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Baltimore's video-game music scene continues to thrive with Bit Gen Gamer Fest

Each year since 2005, Bit Gen Gamer Fest has turned Baltimore into a neon-lit arcade in celebration of video-game culture — and in particular its nascent soundtracks, from the ominous digitized chords of “Castlevania” to the bright, instantly hummable melodies of “Super Mario Brothers.”

While most of those games are centered on a maximalist spirit — defeat villains, move on to the next levels and collect as many power-ups as possible — the annual festival learned recently that bigger is not always better.

After a couple of years of drawing decent but far-from-sold-out crowds to Rams Head Live, festival organizer John DeCampos realized an essential element went missing inside a large room like the downtown venue. It was time to scale down to recapture “that feeling of almost like a basement show,” he said.

“We just want to create that sort of sweaty, memorable, sort of cramped but not uncomfortably so … feeling,” DeCampos said. “I was like, ‘Look, we need to go back to Ottobar.’ ”

After a successful return to the Remington venue in 2016, Bit Gen Gamer Fest is back at the Ottobar again for its 12th iteration on Saturday, headlined by Bit Brigade, an Athens, Ga., quintet known for guitar-driven covers of “Legend of Zelda” and “Mega Man” soundtracks. And while the space might be smaller, the video-game music genre continues to expand.

Baltimore has become “the beating heart of the video-game-cover scene,” as evidenced by more than half of this year’s acts being based here, DeCampos said. For the musicians involved, creating video game-inspired compositions is as much about paying respects to a culture they love as it is testing their musical abilities.

“Trying to repackage it in your own style is not only challenging, but really fun to do,” said DeCampos, who plays in Rare Candy and Cowabunga Pizza Time, two bands on Saturday’s bill.

But DeCampos and Chris Baines, the festival’s other founder, lifted the Bit Gen Gamer Fest concept from a Penn State University show they played as members of a band called Entertainment System. Twelve years ago, they brought their own video-game-music concert called 8-Bit Genocide to what was then Load of Fun Studios (now Motor House).

It became apparent there was an audience for the niche genre, DeCampos said. Fans and bands from out of town soon began making the annual trek to Baltimore for the festival, which they renamed Bit Gen Gamer Fest. (“I don’t really know what we were thinking at the time,” DeCampos said of the original “genocide” title.)

While plenty of consumers think of a video game’s blips and bloops as innocuous background noise, many gamers find the melodies lodged in their heads long after powering down the consoles.

“The music I fell in love with first was from the ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ series,” said Cynthia Schatoff, bassist and founder of the Baltimore band Steel Samurai. “The melodies are just really catchy and they stick with you. They become earworms.”

While video game music and graphics improve with each new and pricier system, Gamer Fest acts typically pull inspiration from versions they played as children. On Saturday, bands like Philadelphia’s X-Hunters and Indiana’s Knight of the Round will play music from long-running titles like “Donkey Kong” and the role-playing game series “Final Fantasy.”

The soundtracks to newer games don’t often resonate with DeCampos. He pointed to “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” released in March, as an example.

“It’s just this floating mist of orchestral sounds,” he said. “There’s nothing memorable about any of the music.”

There is no shortage of Gamer Fest acts tapping into more primitive nostalgia. For the first time, Gamer Fest and its 17 scheduled acts will use both floors of the Ottobar, with artists like DJ Super Sonic and Kenzie Black performing solo sets upstairs while bands set up on the downstairs main stage.

DeCampos said he’s inspired by the ways acts continuously expand the genre of video-game music. What began with mostly metal-inspired bands has grown to include electronic dance music (Crunk Witch), rap (Wreck the System) and others.

People like Schatoff notice voids and try to fill them, too. Steel Samurai, which will release its self-titled EP on Saturday, covers material from obscure early ’90s games like “Wolfchild” and “Gimmick!”

“ ‘Mario’ and ‘Zelda,’ they’ve been covered a lot and very well,” the Charles Village resident said. “There’s a lot of songs that are equally as good but not covered. I want to present that to people and say, ‘Hey, there’s actually some cool stuff you guys are missing.’ ”

That type of fresh thinking and contextualizing gives DeCampos confidence that Gamer Fest will continue to find new audiences.

“I actively try to keep my ear to the ground for new talent,” he said. “Looking for acts and trying to give them a platform, for me, is what’s really important about Bit Gen.”

Everyone in attendance Saturday, from the stage to the floor, shares a love of video games, so it’s easy to have a great time, DeCapos said. Having home console and arcade games on-site doesn’t hurt either. It’s a party where connections, not bound by a controller, blossom quite easily, Schatoff said.

“They can play some of the video games at the same time they’re listening to the music,” she said. “It’s so easy to meet people and make friends.”

If you go

Bit Gen Gamer Fest XII takes place Saturday at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St., Remington. Bit Brigade, X-Hunters, Steel Samurai and many more will perform. Doors open at 3 p.m. $25. Call 410-662-0069 or go to theottobar.com.

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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