8-Bit Artisan

Party Time! Hexcellent! brings people together by getting closer to the machine

Rachel Weil
Rachel Weil (Photo by John Anderson)

There's an unspoken communication between the two people needed to play Track+Feel II. One person dances on a pad placed on the floor, creating tones with each step, while the other regulates the backbeat and the timbre of the notes with a controller. To make anything resembling a catchy tune, you have to look for patterns in the other's actions – although it's hard not to just tattoo the dance pad with your feet, Flashdance-style, or mash buttons to see what kind of cacophony two people can make. The music, visuals, and controls were all programmed to create a bond between the participants by Party Time! Hexcellent! (aka Rachel Weil) and is played on a Nintendo Entertainment System, as in the original 8-bit NES from the Eighties. As in, a pretty much obsolete platform.

8-Bit Artisan

PT!H!'s interest in that first generation of home video game consoles began with good timing. Just as the original PlayStation was taking gaming into the future, Weil was in high school looking to the past, searching for original NES cartridges which, at the time, were being sold to used game stores by the truckload. Not only were the games accessible, the retro-gaming fetishism that started in the Aughts hadn't yet begun. As she remembers it, "FuncoLand [now GameStop] was just filling Dumpsters with NES carts."

With no real knowledge of coding or programming, Weil found herself taking part in a maturing hacking scene that used emulators to re-create and alter classic video games on their computers. "The first demo I made was just space: a black screen with stars and a Mario mushroom scrolling from one side to the other. It said 'space mushroom.' That was it." She also made a Super Mario Bros. hack that swapped the iconic mustachioed man with another, more feminine icon: Hello Kitty. This kind of gendered reimagining of games from the Eighties and Nineties would be an ongoing theme in her work.

8-Bit Artisan

Weil took a break from her hobby during college to, you know, graduate (with a degree in chemistry and genetics, no less). With diploma in hand, and having passed such painfully rigorous courses as quantum mechanics, Weil felt she could conquer anything. So the emboldened graduate decided to teach herself the Assembly programming language used to build NES games. An explanatory simile might be in order: If learning modern coding languages is akin to learning Spanish, then Assembly is like learning Klingon. There are few tutorials, and the code itself is only a few steps away from pure binary code. "There aren't a lot of 8-bit processors being put into devices," says Weil. "So I guess people aren't really using Assembly much." The steepness of the learning curve and dearth of helping hands would daunt any nonprogrammer, and it took an obviously determined Weil a year's worth of free time experimenting and researching before she had a complete program that didn't crash. During that same time, she discovered a community of artists and musicians working in the same medium to create multimedia shows.

With a working knowledge of Assembly, Weil looked for ways to use her new skills to interact with an audience. She transitioned from experimentation to producing background visuals for chiptune musicians who specialize in high-energy electronica, utilizing sound chips from 8-bit computing systems. It was a scene she'd been following since its rise at the turn of this century. It wasn't long before Weil recognized her niche within the scene and became Party Time! Hexcellent!. Starting in 2010 at South by Southwest, Weil's visuals have been seen at the Blip Festival in New York City and at the Gli.tc/h galleries in Chicago and Amsterdam. Over that time, her trademark has been to incorporate feminine imagery into an aesthetic world dominated by masculinity. "I had people yell out 'ponies!' at a show I did," recalls Weil who enjoys the cognitive dissonance of girly touches on an NES, a system that was marketed almost exclusively to young boys. In other words, 8-bit unicorns aren't easy to come by, but you can find them if you look hard enough.

8-Bit Artisan

As fate would have it, Weil was looking. In fact, she found such an obvious lack of information about early video games geared toward girls that she decided to create an online archive specifically for them. It's called Femicom. "There was this huge gap where there were no girls' games in the archives at all. In my experience, the collecting community is mostly male, and maybe those guys didn't play those games," Weil explains. "I realized this information is being lost through selective bias." Much of Femicom's information comes from her own collection, including several Japanese titles that never saw American store shelves. There was even an entire console with a sticker printer built in that never made it to the States. The archive speaks for itself, allowing the visitor to draw connections and conclusions from the content. "I'm pretty opinionated about feminine games and ultragirly games, and I think eventually I want to have some opinion articles as part of the website. But my primary goal is the archiving," she says.

Weil admits that aside from a few gems, the quality of many of the games is lacking. "Some developers had the idea that the way to get girls interested was to make the game easier," she says. "But then they end up not being challenging [or] interesting." Despite the varying quality of the included titles, and having only been online for a few months, Femicom stands as a sociological snapshot of a marginalized aesthetic from the early days of home video gaming as well as a great place to start a discussion of girly games. You'll probably have a few laughs along the way, too.

To call Track+Feel II a video game could be misleading. Even if the game is played on a Nintendo, there is no clear goal, point system, or way to win (although creating a sweet jam always feels like a victory). "I'm interested in creating experiences where it's truly kinesthetic and exploratory and there is no pressure. It's really all about collaboration and having fun," Weil explains. "I think a lot of people have this worry that the digital age is going to fracture our friendships and make it hard for people to interact in person, so I was thinking, 'How can you use this technology to bring people together in real life?'" Nothing like dancing in front of a stranger to break the ice. Weil continues, "I try to bring all the elements of a very small chiptune show together in one game."

Strange that it's an archaic programming language Weil herself describes as being "very close to the machine" that made an interactive experience that brings people together. At a time when most modern games strive for photorealism and in the process become a dim echo of the human experience, Weil is reviving the glitchy mechanical visuals of a vintage technology and proving there's life – and community – yet in a dead medium.

Bring a friend or make a new one by playing Track+Feel II at the next Juegos Rancheros free indie gaming meet-up at the HighBall on Sunday, May 6, 4-8pm, where PT!H! will also discuss her art. Juegos Rancheros is aggressively open to the public, so come out and make some beautiful 8-bit music together.

For links to her work, as well as a few examples of some cool stuff yet to be catalogued on Femicom, check out the Screens blog at austinchronicle.com/pip.

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