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Game Boy Rock

Nintendo’s Game Boy can be hacked to create synthesizer-like original music.
December 1, 2005

In music clubs and dorm rooms around the world, intrepid geeks are transforming Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy system into a do-it-yourself musical instrument. The device can be made to sequence its embedded sounds – digital blips and bleeps of the Donkey Kong sort – as if it were a synthesizer.

First you find a programmable Game Boy flash memory cartridge and hook it up to your PC. Then you download a “chiptunes” music program, some of which are freely available, and transfer it to the cartridge. Once your Game Boy is loaded, you hit its controller buttons to arrange its signature sounds.

The results sound like computer game music of unusual complexity. Online, Game Boy musicians have posted their arrangements of songs ranging from “Let It Snow” to “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode.

Game hacking is nothing new. Enthusiasts of classic computers such as the Commodore 64 continue to churn out new uses for old systems. But chiptunes is the hot trend these days. In 2005, the alternative rock artist Beck embraced the medium, releasing Game Boy remixes of four of his songs.

Nintendo won’t comment on the trend. But silence doesn’t necessarily mean condemnation. “If it doesn’t affect bottom line and [does] create interest in the platform in unique and novel ways,” says Michael Gartenberg, a vice president at JupiterResearch, “companies like Nintendo are comfortable with it.”

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