A Dummy’s Guide to 8-Bit Music Past and Present

One of the more enjoyable things we came across on the internet this morning was this 8-bit remix of the Game of Thrones theme, and it got us thinking about how 8-bit music and culture has slowly threatened to work its way into the mainstream over the last few years. In a way, it makes sense — the generation who grew up with Commodore 64s and NESes are in their 30s now, and very much a target market for retro chic. Systems like the C64 and NES were amongst the first genuinely affordable home computers, and they had rudimentary sound hardware that could create simple and distinctive sounds. Musicians soon started to explore how these sounds could be used, and in the years since, 8-bit music has grown to encompass everything from the world of chiptune — which faithfully uses vintage hardware to create new music — to a selection of artists who take 8-bit influences and work them into hybrid sounds. So here’s an exploration of 8-bit sounds past and present.

Koji Kondo – “Theme from Super Mario Bros.” (1985)

Probably the most well-known 8-bit composition ever, Koji Kondo’s loping calypso-flavored theme to Super Mario Bros. was an early example of what could be accomplished with the Nintendo Entertaiment System’s relatively simple hardware — two square-wave oscillators, one triangle-wave oscillator, a noise channel and a rudimentary digital sampler. In the same way that games of the time worked within their limitations and used them to best advantage, focusing on gameplay and design rather than spectacular graphics etc, so too did their accompanying music. The Super Mario theme retains an unparalleled ability to get stuck in your head, as anyone who grew up in the 1980s will attest.