People have been pumping out recordings of themselves performing video game music since the dawn of internet video. (Remember this guy?) But this might be the first time we’ve come across a video of a video game console performing its own music (and sound effects). First published in August, the above video from a YouTube user that goes by Roboband (and whose real name might be David Thompson) showcases a fancy automated rig that uses a couple of cheap micro-computers—specifically, Raspberry Pi computers—to interpret the sounds coming out of an NES and reroute them to a robotic piano/percussion setup, which plays it in near real-time. (The contraption’s creator mentions that there is normally a half-second delay between the game and the robo-band, which was taken out when the video was edited.)
This rig checks all the boxes for a cool video game-related internet thing, but it also illuminates a couple of finer points about the nature of sound on the NES and the way it evolved through Nintendo’s games. The console had a very limited number of sounds that could be played at the same time. What at first appears to be the robo-band struggling to keep up with Super Mario Bros. is actually a reflection of this limitation. Background music and sound effects both take up some of this audio capability, so when Mario munches the mushroom, the sound of his growth replaces some of the musical details. This tradeoff becomes especially apparent when you’re hearing—and watching—it happen with live instruments.
The video also lays out the increasing audio complexity of the early Mario games. Juxtaposed with the original, Super Mario Bros. 2’s ragtime score sounds more lush and alive. And the detailed soundscape of Mario 3 sounds like a total mess with its added effects for everything from Mario running to the skid as he quickly changes direction. And yet, nothing is quite as attention-grabbing as that initial lonely tone that plays when Super Mario Bros. starts up.