One Game Boy, four sound channels and 64 colors is all the lo-fi tech that chiptune composer TORIENA and animator m7kenji needed to put together "Pulse Fighter," the high-concept music video for the greatest NES game never made. Ceiling Gallery went into the dev room with the team to find out what goes into laying siege to an 8-bit world and how retro beats and graphics still have their place among the next-gen.
Chiptune is a relatively minor genre. Why are you part of the scene and who is your audience?
TORIENA (T): Chiptune has a unique sound that draws in a certain type of person. Theoretically you could use music editing software to smooth out the square waves to make the music more palatable, but working within the constraints of the Game Boy is a point of pride.
m7kenji (K): The genre is easier to get into than traditional dance or instrumental music, especially if you were raised on games. I've always liked portable and cellphone games for how they put entertainment into the palm of your hands. Creating music on a Game Boy is a natural extension of that.
T: A song is like a diary entry written with the feelings I can't put into words. Hopefully my tracks hit a nerve and inspire others to create their own beats.
K: I'd like for people to take away something fresh and inspiring from my videos rather than simply feel nostalgic.
Tell me about how the collaboration came about.
T: I hit a creative roadblock after my second album, which is when I met m7kenji as my VJ at Blip Festival Tokyo 2012 and we decided to work together.
K: TORIENA provided the character designs and story boards, which I embellished based on the track length. I had my fun with it--maybe too to much, actually. I chipped away at it in my free time and eight months later ended up with enough assets for a full game!
All of your tracks have a story. What's the plot of your new album, A.I Complex?
T: Doctor Gray creates Magenta, an AI replica of his comatose daughter, Cyan. But when Magenta realizes that she's just a stand-in for her sister, her heart awakens to hatred. The album art shows Pulse, the heroine of "Pulse Fighter."
I wanted the video to show the story exclusively from Pulse's point of view. In the real world there's a reason why people turn bad but society ignores that to depict the hero as an absolute force of good. After the music video I hope you have a vested interest to listen to the album and uncover the whole story.
You can say a lot with a little. m7kenji's cellphone games have simple graphics but the offbeat humor still shines through.
K: Pixel art is cool because it makes you use your imagination. Take the simple character sprite of Pulse crying or laughing--it's up to the viewer to fill in the blanks. The experience is closer to reading a storybook or novel than watching a Hollywood-caliber film. You let your imagination run wild. It's a chance to be creative in a different way.
I was one of the kids who had a Game Boy but not a Nintendo which may explain my no-budget graphics. Although I'm not part of the NES generation I was inspired by the games, especially what they manage to convey with a limited palette. They remind me of the minimalist colors of old Taisho and Showa propaganda posters.
My games are simple partially because that's the limit of my programming skills but also because I want the player to jump straight in without a long explanation. The industry is full of creators putting out high-budget titles--why do I have to be one of them? I'd rather bring unique ideas and settings to the forefront that others can't.
What is the purpose of video games?
T: Their stories can serve as fables. The good ones shape who you are and stick with you for the rest of your life.
When you grow up and experience the world you leave simpler times behind. But playing a game puts you one-on-one with the game and frees you from the pressures of society. Games are a way to go back to a place not as complicated as this one.
K: Video games are the perfect medium for expression. The graphics, music, and text allow you to box your philosophy into a single package and share it with the world.
There's a trend in games to drown the player in praise and self satisfaction but titles like that are just time sinks. Like TORIENA said, a game can be a textbook for life. I want to create an experience that you carry forever, even if you only spend a few minutes together.
TORIENA and m7kenji will perform at Square Sounds Tokyo 2014, Japan's premier chiptune festival held September 28-29.
Square Sounds Tokyo 2014 homepage: https://www.facebook.com/SquareSounds
--Interview by Dave Kracker (Translated from original Japanese)