"In memory of the explored pixelated dungeons"

--Cauldron 80 (2021)

In another life, I spent a considerable amount of time with video game music–specifically rock and electronic tribute bands who would play renditions or remixes of video game songs. Many of these acts played video game conventions, where there was a focus on nostalgic entertainment for the attendees. This genre of tribute music has been tagged as chiptune for electronic and referred to as Nintendocore for the rock variety (though that name has never been used even as a joke). The artists in this nebula would play music in medium size video game conventions as well as warehouse concerts and bar shows. Before the advent of reliable streaming services like Bandcamp, much of this music existed on file sharing networks and through purchased CDs that were acquired through merch tables at conventions. It was a scene of people that were not only heavily involved in the tribute of video games but also expressing it in the noisiest and sometimes the most DIY way possible.

In small side rooms of upscale convention halls, guitarists would play video game riffs over top of drum machines while projections of Nintendo games would scroll on screens behind them. This was not only a celebration of interests but it was a crude ritual that would not be the same as just playing official soundtracks. It had to be loud, it had to be rough, and it most of all had to be exciting. In the small crowds you would hear people call out requests and then ecstatic cheering when a familiar tune would be belted out of very loud and oftentimes broken amps. The time and energy I put into this scene of music is probably why I made an effort to earmark certain dungeon synth bands that carried the same sense of love and chaos when it came to expressing themselves through games from the past.

Dungeon Chip or Dungeon Chiptune is dungeon synth that utilizes chiptune–a style of synthesized electronic music made by using the programmable sound generator chips or synthesizers in vintage arcade machines, computers, and video game consoles. Chiptune has a long, winding history and, much like Dungeon Rap, Dungeon Chip is the extension of a niche sound within the world of an even more niche style. Dungeon chip participants are small and its history only seems to cover a few sporadic years. Dungeon Chip is the waystation between the nostalgic tribute of chiptune and the fantastical escapism of dungeon synth.

Dungeon synth's history is entwined with the concept of games. This relationship between dungeon synth and tabletop games shares a vision of fantasy with active agency. This is not just an artist and listener experiencing a realm of fantasy but one where they are the one making choices and experiencing the world. Much of the early acts in dungeon synth’s history were dedicated to the general realm of fantasy. Later, during dungeon synth’s revival in the 2010's, tabletop and videogames would be more incorporated and celebrated. The combination of video games and dungeon synth would not fully be realized for another few years but its precedents can be heard in some of its early innovators.

At the dawn of the dungeon synth revival in the 2010's, bedroom musicians were blossoming out of genres like neoclassical, medieval, and dark ambient. This was a time when streaming platforms (like Bandcamp) and MP3 download services (like MEGAUPLOAD) allowed the dissemination of music without the need of a record label. It also propelled ideas as quick as an internet connection would allow. Dungeon synth was born out of this primordial soup and some of its earliest creators were trying many things. While still archiving the original sound of dark dungeon music in the 1990's heard in acts like Mortiis and Depressive Silence, the early creators of dungeon synth revival paid tribute to the other influences -- perhaps inspirations which resided on the same computer they used to make their music.


Abandoned Places

Abandoned Places was a US act which operated from 2011 to 2015. The project was originally planned as an eight album cycle and through its short lifespan existed as a dying star. During the early to mid 2010's, few if any knew the connection between Abandoned Places and other dungeon synth projects like Erdstall and Mystic Towers. Even fewer knew the connection between these dungeon synth acts and the experimental black metal act Jute Gyte. The early albums from Abandoned Places were mired in dark ambient but possessed a sound that triggered specific memories from fans. Bandcamp user Simon Gold wrote for 2012's With the Dead, in the Language of the Dead:

"Get your old copy of Ultima Underworld out or crack open LOTR and stick this on. Crunchy low-ends like claws on bone, drones and bells hanging in the air like an echo you might've imagined from the murk behind you."

When discussing the work of Abandoned Places, its creator Adam Kalmbach, revealed that "Abandoned Places was inspired by DOS RPGs and their soundtracks, and the FM synth timbres of old Sound Blaster sound cards and the Sega Genesis. The atmosphere of the game Daggerfall, with its endless wasteland overworld and impossible dream-space underworld, was particularly important to the idea of Abandoned Places." Kalmbach was forthcoming when asked about Abandoned Places and its history with video games. When asked about other projects such as Mystic Towers and the 2012 release Inner Kingdoms, Kalmbach continued that "Mystic Towers was inspired by text-based games and the type-in games published in old computing magazines. The album art is similar to the generic black and white illustrations often used in those magazines and the color palette is borrowed from QBasic. The sounds used in Mystic Towers are sampled from 1980s toy keyboards. "

Abandoned Places never felt in full tribute to dungeon crawling computer games. Each of the covers for each of the releases was morose minimal artwork rather than some facsimile of a computer game. The sound for Kalmbach's work was not playful nor was it a novelty intended to elicit smiles. There was no warm machine of nostalgia present in any of the work, rather an engine of dread. If there was any reference to the past from Abandoned Places it was buried under the weight of soil and despair. Kalmbach would underscore this distant connection between dungeon synth and video games by concluding that "Aside from fantasy aesthetics, I think what connects dungeon synth with old CRPGs is their betweenness, the felt distance between the work and what it represents, and the imaginative leap required from the person who experiences the work, which is a kind of longing that I think nourishes the spirit."

This liminal space between the work and what it represents is one of the most interesting aspects about music made in tribute or music inspired by the things of the past. It is not a direct retelling nor is distantly influenced. Abandoned Places, and what would eventually become dungeon chip exists between the things it represents but is initially operating in its own unique world. While this world is small, it is still thriving with flourishing ideas and rich history.


Synth Bard

One of my first experiences with the sound of video games within a dungeon synth template was through Synth Bard. This US artist has dedicated their work to the tribute of video and tabletop games through the synthesized sounds of past media. Gold Box Renditions was the 2015 debut by Synth Bard set as a homage to a series of Dungeons and Dragons computer games produced by SSI from 1988 to 1992. This was a dungeon synth record in tribute to a video game presented in a classical electronic tribute. It was a sound that was closer to the work of composer Wendy Carlos than sounded like nothing that was being produced at the time. The level of production from Synth Bard's debut is still impressive and stands as an essential album not only to dungeon synth but also to whatever style is most fitting.

When asked about The Gold Box Renditions and its relationship to chiptune, Synth Bard's creator said "I can see how it could be considered chiptune, but I never thought of it that way. From what I understand, a big part of chiptune is that it’s produced with a digital sound chip. The Gold Box album was created all on analog synthesizers." Synth Bard highlighted further work with his 2017 release Ravenloft - The Unofficial Soundtrack saying "for me the Ravenloft album was actually more of a chiptune album, since it was created on a couple Proteus units, which were featured on tons of video games from the 90s."

Synth Bard would be an important, if not slightly overlooked, work in the field of game tribute. From 2015 to 2021, this project would make unofficial and interactive soundtracks to Dungeons and Dragons modules such as the aforementioned Ravenloft but also Beyond the Crystal Cave and Isle of Dread. Much of Synth Bard's work pulls from the past but asks its listener to be active in nostalgia.. When asked about the concept of nostalgia, Synth Bard said "I don’t think my intent was to evoke nostalgia, but it was probably a motivator. I actually started the Gold Box album because I wanted to get better at transcribing music by ear, and thought those themes wouldn’t be too difficult to transcribe, because the tones were pretty clear. But why did I choose those songs in particular? Probably because I had such great memories playing the games. I’m a big CRPG fan. I think the first ones I got into were the SSI games in the early 1990s – Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Menzoberranzan, those games. Then after those I went back and explored the older Gold Box and Eye of the Beholder series. What interests me the most are musical projects that involve sonic world building - like trying to create a whole mood and environment just from sound. I’m also intrigued by music that has a use value outside of just listening to it –stuff that is made specifically to supplement other activities, like gaming, learning, meditating, whatever. So the Synth Bard albums are really at the center of that Venn Diagram.

Both Synth Bard and Abandoned Places underscores the variety when it comes to video games within the realm of dungeon synth. The influence and desire to revisit the sounds of the past comes not just through tribute but through reference and ultimate synthesis with something new. While both artists would reference and be influenced by video games of the past, dungeon chip did not enter into the conversation until the mid to late 2010's. Since Dungeon synth is an internet genre with many of its community connected through social media, many of its artists and fans could be seen on forums discussing the music and the potential future of sound. In these forums one can see nascent genres taking shape by way of creators brainstorming and sharing experimental notes.


Garvalf / Digre

During its revival, Dungeon Synth lived on social media and forums. Whether Facebook, Reddit, fan made blogs, or unaffiliated forums, the heart of the genre is connected through the internet. Here, artists and fans promoted music, archived history, and discussed the future of the sound. This was a crucible of experimentation which led to artists hearing a new sound, trying it for themselves and then recording a record, putting it on Bandcamp and then linking it on social media. This cycle of inspiration and mimicry led to small waves of sound that would perpetuate itself. A small wave of dungeon chip would be heard in 2018 but before that, a few artists would meet and discuss their music on these forums.

The manifesto on the bottom of the 2015 release by French artist Garvalf was very clear in its declaration of a style: "Louder than Death Metal, rawer than Black Metal, darker than Chiptune, here is the One Myth album, composed entirely for Sinclair ZX Spectrum beeper." This statement was a deliberate combination of dungeon synth and chiptune made with intent in mind to mimic the sound of early video games. Though almost entirely lost to history, Garvalf and their early work was very vocal in its intent to combine the two genres even though many if not any were doing the same thing. "I've started music by creating metal," Garvalf recalls "by combining synth and guitars which was quite natural and un-original at that time. I have a solid background and interest in black metal music. I discovered GoatTracker around 2003 or 2005 and I've started to compose music with it. Since it was difficult for me at that time to work with guitars, it was easier to use a tracker, and I was also much attracted to the SID Chip sound (Commodore 64). So in the 2000s I was really going toward the direction of ancient music + chiptune at that moment."

Garvalf would continue illuminating his early work with dungeon synth and chiptune in 2000's by discussing the creation of his website: "We created in the past several tunes in the medieval / renaissance mood. They were composed on real instruments and / or synths. We've just transcribed some of them using trackers software, longing for the sound we heard on computers from our childhood." When asked about the inspirations for this early experiments, Garvalf recalls "I was much inspired by the black metal intros and mood of that time, or even artists which defined the DS genre later (such as Summoning, Burzum, Mortiis), but some Atari ST, Amiga or Amstrad games had also such inspiring sounds, back from the 1989 era, with Stormlord, Iron Lord, Les voyageurs du Temps, Shadow of the Beast, Targhan, Heroes of the Lance, Powermonger, Ultima IV, and Wizardry (from 1985, composed by Graham Jarvis & Rob Hartshorne)"

Garvalf still maintains the website from 2003 which houses many dungeon synth and chiptune streams which are a testament to not only an internet that is no longer used but also the nascent dungeon synth sound before its revival in the 2010s. One Myth's release in 2015 might have been the first release shared with a greater audience but the combination of chipsounds and the primordial beginnings of dungeon synth can be still streamed on this website.

At around the same time as One Myth was another artist running in the same weird circles. I remember listening to and reading reactions to Digre's Martyryxan at the time of its release. While dungeon synth was settling and dealing with identity issues of how traditional or how experimental it wanted to be, here was a Swedish artist who not only composed music to sound like 1980's computer games but devoted everything to spiritual worship. Dungeon synth, while not an anti spiritual genre, has more overlap with black metal's interest in the occult and esoteric topics than with the liturgical history of early Christianity. Digre would go against many grains and would go on to create many records from 2017-2019 all in the same template of pixelated worship music.

When asked about the process of creation and interest in chip music, Digre's creator recalled "I got the impulse of concept while reading an online magazine called Archaic Triad, who focused on, among other things, dungeon and chiptune. My intent was to use retro-sounding chip styled methods to convey the atmosphere and feeling I got from dungeon music. I started making Martyryxan with a computer program claiming to use the sound of the Game Boy but it was actually only a tracker with samples. The tracks made with this program were very rough and intransigent but not really proper or legitimate. I then got into using Famitracker which very authentically is used to compose NES and Famicon music. Tracks with this program can be directly transferred to a NES cartridge to be played directly on the Entertainment System or extracted as wav-files. For me it was important for the sounds to be authentic to the old game systems of my youth without sounding like an imitation video games music. Imitation, parody and mockery are most boring and I despise it. Joyful inspiration and creative theft on the other hand are the melody of my success. Making dungeon imitating video game music or even video game music imitating dungeon is probably what I do but I like to think I evolved something other than else."

Martyryxan's embrace of early video game sounds but the quest to marry it with something else is a sentiment seen in the other artists. Though spiritual chip could be an odd gimmick, most of Digre's music and drive to create lay within a deep foundation of musical and technological understanding. When asked about the more technical aspects of noise and music, Digre illuminated "this was not my intent but a result of me wanting the untampered sound of the old systems who are often harsh. There is no sinus in the Nintendo. Only square and triangle, Two squares and one triangle channels. And a noise one. And some kind of sample channel that I never used. There is amplitude control and even envelope that can be used to make the sounds softer around the edges but it still sounds pretty abrasive if focused on. The punitive aspect of sound is for those who can’t dig it. I grew up with music sounding like this. The difference is that we used to listen to game music on feeble television speakers and now with the headphones it sounds sharper. My intent was to have the nostalgic sound because I thinks it is awesome but most chiptune emphasize on drum rhythm and I like it better when melody is in focus. "

Digre's music, much like other artists discussed, remains important as well as overlooked in the history of dungeon synth. When asked about the larger scene of dungeon chip musicians Digre recalled " early on I found Moaning Shadows along with loads of Dungeon in general and was very thrilled about it. There was nothing unique with what I was doing other than the Christian theme. There was no multitude of chiptune styled dungeon synth back then and the few that acted active all had their very own sounds. I very much enjoyed Elric and Moaning Shadows both and was happy to be communicating with Garvalf who was well versed in technically pure chip music. I am not sure when it happened but suddenly there was a manifold of Chiptune Dungeon (or Nintendo-DS as I like to call it) along with an even greater cascade of dungeon of less deviating styles. I am convinced that Digre would not have been noticed at all if it was released today along with the numerous other daily newcomers. A few years back most new projects had some kind of uniqueness and individuality and even if this is still happening there are even more projects mainly doing plagiarism. More or less. A new brilliant dungeon act may today be conceived as just another snake cult.


Elric / Basic Dungeon / Kobold

2017 would see the release of not only Digre's debut, but also key components which would bring a wave of artists experimenting with the sound. Though English artist Elric would release their debut, Elric of Melniboné, in January of 2017, it would not be until a few months later when included in the Bandcamp article "A Guide Through the Darkened Passages of Dungeon Synth'' that this release would see greater attention. From the writer Robert Newsome:

"It’s safe to say that fantasy literature and role-playing games (the tabletop and the video variety) loom large in the world of Dungeon Synth, and Elric expertly combines both of them. Inspired by the chiptune soundtracks of games like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana as well as (obviously) the fantasy novels of Michael Moorcock, Elric’s music is the perfect soundtrack to crawling through (16-bit) alcoves, searching for abandoned potions and treasure while trying to avoid the hungry ghouls hidden in the shadows."

It is unclear how much this article propelled the sound of dungeon chip into greater consciousness but the article's placement on Bandcap's website would bring the sound to a much wider and confused audience. The article would spur debate and discussion from the dungeon synth community about its newfound and relative popularity in the mainstream. Among this chaos and strife among social media scenes dungeon synth kept on experimenting with splinter styles such as dungeon noise as well as a lo-fi dungeon chip style. Similar to Elric, other artists combined a chip sound with an aesthetic of old computer and tabletop RPGs. Though the majority of these records would exhibit the same raw production and visual aesthetics, there was a series of records by Italian label Heimat Der Katastrophe (HDK) which opened a new chapter in what dungeon chip could be.


HDK is a label with an extensive back catalog. This collective is a group of Italian artists who pull together a variety of vintage obscura to add to a variety of synth. The creators of HDK are behind both projects Kobold and Basic Dungeon but the actual details lay beneath a veil of secrecy and artistic misinformation. When pressed on the question of both projects, the creators relented that "Kobold is a tribute to the early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, which we used to play as children during the 1980s. This little humanoid with only 4 hit points composes music inspired by the first 8/16 bit home-computers or coin-ops but there is a very particular selection of sounds that in the various albums has remained essentially the same."

Both projects for HDK were designed to venerate games of the past. Much like the majority of HDK's catalog, these releases were quasi interactive intended to pull the listener into an immersive world. When asked about the source material for inspiration for both the Kobold and Basic Dungeon projects, the creators revealed "A lot of attention during the creation of a Kobold album is paid to the stories - real scripts for OSR modules - to the arrangements and description of the specific situations of the adventure, trying to faithfully link music & texts with all the steps and twists, while maintaining a structure of the classically pop songs (verse / chorus). Instead Basic Dungeon is a specific tribute to the first - heroic! - videogames era where a few pixels and a couple of "beep-beeps" were enough to let the imagination travel! In Basic Dungeon there is also some research, almost "philological", on sounds: we used real sounds taken from old computers & consoles such as MSX, Commodore 16, Spectrum, Colecovision, Videopac and much more. Both projects look to the past but try to mix the elements to create a new synthesis."

Both the Basic Dungeon and Kobold releases would be well received and their tape editions sold out on the Bandcamp within days of its release. Further releases would come in 2018 which saw the most of dungeon chips output. HDK provided a high point of artistic care when it came to dungeon chip since the majority of the style reveled in minimal abrasion, both Basic Dungeon and Kobold would come with more polished production and also well designed tape covers. This artistic watermark gives a spectrum of sound and style that all artists used as a playground in the years to follow.

When putting together this article, I was amazed at not only the scope of the genre but also the willingness of its creators to reflect upon their work. The story of dungeon chip continues in 2018 with a string of releases from January to December of 2018. This wave of dungeon chip was inspired from everything that came before it but seemed to fall in line with each other . Whether inspired by each other or just pulling from the same inspirational pool, these 2018 releases make up the largest collection of dungeon chip. The story of these records and the thoughts from their creators will be told at another time. What is known at this moment is the love for the past but the desire to live in the future is shared among all who took up the mantle of dungeon chip. These artists were not blind followers recreating memories rather taking them and forging them into something new. Dungeon synth continues to be a fascinating genre which houses many secrets that we still seem to be unlocking.

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