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YMCK: Chiptunes With Emotion

YMCKI have always enjoyed video game music. In the days of my youth I would leave some games on pause or wait in a “safe” area just to hear the music loop a few times. Many games ceased to become any sort of challenge as I played them repeatedly, long after I had mastered them, just to hear my favorite pieces of music. I remember hooking up a mono headphone to my television and laying that headphone right on the built-in microphone of my tape deck to record all the music from the boss rush sequence in Gradius 3. Even today I re-play these older games or fire up a game music emulator so I can once again be moved by the magic created by such chiptune masters as Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, “Yuukichan’s Papa” and Nobuo Uematsu.

While modern game music is well orchestrated and has produced some powerful pieces (To Zanarkand / ザナルカンドにて from Final Fantasy X for example), to me there is often an element of enjoyment and “fun” that is missing. I find that modern game music just isn’t as memorable. Almost everyone knows the first seven notes of Super Mario Brothers, Tetris is instantly recognizable and Contra’s first jungle stage instantly gets the blood pumping. Chiptune music, when properly done, goes hand-in-hand with the visuals of the game and draws you in to that fantasy world in a way that only the largest of orchestras in a perfectly acoustically balanced venue could hope to do.

Many others have shared my enjoyment of these older sources of music and have created new works from that enjoyment. Many have remixed the classic tunes of yesterday using the latest equipment available and full orchestras — symphonic concerts of game music are extremely popular in Japan, not to mention common. Others seek to recreate the feel of these earlier games by creating new works using “outdated” tools and equipment, which is not a new phenomenon. In the mid 1980s people were creating original music for SID chips found inside Commodore 64s or the Atari POKEY in Atari 8-bit home computers. However it has certainly been pushed further into the mainstream in recent years as techno and electronica styles of music are becoming more popular and easy-to-use software packages have been developed that emulate these old chip-based sound systems.

New chiptune music can have a tendency to be harsh and jarring if you’re not used to it. Homages to favorite games of yesterday or flat remixes of current music hits run amok, but there are some fantastic composers and groups out there. Debuting in 2003 with a six-track CD titled Family Music (sporting a classic Famicom “lighting bolt” design element), Japanese chiptune group YMCK seeks to capture the element of “fun” found in 8-bit era chiptune music and add what is unfortunately so often missing from this genre: heart and soul.

Family Music 2003 Family Music 2004 Family Racing

Family Genesis

YMCK has released three more albums since their debut: Family Music was expanded to 12 tracks and re-released in 2004, Family Racing was released in 2005 and their latest, Family Genesis, released in 2008 (still using 8-bit sound, not SEGA Genesis equipment). Some of the songs have downloadable samples available — click the pink graphic next to the track name. “Starlight” from Family Genesis has a sprite music video online.

The Japan Times has recently interviewed YMCK about their band philosophy and their expectations of their latest album:

YMCK“The music in video games is less memorable now than it was in the old days,” says Midori Kurihara, vocalist with YMCK, and she should know: Her Tokyo three-piece band emulates the sound of classic scores to games on the 8-bit Nintendo Famicom console (known in the West as the Nintendo Entertainment System) that gave “Super Mario Bros.” to the world in 1985.

“These days video-game music is more cinematic,” counters Tomoyuki Nakamura, who co-writes the band’s music and handles animation for their suitably pixelated music videos. “But it’s not as impressive as before.”

“The music from games such as ‘Mario Bros.’ or ‘Dragon Quest,’ we can still sing along to those,” agrees Takeshi Yokemura, the unit’s driving member, who writes most of the music and lyrics and also crafts the band’s sound.

[…]

Despite their love for the games of yesteryear and their nerdy appearance, Yokemura, Kurihara and Nakamura insist that they are not video-game otaku (obsessive fans). (“I don’t collect figures or video games, so I can’t be an otaku,” says Yokemura.) They’re simply happy to create playful music with an air of nostalgia, and they insist that limiting themselves to a single palette of sounds actually opens many creative doors.

“Being restricted makes us think harder about how to make good music,” says Yokemura. “The sound may be the same from song to song, but it opens us up to all sorts of new ideas.”

A sign of the growing acceptance and cultural impact of video games (and retro gaming specifically), Family Genesis is available for purchase through Apple’s iTunes Music Store for $12. I strongly encourage you to pick this album and give it a try. The lyrics are in Japanese, of course, but the emotion and soul present in the music transcends the language barrier.

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