Gameboy deserves its place among instruments such as the Gibson guitar or the Stradivarius violin and the Moog Model D synthesizer, if you consider its influence on global music. You don’t believe? And if I told you that Gameboy is, for its hardware limitations, a powerful musical instrument? I will prove it.
Set with the game featured a simple but addictive game called Tetris.
In 1989, Nintendo launched Gameboy at a starting price of $100. This small and light device offered nice graphics on a 2.5-inch monochrome screen with a resolution of 160×144 pixels and quickly gained popularity among both children and adults – about a million units were sold in the first year alone. The game set featured a simple but addictive game called Tetris (title was designed by Russian student Alexei Pazitnov), which was one of the key factors that ensured the console’s success. Gameboy had four-channel stereo sound, three channels were driven by a programmable sound generator (PSG – Programmable Sound Generator), while the fourth channel offered four-bit digital sound.
It was also possible to plug an external audio signal, which would theoretically allow a more sophisticated audio chip in the cartridge to transmit the audio output into the device. This was supposed to be the case with the Gameboy mp3 player attachment. The original version of the console was redesigned and the new version was released in 1996 as Gameboy Pocket, which was a smaller device with a better screen. As interest in this little device slowly began to diminish, Nintendo improved its creation again and in 1998 offered the world Gameboy Color.
This one offered a faster processor, a sharp TFT screen capable of simultaneously displaying 52 colors out of a possible 32,000, but it lacked backlight, which was the drawback most often emphasized by users. Nevertheless, the console’s Color iteration was a huge success, also thanks to Nintendo’s backward compatibility with previous Gameboy variants. Despite the changes in the quality of the graphics, the sound capabilities have remained largely unchanged since 1989 – it was only changed by Gameboy Advance in 2001. In addition to the 4 PSG channels, a special processor allowed 32-digit voices to be mixed into 2 stereo channels in real time. Despite its completely new design, Gameboy Advance is also fully backwards compatible thanks to the integrated chip that is really a carbon copy of the entire Gameboy Color.
Chiptune is a genre that comes from using these crude audio chips to their limits.
It is worth mentioning that after more than 25 years the sound of Nintendo consoles, such as NES or Gameboy have created a new trend in music. Chiptune is a genre that derives from using fairly crude audio chips to their limit, and the fact that entire generations of players know these sounds well makes the electronic music scene eagerly reach the sources, whether using special software launched in the console itself or emulation. The two most popular programs not only allowing composing music, but also playing it live, are Nanoloop and LSDJ. Both platforms are being developed to this day, and the new functions change the console’s capabilities allowing the creation of increasingly complex audio processes, which is impressive considering that the console was not a piece of an advanced equipment in the year of its premiere, so 30 years ago.
Chiptune not only gave birth to artists such as Trash80, dubmood, Zabutom and she, but also a new generation of musicians such as Chipzel, Danny Baranowsky, Disasterpeace and Toby Fox. Of course I am not mentioning them by accident – each of them wrote music for video games, and Chipzel herself is a very active club composer who often plays live with Gameboy. You think you can’t? Nothing more wrong. Square Sounds Festival took place on February 21 and 22 in 2020 in Melbourne, and there are plenty of similar events and everyone who creates on the Nintendo console can submit to play. The best tool for this kind of thing will be a heavily reworked Gameboy, although you don’t need much modification.
The basis is a cartridge with a slot for micro SD cards to mount Johan Kotlinski program – LSDJ. If you compare LSDJ to any known audio software, it would be the Ableton Live equivalent. I am absolutely serious. The way we program music is completely different, and LSDJ is a tracker, so notes are recorded in a completely different way, but the possibility of synchronizing live phrases and modifying the arrangement on the fly is directly associated with Ableton.
Another important fact is that Johan Kotlinski has been developing software since the premiere on January 22, 2001 and is still squeezing out new features from this old audio chip. The last update is 8.3.5 and it was released on April 1, 2020! But that’s not all, because apart from using a few buttons on the console, we can connect a MIDI keyboard or even…a PS/2 keyboard (sic!). The first is obtained by using the Arduinoboy device, and the other by remaking the plug of the old computer keyboard to match the Link port.
This is only one of many modifications. Pro audio mod that pulls up bass and outputting two RCA (chinch) ports from the console, a backlit mod that allows you to replace the screen with a modern LED with backlight, or my favorite – battery mod that allows you to mount a battery and USB-C charger for a 20-year-old console. Most of the tutorials can be easily found on the Internet and with a few tools, a soldering iron and a dose of perseverance, we can create a real machine of sonic destruction.
It is enough to listen to electronic music to often hear classic sound effects straight from Nintendo consoles.
The sound itself will not be outdated, oh there is no chance for that. You will hear classic sound effects straight from Nintendo consoles just by listening to electronic music. And of course, we can get all of this with almost zero investment, because apart from one-time purchase of an LSDJ license, all you need to do is download the emulator and play around with composing. All in all, nothing beats a real console. There is something magical about interacting with Gameboy and its dirty sound.