AS A YOUNG fan of Nintendo video games and an aspiring musician in Nevada City, Calif., Spencer Seim spent a lot of time in his bedroom pondering the pretzel logic of the soundtracks of his favourite games — old-school classics like Super Mario Brothers, Double Dragon and Castlevania, whose pre-texture-mapped characters were as endearingly primitive as the genre-bending songs that accompanied them on their adventures.
“I was very into that original Nintendo system,” said Mr. Seim, 23. “I had a fair amount of games and did a lot of trading at school.”
The original Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, was introduced in the United States in 1985 and quickly became the touchstone of the video-game revolution. It remains one of the best-selling home video consoles ever, with worldwide sales of over 60 million. Nintendo gradually rendered the original NES console obsolete with upgrades over the years, particularly with the supercharged Nintendo 64 in 1996, but Mr. Seim retained an affection for the labyrinthine song structures of the original games.
“The best games with the best play control also had the best music,” he said. “They had higher budgets, so the programmers and the composers were better.”
The intricate instrumentals served both as whimsical background music and as motivational tool, their growing momentum spurring Mr. Seim toward ever higher levels of push-button mastery. The music etched itself into his consciousness through endless repetition; all his friends knew the goofy riffs by heart, as if they had been written by Jimmy Page himself.
When Mr. Seim heard two Nevada Union High School classmates play a set of Nintendo cover songs at a talent show in 1999, he felt he had found his true calling. He joined the band on drums and began his career as a video-game-song cover artist. His video-rock band, the Advantage, consists of high school buddies (minus the original two members, who moved to Milwaukee). It plays nothing but music from the original Nintendo console games, most clocking in at under two minutes; a typical set list from the Advantage’s live show might include such chestnuts as ‘Double Dragon II Stage 2’, ‘Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins Intro’ and ‘Castlevania Epitaph’.
While the tunes have a kitschy nostalgia appeal for listeners who were weaned on the games, the Advantage’s approach is respectful, even reverential, toward the original source material, much of it written by classically trained Japanese composers like Nobuo Uematsu, Koji Kondo and Yoko Shimomura. Mr. Kondo, Nintendo’s in-house composer, wrote the Super Mario Brothers theme and is regarded by aficionados as the Mozart of video game composers.
“The composers wrote some pretty amazing stuff,” said Mr. Seim, who also plays guitar in the indie rock band Hella. “Even when traditional classical music is used in the games, the original music far surpasses it in complexity.”
One game can have many different musical moods. “The first level, which is simple, will have playful music,” said Carson McWhirter, 23, the bass player in the Advantage. “Then, as it jumps into the next level, it will become aggressive and dramatic. The composers had to conform to the game’s guidelines, but it makes for some very interesting transitions.”
Mr. Kondo and his contemporaries recorded much of the music using synthesizers, but chirpy sound effects and cheesy drum machine beats are nowhere to be found on the Advantage’s self-titled debut album, recently released on the independent rock label 5 Rue Christine. Instead, Mr. Seim and his band mates, Mr. McWhirter and the guitarists Nick Rogers, 21, and Ben Milner, 24, give the songs room to breathe and expand into high-decibel blowouts.
In developing the Advantage’s material, Mr. Seim followed this rule of thumb: games with lots of levels, action and diverse scenery yielded the most challenging music. Castlevania, a vampires-and-maidens game set in the Middle Ages, features angular, vaguely gothic melodies that allow the Advantage to dabble in Black Sabbath-like horror metal, while a game like Mega Man, in which a humanoid robot battles evil, has punchy, heroic music that inspires stately guitar processionals.
When Mr. Seim and the Advantage were first playing together, the songs came hard and fast; all of the members cherished the same clutch of songs, especially Mr. Kondo’s Super Mario theme.
Having mastered those, they wanted to delve deeper into the Nintendo catalog, but the music files on the first-generation games turned out to be difficult to decipher and impossible to manipulate. Even when transferred to cassette tape, the music was too muddy to hear. “A lot of the music is cartoony-sounding,” Mr. Seim said. “It’s a mono signal, and there are so many different harmonies going on, it’s hard to tell which instrument is doing what.”
To deconstruct the songs, Mr. McWhirter loaded the music files from the games onto a PC and ran them through a piece of software called Nosefart. Developed primarily by Matt Conte, a programmer who worked on games like Finding Nemo and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, the software is a plug-in that decodes files in NES Sound Format, or NSF, ripped from Nintendo games. It allowed the band to separate the component parts and listen to them at reduced tempos, allowing note-perfect facsimiles.
“Some of it is insanely fast,” Mr. McWhirter said. “It wasn’t written for humans to play on normal instruments.”
The music can take listeners by surprise. It can easily be mistaken for long-lost Yes songs, or for a homage to John Zorn’s East Village avant-rock. For those familiar with the songs, however, what it enshrines above all are misspent youth and the cathode-ray glory days of Nintendo.
“This music does weird things to people’s brains,” Mr. Seim said. “It takes me back to the days of eating mac and cheese at a friend’s house and learning the games. Good times.”
© Marc Weingarten, The New York Times, 29 April 2004