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The world's biggest chiptune festival takes its final bow in Tokyo

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Like any good music scene, chip music is a movement with a philosophy. Rooted in the aesthetics of classic video games and competitive computer graphics demos, the contents of that philosophy vary from person to person. To me it’s always been about the idea that our technology is only as useful as we make it; that our fetishization of the new and the shiny has blinded us from the dormant capability and beauty sitting right in front of us, sleeping inside our once-cherished childhood toys. More importantly, it’s also about the diversity of ideas that emerge from that ambiguous ethos. And there’s nowhere that variety is more pronounced than at Blip Festival, the largest chip music festival on the planet.

Started seven years ago by a tiny group of devotees in New York City, Blip Festival has put hundreds of performers in front of roaring crowds at 11 festivals across four continents. The music here doesn’t fit snugly into any kind of category or genre — it ranges from delightfully absurd to spellbinding and sublime; from low-fi trance and punk rock to country-western, J-pop, and everything in between. It’s been the subject of a full-length documentary, Reformat The Planet; an anything-goes celebration of high quality, low-tech audiovisual splendor that has inspired countless offshoot events around the world.

The music ranges from delightfully absurd to spellbinding and sublime

So when it was announced this year that Blip would be holding its final event in Tokyo, Japan, I couldn't help but feel a little ambivalent. In forums and elsewhere, many contended with the realization that something so foundational to chip music would soon be gone. In another sense, it was a relief, a sign that it's time for chip music to stand on its own two legs. In many ways it already has, bolstered in part by the announcement of a brand new international festival, Square Sounds. Whatever the case, it wasn't something I was planning to miss.

One of my initial thoughts upon arriving was how weird it is to see the people you're used to seeing in dark, loud venues at different dark, loud venues on the other side of the planet. Maybe it was the jetlag, but when you go to enough shows in enough cities, you get the sense that the world is a much smaller place. Sure, there are more strangers, the beer is a little watery, and the signs are in a language you can't read, but the bright lights and blaring music somehow enhance that feeling of a "shared experience" that makes you feel like you are a part of something.

In the end, all "scenes" are destined to fade into the ether sooner or later, and chip music is no exception. But for Blip Fest, the comforting fact that there are those like me who would fly halfway around the world to bear witness speaks strongly of whatever comes next.

Photos by Joshua Kopstein and Emi Spicer

  • Festival-goers navigate the darkened streets after a special Blip kick-off party in Shibuya.

    Festival-goers navigate the darkened streets after a special Blip kick-off party in Shibuya.

  • Tokyo’s ubiquitous, web-like power lines hang low over the streets of Kōenji, just a few short blocks from the Blip Fest venue.

    Tokyo’s ubiquitous, web-like power lines hang low over the streets of Kōenji, just a few short blocks from the Blip Fest venue.

  • <a href="http://www.blasterhead.com/index2e.html">Blasterhead</a> helps kick off the first night of Blip Tokyo. Like many others in the Japanese chip scene, his sizable discography includes music for games, J-pop vocalists, and more.

    Blasterhead helps kick off the first night of Blip Tokyo. Like many others in the Japanese chip scene, his sizable discography includes music for games, J-pop vocalists, and more.

  • <a href="http://budmelvin.com/">Bud Melvin</a> croons while strumming his banjo over a catchy, country western-style Game Boy ditty, set to live visuals by <a href="http://www.batslyadams.com/">Batsly Adams</a>.

    Bud Melvin croons while strumming his banjo over a catchy, country western-style Game Boy ditty, set to live visuals by Batsly Adams.

  • M7Kenji mercilessly twists pixels from the shadows during Hige Driver's set. Visualists usually stay out of the spotlight, but their role is central to the experience.

    M7Kenji mercilessly twists pixels from the shadows during Hige Driver's set. Visualists usually stay out of the spotlight, but their role is central to the experience.

  • Tracking a song in LSDJ while crowdsurfing is especially difficult when there's no cartridge in your Game Boy.

    Tracking a song in LSDJ while crowdsurfing is especially difficult when there's no cartridge in your Game Boy.

  • France’s <a href="http://soundcloud.com/ultrasyd">Ultrasyd</a> creates sprawling, multi-part dance odysseys using a veritable armada of live hardware, including but not limited to a Game Boy, Atari Falcon, Atari STe, and Amstrad CPC.

    France’s Ultrasyd creates sprawling, multi-part dance odysseys using a veritable armada of live hardware, including but not limited to a Game Boy, Atari Falcon, Atari STe, and Amstrad CPC.

  • Festival-goers traveling from afar take a break inside of a cramped videogame theme bar in Akihabara.

    Festival-goers traveling from afar take a break inside of a cramped videogame theme bar in Akihabara.

  • Plenty of opportunities for finding music-making gear at Super Potato, a massive, four-story retro gaming shop in Akihabara.

    Plenty of opportunities for finding music-making gear at Super Potato, a massive, four-story retro gaming shop in Akihabara.

  • Blip Festival co-founder <a href="http://bit.shifter.net/">Bit Shifter</a> sings over a drum ‘n bass-style Game Boy cover of The Church’s “Under The Milky Way.” An iconic figure within the chip scene, he’s also a founding member of 8bitpeoples, a netlabel based in New York City. [Photo: <a href="http://uglymachine.net">Emi Spicer</a>]

    Blip Festival co-founder Bit Shifter sings over a drum ‘n bass-style Game Boy cover of The Church’s “Under The Milky Way.” An iconic figure within the chip scene, he’s also a founding member of 8bitpeoples, a netlabel based in New York City. [Photo: Emi Spicer]

  • <a href="http://chibitech.nanjamonja.com/">Chibi-Tech</a> begins her set with bouncy melodies bursting from a pair of Nintendo Famicoms, accompanied by visuals from No Carrier. [Photo: <a href="http://uglymachine.net">Emi Spicer</a>]

    Chibi-Tech begins her set with bouncy melodies bursting from a pair of Nintendo Famicoms, accompanied by visuals from No Carrier. [Photo: Emi Spicer]

  • Chibi-Tech’s ultra-cute facade suddenly vanishes as an evil-sounding dubstep bassline whips the crowd into a frenzy. The rumbling bass was accomplished by hacking the Famitracker software timer to count waveforms at different speeds. [Photo: <a href="http://uglymachine.net">Emi Spicer</a>]

    Chibi-Tech’s ultra-cute facade suddenly vanishes as an evil-sounding dubstep bassline whips the crowd into a frenzy. The rumbling bass was accomplished by hacking the Famitracker software timer to count waveforms at different speeds. [Photo: Emi Spicer]

  • Legendary game composer Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka (Metroid, Dr. Mario) makes a surprise guest appearance for the final set of Blip Festival.  [Photo: <a href="http://uglymachine.net">Emi Spicer</a>]

    Legendary game composer Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka (Metroid, Dr. Mario) makes a surprise guest appearance for the final set of Blip Festival. [Photo: Emi Spicer]

  • Hip Tanaka rolls the “ending credits” for Blip Fest, commemorating artists and organizers past and present.  [Photo: <a href="http://uglymachine.net">Emi Spicer</a>]

    Hip Tanaka rolls the “ending credits” for Blip Fest, commemorating artists and organizers past and present. [Photo: Emi Spicer]

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