Game Boy Tribute

A program note on the Game Boy project, created in 2016

Game Boy Tribute is part musical homage to the Nintendo Game Boy and part historical study of the early musical origins of video game music. I took on a commission this year to honor one of the toys from the Strong Museum’s National Toy Hall of Fame and chose to write a piece that was a tribute to the Nintendo Game Boy, the popular handheld portable gaming device from 1989. It made the most sense to me to create this tribute by writing a piece that used the vast amount of music that was written for the Game Boy and to use the Game Boy itself to play the piece. I found a list of the most popular games for the Game Boy on Wikipedia and using my computer and the internet to play back the original music for these games I transcribed what I considered to be the most iconic song from the most popular sixteen games for the system. To write the piece, I morphed these transcriptions into a big mashup of love, fitting together melodies onto the wrong songs and stacking them on top of each other (Much in the style of the YouTube channel SiIvagunner). These games include:

1. Tetris
2. Pokémon Red and Blue
3. Pokémon Gold and Silver
4. Super Mario Land
5. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
6. Pokémon Yellow
7. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
8. Kirby’s Dream Land
9. The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages
10. The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons
11. Pokémon Crystal
12. Pokémon Trading Card Game
13. Super Mario Bros. Deluxe
14. Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Monsters 4: Battle of the Powerful Duelists
15. Dragon Warrior Monsters
16. Kirby’s Dream Land 2

After aurally transcribing the songs and writing the piece in Sibelius (my notation software), I meticulously edited the score so that the music would be accurately played by the Game Boy as it originally did on their original games using MIDI control changes to edit pulse-wave length data, envelope data, and vibrato. To play the music on the Game Boy, MIDI comes out of my computer using the music software editing program Logic and is sent to an Arduino, a small interfacing gadget that I bought pre-built for this exact purpose with interacting with a Game Boy. The Arduino translates the MIDI data from my computer and sends it to the Game Boy which has a cartridge that can interpret the data and play it out of the Game Boy’s speaker. This essentially turns the Game Boy into a synthesizer. To play the piece live, I hook up a large speaker to the Game Boy so that the music can be loud enough to be heard.

Marc preparing for a live performance at the George Eastman House. The speaker he’s setting up is to amplify the Game Boy as connected directly via an aux cable.

Only being able to produce simple tones three notes at a time along with a noise generator for percussion, the composers writing music for these games came up with some creative and innovative solutions to create music for this primitive piece of hardware. These limitations resulted in this wonky crude kind of music that I and many others really enjoy (Known as “chiptune” music).

Watch a visualization of a realized performance here:

Go Ichinose
Hirokazu Ando
Hirokazu Tanaka
Ichirō Shimakura
Jun Ishikawa
Junichi Masuda
Kazumi Totaka
Koichi Sugiyama
Koji Kondo
Kozue Ishikawa
Minako Hamano
Morikazu Aoki
Tadashi Ikegami