Bit Brigade, Athens’ wildly popular video game cover band, began in 2003 after a particularly inspiring session of one game in particular. “Our original guitarist, Andy Pruett, and I were up really late one night, playing ‘Contra’ on the original NES,” says guitarist Bryant Williamson. “We had recently learned and covered several NES tunes for fun and were big fans of [NES cover band] The Advantage at the time.
“So, with the notion of video game covers in our heads, and ‘Contra’ on the screen in front of us, the idea just popped into our heads. I immediately called Noah McCarthy. I’m pretty sure I woke him up in the middle of the night, but regardless of that, he was into the idea.”
Initially formed under the name Contraband, Bit Brigade’s basic premise is to cover old-school video game tunes in real time while McCarthy speedruns the games on a projector displayed behind the band. What Williamson once considered a side project of his main band, Cinemechanica, has grown into a nationally touring entity that plays to huge crowds at video game conventions and regularly sells out shows in Athens and elsewhere.
Bit Brigade’s current lineup features a mishmash of musicians who have played in Athens bands like We Versus the Shark, Maserati, Cinemechanica and Reptar, just to name a few. McCarthy, as always, remains the band’s resident gameplay guru.
As they have steadily risen rising in numbers and locations over the past decade, video game conventions have given Bit Brigade a giant boost in popularity. “Conventions are what get us on the road,” says Williamson. “We typically build our touring schedule around conventions like PAX, MAGFest and XPO.”
Videos of the band’s performances have netted Bit Brigade hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and a pretty devoted following of fans across different corners of the internet. Particularly popular have been the group’s playthroughs of “Mega Man 2,” “The Legend of Zelda,” “Metroid” and “Castlevania.”
Bit Brigade is currently prepping to make a big return at next year’s MAGFest (short for Music and Gaming Festival) in National Harbor, MD. The band is preparing a super-sized show that includes three playthroughs in one set, including two new games the group has yet to debut live. It will be a difficult and tiring endeavor, but months of planning have prepared Bit Brigade for the task.
Williamson lays out the process in full. “The first step is for Noah to learn the game. He will already have his speedrun close to 100 percent before we even begin placing the music,” he says. “Then, we time each of the stages of the game, as well as the length of each song that is used within the stages. We typically don’t like to play more than two or three repetitions of songs, so depending on stage length, we will sometimes add in additional songs from other related games to help fill up time.
“Many old games have repeated music and stages, so we also try to replace repeated stages with new songs, either from elsewhere in the game or from other games in the same franchise, in an effort to keep the music consistently interesting. After all the music has been properly timed and slotted into position, each member will learn his part individually. Then we come into practice and piece everything together for our set.”
Despite this meticulous planning, not every game translates well to a live-music setting. “There is a long list of games that we’d love to do that just aren’t realistic,” says Williamson. “‘Final Fantasy’ and ‘Blaster Master’ are two we’ve always wanted. It’s typically a problem between the length of the gameplay versus the number of available songs.”
Saturday evening in Athens, Bit Brigade will perform its popular “Mega Man 2” set. While Williamson is mum about what other games Bit Brigade will tackle in the future, he does express a desire to re-attempt a game that defeated the group in the past.
“‘Castlevania 3,’” he says. “This is a game we’ve only performed twice. It’s just very difficult—both the music and the actual game itself. We’ve considering bringing it back, but there are other ideas we’d like to try first.”
No matter the game, Bit Brigade is one of Athens’ most impressive spectacles, and a must-see act for gamers and non-gamers alike. While we may not know what the band will get up to next, it’s sure to be worth the price of admission.
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