21 years since its release, Mario Paint continues to thrive today thanks to an amazing online community
Game capture technology today grants us the ability to broadcast our gaming achievements to a world where avid fans seeking a detailed walkthrough video, or merely a montage of ‘headshots’ accompanied by assorted dubstep tracks in the background, can subscribe to homemade channels, ‘like’ away to their hearts’ content, and maybe even leave a comment along the lines of “sick kill at 2:38” or the always-lovable, short-and-sweet “you suck bro”. It has also spawned the cult of YouTube celebrity, where talented video producers can be noticed and even make a living off ad revenue through sheer force of an infectious personality and complete and utter dedication to their craft.
But how about those who don’t quite make it to the point where they can afford to quit their day jobs, where the only reward for hours of their work may peak at only a couple thousand views, a handful of “you suck bro” comments or, in rare cases, the establishment of a full-blown competitive subculture? Illustrating the latter are the Mario Paint composers who continue to thrive with their music covers and soundtrack recreations using the innovative 1992 SNES ‘game’ that effectively brought MS Paint over to the home console, along with a supposedly rudimentary music composition tool. Still either tapping away at their SNES mouses – remember those? – that have somehow withstood the ageing process over two decades after its release – or more likely using freely downloadable emulator software on PC – this article takes a look at the budding musicians and creative geniuses bringing you 16-bit versions of Gangnam Style, Michael Jackson’s greatest hits, and even Bohemian Rhapsody, all represented by layer upon layer of little Mario, Yoshi and Toad symbols on virtual music lines. Thought you were clever at getting the Game of Thrones theme song playing on your smart phone’s mini piano app? You haven’t seen – or rather, heard – anything yet.
Music generation software in videogames is not exactly a new thing, having been present on consoles over the past couple of decades in the form of Virtual DJ games like the classic Beatmania series on the original Playstation, the Rockstar Games’ multiplatform Beaterator, and even to some extent in the form of Jam Sessions on the Nintendo DS. Yet it is this enduring infatuation with Mario Paint Composer, with its easy-to-use interface and unmistakeable Nintendo charm, that fascinates. Available to download as an expansion to the original Mario Paint’s music composer mini-game that allowed only three layers of sound per music line or ‘column’ with no sharp or flat notes for a total duration of about a minute (there was only so much space on a cartridge, after all), the retooled emulator allows five layers per line for as long as you’d like, even if it means linking a host of separate tracks together to truly capture your sweeping ‘evolution of video games’ medley masterpiece. And if five layers still isn’t enough to do justice to one’s vision, an alternate emulator allows nine or, further still, the use of an advanced auditory technique called ‘dickspeed’ (no chuckling at the back, please) which allows excess notes when you multiply the tempo by 16 and place them before or after the main line within the track. Sound complicated? It doesn’t have to be.
YouTube brings up about 160,000 results when you search for ‘Mario Paint Composer’, and after scrolling through the list of most viewed videos, the same names keep popping up after a while. These guys, Cat333Pokemon, adolfobaez, ihasmario, Geoff Klassen, Esojestmort, TomBobBlender and Angrytiger, amongst many others, make up what could be deemed the Mario Paint elite. Furthermore, The Mario Paint Hangout forum provides a flourishing home for a spectrum of users ranging from experienced veterans to those just trying their hand at some new creations, where members share their work, offer hints and tips, and organise collaborations over Skype on large-scale pieces. On the whole, members engage in cordial support and provide feedback for one another, culminating in a refreshing gaming forum completely free from condescension, where kindness and goodwill dominate. YouTube comments section take note.
The learning curve in getting to grips with the software may not be as insurmountable as one may imagine, either. The Hangout’s FAQ page goes through a handy list of basic tips for newcomers and also provides links to more advanced threads that essentially cover a list of exploitable bugs that can turn one’s not-quite-there composition into a Dragonforce cover with six million-plus views. The fact that the program has been used to the point where technical glitches have been highlighted on what could well pass as an online technical manual suggests a wealth of heritage. In addition to mastering ‘dickspeed’, a thread named “The Tempo Gap Analysis” highlights an odd quirk within the source code of the program which, every so often but consistently over time, creates an increasingly noticeable disparity in the duration of the current musical bar compared to the one it followed, which eventually corrects itself only to occur again later on. Whilst such a tiny, barely noticeable issue with the system may not seem a big deal on the face of it, but for these MPC artists who operate to the microsecond on stacking vertical Nintendo-themed symbols on top of each other whilst also considering its horizontal impact over the entirety of the track, timing, and thus compensating for this phenomenon, is everything.
Not to say that Mario Paint is all homage, either. Original compositions are regularly uploaded despite the reality of receiving a much smaller reception compared to covers of, say, ‘Still Alive’ from Portal, A-Ha’s ‘Take on Me’, or even Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’. Up and coming artists are highlighted on the boards, with YouTube links routinely posted and praised, along with regular ‘Rate the Composer’ threads created as a means to assess new talents. One such review by user Herty, in glowing praise of Loggy, reads:
“His creations are so innovative and spontaneous, the harmonies and dynamics always work perfectly and he’s probably one of the most versatile composers there is on Mario Paint”.
Yet, despite all the resources and helpfulness made available online by the dedicated community, it was someone from the outside who may well have helped increase the profile of this lovable little clique to an exponential degree. User jeonghoon95 on YouTube – real name Adam Shin – managed to, on his Mario Paint Composer debut , successfully recreate Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” in the timeframe of just two and a half months. His achievement garnered over three million views, went viral, and he was even interviewed on Wired. You’d think that within a subculture long unheard of, unseen and unknown to those not seeking it, there may have been some negativity towards some upstart who rose out of nowhere to become the flavour of the month. However the opposite is true, where undiluted admiration for talent shines through and rightful authors of excellent, unaccounted-for work are sought after so as to receive their due credit. You’d expect no less in a place where users organise MPC Secret Santas for one another.
So rather than fame in riches or widespread recognition, the potential for one’s work to simply be scrutinised online – and thus producing a friendly competitive environment by which one is then able to assess their own personal best composition – be it by long-serving members of the user base, those who happen to stumble across a Mario Paint version of the real song they were after, or somehow simply just end up on there via a series of random related video clicks, seems to be at the heart of the MPC subculture. It is not unlike the Minecraft fanbase, but in place of digital versions of real landmarks or fictional universes being built block by block, MPC artists continue to churn out popular songs and original work to passionately and lovingly construct their mind’s magnum opus, note by note, one Mario by Yoshi symbol at a time – and always, always, with the help of dickspeed and legendary tempo gap analyses.
Featured image: Racketboy via Flickr. Inset images: Nintendo, unFun Games.