When Niamh Houston was around four years old, she and her sister received a Game Boy and a copy of Super Mario Land for Christmas. Along with the game and handheld, they also had a tiny speaker that plugged into the Game Boy’s headphone jack, amplifying the sound. For Houston, her earliest memories aren’t of collecting coins in the game or exploring the Mushroom Kingdom. “I remember the music the most,” she says. “It was really raw and beautiful, and unlike anything else that you’d hear.”
That little speaker would have a big impact on her. Today, Houston is better known by her stage name Chipzel; she’s one of the most iconic performers in the chiptune scene, where musicians make new songs using old video game hardware. Today she travels the world performing with a pair of Game Boys onstage, and has also become heavily involved with composing soundtracks for indie games. “I thought it was super cool and really punk, and really futuristic and weird and nerdy,” she says of discovering the chiptune scene. “I just loved everything about the aesthetic.”
That Houston would have a career involving music wasn’t too much of a surprise. She grew up in a musical household in Ireland, and taught herself the basics of playing piano and guitar. She also tried her hand at the violin, but gave it up pretty quickly. (“Violin is a great instrument if you know how play it,” she says, “but if you’re learning it’s painful for you and everyone around you.”) Meanwhile, she had a budding interest in electronic music, but the software was prohibitively expensive.
GAME BOY’S 30TH ANNIVERSARY
Sunday, April 21st, 2019, marks the Game Boy’s 30th anniversary. We’re running stories all week long to celebrate the influential portable device, looking at the many ways it shaped the games industry and its importance as a cultural object. Stay tuned for new pieces each day until Friday — and keep track of every story right here.
Around this same time, she stumbled across the musician Sabrepulse while listening to Last.fm, and from there discovered the chiptune scene. It was the perfect storm, a way to jump into making electronic music that made sense for her. “Chiptunes were really accessible, and I loved the sound of it,” Houston explains. “It was easy enough to get started at the time, and it meant that I could just compose full songs by myself, and wouldn’t have to think about joining a band.”
As a teenager, Houston learned her way around the software LSDJ; essentially a sequencer that you could put on a cartridge to plug into an original Game Boy. She released some songs, and after a few years, found herself performing shows across Europe and the US. In 2011, for instance, she played Blip Festival in New York alongside the likes of Anamanaguchi. Then, while she was still attending university, Houston received a surprising request: game designer Terry Cavanagh wanted to license one of her songs for his hard-as-nails browser game Hexagon. It turned into a small hit, and was expanded into the mobile release Super Hexagon in 2012, with Houston again providing the music. “Everything went a bit insane from there,” she says of her career.
Since then, she’s released a handful of solo albums and composed soundtracks for multiple other games. Current projects include the upcoming rogue-like Dicey Dungeons, a collaboration with Cavanagh and artist Marlowe Dobbe, as well as the arcade shooter Ultra Bugs from Dutch studio Vlambeer. Houston says that, while she enjoys both, creating solo chiptune songs and composing soundtracks for games are very different experiences.
“When you’re composing for yourself, it’s like you’re manifesting whatever comes out, and if it’s an idea I’m feeling I’ll run with it and it’ll progress in whatever way it wants to,” she explains. “There’s no restrictions or guidelines. But whenever you’re composing for interactive media or a certain story, you have to try and become that story, to write for it. You have to find yourself in it, and then try to create something unique from it.”
Early in her career, Houston took a self-imposed exile from her trusty Game Boy. She studied music production in school for two years, learning the core components of music composition and sound design, while discovering new software tools. Before that, her only experience making electronic music was with Nintendo’s classic handheld, and she wanted to prove she could make other kinds of sounds as well. “When I came back to it,” she says of her return to chiptunes, “I had all of this other stuff that I had learned from ‘real’ music, and how to structure and arrange and design sounds in a way that’s more interesting.”
Houston says that her process and tools haven’t changed much since she first started out, despite now being a chiptune veteran of a decade. She still uses classic Game Boys and the LSDJ software, though she admits that she’s “had to buy more Game Boys” over the years. What started as a spark of inspiration as a child turned into a hobby before exploding into a full-blown career. Today, Houston finds herself regularly asked to compose soundtracks for games, and she’s had to learn to turn down projects to keep from being overwhelmed. But she’s also looking at exploring her solo work once again in the near future.
“I haven’t written stuff for myself for a long time,” she says, “and I want to get back to that.”