Posted by: dougery | September 15, 2010

8-bit Aesthetics

During the summer of 1987 a bomb was dropped on my childhood and the name of that bomb was the NES. Like other weapons of mass destruction, your MIRVs say, or sundry German V-weapons, it has a choice acronym for a name. Like the Vergeltungswaffen (doesn’t that just roll off the tongue? Way easier than just saying Weapon of Reprisal or plain old Vengeance Bomb) the NES doesn’t beat around the bush. It tells you exactly what it is. Nintendo. Entertainment. System.

An entire system of entertainment. My world was blown.

Not that we as a family could afford one. No, it was hard enough scraping together the bazillion dollars required to land a VCR, back when the company that manufactured them was still sort of a monopoly and the equipment produced as large as sedans. The NES was not a necessity, so I had to find it where I could get it: neighbor’s houses, the arcade at the mall creatively named “Games People Play”, or the elementary school.

That’s right, one asshole even brought his NES in for show and tell. Everyone got a 12 second turn at Super Mario which, it turns out, is like having a spoonful of your favorite ice-cream, letting it just begin to dissolve into milky, sugary goodness on your tongue, and then being told to spit it out and dry off your tongue with a soiled washcloth. But it was a video game at school, and collectively our 30+ person class nearly saved ourselves a princess. Regrettably we discovered she was in another castle and that the game we ‘beat’ was simply the first board. But such is life.

The pasta preferring plumber was succeeded by elves, with their swords and boomerangs and bombs (the people of Hyrule are nothing if not warmongers), and then vampire hunters, space-suited bounty hunters, and robot after robot after robot. Nearly everyone had a cannon for an arm which is nice and all since this was about the same time Evil Dead hit the theaters and all the little boys and girls were cutting off their right hands and refitting them with chainsaws anyways.

The point is, the world of the NES, its system, felt limitless. You had literally some of Japan’s finest minds programming games for the rest of the world. Yet what felt limitless was, in reality, terribly finite. 8-bit technology, seen through the lens of hindsight and scrubbed clear of the soft focus of nostalgia, is stupefyingly primitive. Backgrounds are just block after repeating block. Characters’ actions are reduced to ‘step’ ‘jump’ ‘fight’ and ‘die’. And the music…

Well, truthfully, the music was goddam gorgeous. Considering the restrictions it seems like a miracle that the Castlevania or Mega Man 2 or Ducktales soundtrack could even exist. The songs were like some kind of aural alchemy, rendering simple beeps and bloops, rudimentary synths and tinny drums into, well, songs. Songs, people! Songs. Once you’ve heard the dungeon music of Zelda or “Kraid’s Theme” from Metroid they will forever be singed in your mind.

It is no small wonder then that I have a huge soft spot for what I like to call the “8-bit Aesthetic.” Electronic or Indie Rock music that uses outdated technology to add this sort of throwback sound is right up my alley. Any time a reviewer describes a layer of music as sounding like a Castlevania Organ, and I’m in. Bands like the Crystal Castles, Wolf Parade, Fuck Buttons, and Fang Island have me snatching up everything they produce. To say nothing of legitimate NES ‘cover’ bands like the Advantage, a math rock band adept at rock’n’rollifying classic 8-bit cuts. And you can see why they worked so well 20+ years ago because when transformed into guitars, drums, and keyboards, the songs are fucking lush.

But the 8-bit Aesthetic doesn’t just extend to sound. It’s just as much a visual experience. Think Roy Lichtenstein and the heavy pixelization of pop art. The purposeful reduction of smooth lines into their blocky, glitchy component parts. In a way, recalling our oddly named weapons of mass destruction, it’s like we are breaking down some visual acronyms. Reduction to a sometimes uncomfortable or unstable degree. Computer animated gifs are quintessential and if you want to see 10 minutes of them synched up to Girl Talk, well, consider yourself forewarned:

Cache Rules Everything Around Me from Evan Roth on Vimeo.

Of course then there is just thievery. One of my favorite web comics of all time, 8-bit Theater, uses characters lifted directly from one of the highest grossing video game series of all time, and retrofits their ‘quests’ and adventures with a more familiar and hilariously disturbing modern sensibility. The pixelated heroes don’t so much as conquer evil as avoid death just long enough. 8-bit falls in the genre of Sprite comics, but others develop their own characters using the same general look, comics like, say, Diesel Sweeties.

It was a few years later that my brother and I got an NES for our combined birthdays. Since each day was separated by nearly half a year, one can understand the economics of the operation. Yet it quickly became a family sport. My Dad would buy war games with names like Iron Tank and Commando (I still cringe when I hear the word ‘refuel’ as my Dad would bellow curses when he failed for the umpteenth time to refuel his fighter jet in the game version of Top Gun) and my mom even took a turn or two at Rad Racer.

‘Team’ games were by far the most fun, however. Bubble Bobble, River City Ransom and Rampage are all-time favorites of the Riggs siblings. The former is like acid-trip genius, as you and your teammate are dinosaurs who blow bubbles around your enemies, immobilizing them until they and their bubble prisons are popped, whereupon they are reduced to various kinds of food which when eaten count as points. And Rampage was just that, you and friend operate nuclear-radiated super-huge monsters as they punch in windows, sideswipe helicopters and reduce 200 something American cities to ruin. Never mind that ‘Chicago’ looks exactly like ‘Portland.’ Just reach into that cornice and eat that paparazzo!

The 16-bit revolution and then the 64, and on and on, were inevitable. People and their damned realism. I have to say I fell out of video games a while back. I see commercials for Halo and this and that Western or Mob themed game and I just wince at their seamless production. All of a sudden I’m some cranky old man, sitting on his block porch, yelling at the kids to stay off my pixelated lawn. Best move along now before I aim my arm cannon.

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Responses

  1. This is dorky and beautiful–and beautifully dorky.


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