Classic video game soundtracks for titles like the original Contra, Metroid and the Mega Man series may just sound like simple beeps and boops, but these songs are so complex and meticulous that they've been performed as rock ballads and classical scores all over the world by everyone from suburban garage bands to multipiece symphonies.
If you listen closely enough and move past the limitations of the hardware in systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), you'll hear intricate and rich anthems of action, adventure and adversity produced by tiny sound chips.
Take, for instance, game composer Kazuki Muraoka's memorable score (music, not points) for the run-and-gun shooter Contra. The opening "Jungle Theme" throws punch after punch at players' eardrums — with the same intensity and power as German composer Richard Wagner's war cry composition "Ride of the Valkyries" — as they pilot future marines Bill Rizer and Lance Bean into the line of fire against an alien army and continue to create suspense and intrigue once you're in the thick of the war.
Takashi Tateishi and Manami Matsumae's soundtrack for the sci-fi side-scroller Mega Man II (or Rockman 2, the game's original title in Japan) is just as recognizable as the title's helmeted hero. The game opens with a familiar tune that sounds like an inspired melding of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida and John Williams' "Raiders March." As the story unfolds in the opening cut-scene, the first part of the score is delicate and beautiful, conveying hope for peace and innocence. But when the screen enters its start mode, the tune gets a high dose of octane with a sudden, gear-shifting run of vibrant notes promising action and excitement.
"The NES is actually limited to five total audio channels," says Bryant Williamson, one of the guitarists of the game soundtrack cover band Bit Brigade. "So composers really pushed the limits compositionally within these programming constraints."
The video game cover band consists of five guys from Athens, Georgia, performing rock-juiced covers of classic NES game tunes from the "Press Start" screen to the closing credits. The band will perform a feature-length set of the Mega Man III soundtrack starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 21, at Club Dada.
Williamson and Jace Bartet from the alt-rock group Reptar are on guitars, Luke Fields from We Versus the Shark plays bass and Mike Albanese keeps the beat on drums. The fifth member, Noah McCarthy, wields the most unique instrument in their shows: a NES GamePad controller.
McCarthy plays and finishes the entire game on a giant screen while the band plays the game's soundtrack along to the action on the screen. He attempts to finish the game as quickly as possible — a feat in gaming circles known as "speedrunning."
"Being the speedrunner in Bit Brigade is a lot of fun and very rewarding," McCarthy says. "Building a run and performing it with the band is a lot of hard work, but the end result is intense and satisfying."
The group formed in 2005 with Williamson and guitarist Andy Pruett, who also make up two-thirds of the metal math rock group Cinemechanica. The first iteration had only one-day performances with groups called CONTRABAND for the Contra soundtrack and a Mega Man II cover band called MEGABAND with McCarthy playing both games during the shows. Williamson says he met McCarthy at one of his Cinemechanica shows and knew that his talents for beating classic games could provide some interesting visual stimulation and produce a very unique musical experience.
"I've been playing these games since they originally came out, renting and beating as many as I could," McCarthy says. "So when Bryant asked me to play Contra some 15 years ago, I hadn't really speedrun any games before, but I knew I would be able to learn a reliable play-through."
The group became Bit Brigade when Fields and Albanese joined and helped expand their sound and soundtrack covers for games. Their lineup includes titles like the sci-fi explorer Metroid, the fantasy adventure The Legend of Zelda, the horror-themed Castlevania and even some standards from the Super Nintendo's library.
"Most NES games are programmed to simulate a rock band," Williamson says. "Specifically for two guitars, bass and drums, which works perfectly when transcribing for our lineup. There is a wealth of incredible rock compositions across the entirety of the NES catalog."
McCarthy provides more than just 8-bit eye candy. He says the group describes his role "as a sort of conductor."
"I am leading the performance while the whole band is watching and playing along, but I am also listening to them because there are parts that I am trying to time and line up with visual and musical cues," McCarthy says. "So we are all watching, listening and playing off of each other."
The compositions and timing require a great deal of preparation and concentration. Williamson says the soundtracks and songs are very complex and helped turn these games into pixelated icons of music and pop culture.
"I'll go as far as to say that some of these compositions, in my opinion, are amongst the greatest compositions ever," Williamson says. "Millions of people played and loved these games. It makes complete sense that there would be interest in seeing this music performed live."
The video game rock group Bit Brigade performs a cover of the soundtrack for the video game Mega Man II at Artscape in Baltimore while Noah McCarthy (lower right) tries to defeat the 8-bit side-scroller before a live crowd.
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune,Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.