Step into any arcade in the 1980s and you’d be treated to a cacophonous, symphonic mash-up of beeping, booping ear worms and urgent, electronic theme songs blaring from games like “Dig-Dug” and “Double Dragon,” combining with electronic voices, such as Altered Beast’s “Rise from your grave,” laser blasts and biff-bam-boom sound effects.
Music has been an integral part of video games for essentially as long as the games have been products, beginning with simple, repeating, electronic loops in Atari 2600 games and progressing to the filmlike soundtracks that lend heft to today’s epic console games.
Perhaps not surprisingly then, video-game music has a fan base. The genre is known as chiptune or bitpop, referring to the eight-bit computer processing chips used in classic home video-game consoles such as the original Nintendo Entertainment System.
Popular among DJs in bigger U.S. cities since at least the late 1990s, chiptune sounds also have been employed by such big-name acts as Deadmau5, Beck and the Postal Service. Some bands, such as New York-based Anamanaguchi, specialize solely in chiptune. The group’s “Jetpack Blues, Sunset Hues” is the theme song to “The Nerdist Podcast,” a popular show hosted by Chris Hardwick.
But in Richmond, chiptune is still an emerging genre, with some dedicated artists trying to grow a local movement.
“A lot of people, especially a lot of young adults, they’ve grown up playing Nintendo and they know what it sounds like, and the DJ culture and electronic music is so big now that it seems to be the best of both worlds,” says Daniel Davis, who performs as An0va, a name inspired by a statistical mathematics equation. “There are some people who are nostalgic for how it sounds and some who just love how it sounds.”
Davis, 28, hails from Philadelphia, holds a master’s degree in psychology and works as a research assistant for Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine. He composed the music for a retro, Nintendo-style video game, “Curse of the Crescent Isle,” available on Steam, Xbox Marketplace and the Playstation Network. He’s performed across the country as An0va for several years, including playing at last year’s MagFest, a national convention devoted to video-game music and gaming. Locally, he’s played such venues as the Camel, Gallery5 and Strange Matter.
“I use old video-game consoles and old vintage computers to make sounds that sound like old video-game music,” he says. “I make new music that kind of sounds like old retro video games.”
Better known by his solo artist name, Rekcahdam (“Mad hacker” spelled backward), Richmond native and VCU computer science alum Roger Hicks, 28, has performed with Davis and is now a game programmer living in Japan. Also a session drummer for the Cartoon Network television show “Steven Universe,” Hicks will be a featured chiptune performer at the 14th annual MagFest, which will be held this month near Washington, and is expected to draw more than 20,000 people.
“I don’t think chip artists are going to play for a bigger crowd,” says Hicks, who’s working on his own epic video game, an old-school, Nintendo-style adventure called “Band Saga,” in which game levels, enemies and items are generated by music that the player composes in-game.
Chiptune “is a great way to connect with the past and also express my creative side,” says Alan Brymer, 36, a business consultant who posts mash-ups of old video-game music and vintage hip-hop and rap songs under the moniker 8-Bit Mullet. A Fredericksburg native, he recently moved back to Richmond from the San Francisco area, where he was involved in the chiptune scene. “I think it attracts a more geeky type of person,” he says. But, he adds, laughing, “We can totally pass for normal.”
Rekcahdam plays MagFest on Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. MagFest will be held Feb. 18-21 at the Gaylord National Hotel in National Harbor, Maryland. Tickets are $75. magfest.org.