The electronic blips and chirps, mingling with the crickets and other evening harmonies, are what draw you in at first. Against a building wall, a projected game of Super Mario World plays, but it's not any level you've ever seen. Nearby, a group of people sit around a Powerbook, one of them shaking a Wii remote while the others watch. Above them all, eleven Game Boys and a tangle of wires hang from a tree. What could be going on?
All of the Game Boys were outfitted with Little Sound Disk Jockey (LSDJ), homebrew cartridges programmed to play music on the dated handhelds. Their signals were sent to the laptop and then manipulated by the Wii controller. Tim Jenkinson, the man behind the setup, explains, "The Wii remote acted as a sampler/scratch/pitchshifter/reverser depending on how you shook it, orientated it, or what you pressed. The sound was then sent back, via some amps, into the Game Boys' speakers which were unsoldered from the Game Boy circuitry." The alien Super Mario World stage? Hacked with Lunar Magic and a sprite editor.
It was all part of Tim's "Game Boys Don't Grow On Trees" installation at Millers Yard, a "positive living" center in Gillygate (York, UK). The piece ran there for two days late last August, inviting passer-bys to pick up the Wii remote and play with the music. Tim took some time to answer our questions about the project, giving us some insight on its origins and how the offbeat presentation was received.
I had started playing in a laptop/decks band called Knick Knack & The Jam Master Square [in which] we were essentially mashing together smidgings of other people's tunes live. We had entered a Battle of the Bands thing and I was talking to a judge one night who said we would get more marks for audience participation. I suggested, as a long shot, getting the audience to play Super Mario Bros. on the ceiling while we beat matched and sampled the music. The long shot paid off and the audience loved it, we got all the way to the final. That was the start of us using a lot of Koji Kondo's Mario music.
I became a bit obsessed (temporarily) with the 8-bit aesthetic and decided it would be cool to do something with a lot of Game Boys. I thought visually it would be quite a sight, something that a lot of people would enjoy and might brighten up their day momentarily. I had been messing around with a Wii remote in max/msp, and it seemed obvious to do something with both of the elements combined to see if I could create something new, reinterpreting both new and old Nintendo technology.
Have been involved with any other similar projects in the past?
Just with Knick Knack -- he had four people playing Mario Kart on a 20-foot wall as part of one of our sets. It always bodes well to get the audience involved. It reduces some of the bafflement and demolishes the boundary between the band/installation and the audience/viewer. It was very important in this installation that the audience interact and perform the piece, otherwise there would be very little point to the exercise.
So where did you get eleven Game Boys from?
eBay, very cheap considering what they cost when they came out. I got 21 and only used eleven -- blew a lot of speakers. The cartridges were the main expense.
What's your history with handheld gaming?
Well, I never had an original Game Boy. I had a friend who did, and as a kid, it was exciting enough to go to his house and play on it. I if I had had one that young, I probably would have gotten bored with it, the games anyway. I got a Pocket Game Boy when I was a bit older. It came free with a bank account. One of those jobbies, never used the bank account since, think I still have a tenner in it. I had the Game Boy Camera, and I remember thinking that the music dj part of it was much more exciting than the camera part. I was very excited when I discovered LSDJ! I just love the purity of the tones it makes.
The installation went very well, overall, especially in the night exhibition. People were very open minded about it -- it looked good, that helped a lot. It was interesting because there were three different types of people who tried it out: those who were never going to give it the time of day, those who just liked to wave the Wii remote about and see what happened, and those who asked what every feature did and tried to play it like an instrument, trying to create certain sounds. The overall general reaction was either "I don't understand? Sorry, why?" "That's cool," or, "How does it work? Oh right, I might try that when I get home."
Were there any user experiences that really stuck out?
The woman who lived next door to the venue, she didn't like it. She let me know. Another guy who had acquired a flyer from somewhere came down and started drawing it, explaining to me that he was a pixel artist. That was the best reaction.
Did you find the installation more effective during the day or night?
The game was projected indoors during the day time and became a spectacle in its own right. I had designed the level so you couldn't get past some jumping blocks at a certain point. One kid spent two hours trying to get past the jumping blocks, I was told. One guy knew the original game too well and managed to end up on some bonus level halfway through the game. I have no idea how he got there.
I think the installation worked best at night, there was much more of an excitement about it, the mood was good and the ambience was perfect. The drink possibly lent a hand too.
[End of interview]
The entire scene seems unearthly -- blown-up, unfamiliar pixels lighting the plot, abandoned technology hanging on white oak arms, and a small crowd of twenty-somethings hanging around to take it all in. Will it ever be replicated?