK version of The Apprentice and is referred to by the British press as "Lord Sugar" even though that makes him sound like a sleazy sexagenarian rapper, reportedly said at the time that his primary design goal was just to keep the CPC from looking like "a pregnant calculator." Which it doesn't especially, so perhaps this one now qualifies as a rousing success? Dreams really do come true--as long as you set the bar pretty low to begin with.