If you go to YouTube and search “Mario Paint Composer,” you’ll be treated to a variety of quirky remixed music. Some of the best tracks sound as if the original song was put through a chiptune music filter and uploaded, staying incredibly faithful to their source material. Mario Paint remixes, however, are not simply chiptune remixes. Composers have to deal with an unusual set of tools, including weird limits on notes and tempos, barking 16-bit dogs, and more in order to create their music. It’s a challenge to create music with these strange rules in place, but the challenge is what brings these composers to the medium in the first place.
“It started out way back in 2013,” CyanSMP64 tells The Verge. Cyan is one Mario Paint composer behind tracks like the Pokemon Sword and Shield Battle Tower Remix and the Undertale Megalovania Remix. He started when he was only 12. “I was fond of Black MIDI videos. Eventually, I stumbled across a cover done in Mario Paint Composer.”
Most people who make music with Mario Paint’s limitations don’t actually use the SNES title’s original music maker. (As it turns out, trying to make any sort of complex music is difficult on the 16-bit console.) Instead, musicians use computer programs that mimic Mario Paint’s sparse sets of sounds / notes and other limitations but allow them to actually make longer tracks and save them.
Back in 2013, the application to do that was Mario Paint Composer, which Cyan originally had trouble with. “I was quite disappointed as I realized the limitations of the program. Five notes only in a single column, for example.” Only five notes in a column meant that the number of notes and instruments that could be replicated was very low.
Cyan eventually figured out a way around the limitation. “Using a freakishly high tempo in Mario Paint allows for bypassing the five-note restriction as well as having multiple notes play simultaneously at different volumes.” This technique even has a special name. “This is often called ‘dickspeed’ by the Mario Paint community.”
Despite eventually figuring everything in Mario Paint Composer out, CyanSMP64 didn’t upload most of his early music to YouTube due to issues recording audio and video on a Mac. But the passion was clearly there. “I would constantly watch and listen to other Mario Paints on YouTube, and even download them on my iPod so I could listen to them at any time, anywhere.”
Mario Paint music hit its height of popularity in the early 2010s, but a general interest in the unusual method of remixing waned over time. Places like The Mario Paint Hangout, a forum for Mario Paint composers to gather and share their work, died out. The Mario Paint subreddit, which is for both musical and visual creations, only gets a new post every couple of months. If you search for Mario Paint Composer videos on YouTube, you’ll get things that are almost a decade old. You have to dig deep to find something new.
Resources are also difficult to find. Super Mario Paint is the most up-to-date composer that most creators use, but the application is limited to GitHub, without much in the way of explanations or tutorials. Poking around can land you on the website of a popular Mario Paint remixer full of various downloads, but the site hasn’t been updated in years. From the outside looking in, the community seems dead, moving on from the strange little music maker to other forms of composing.
But there’s still somewhere where the community stands strong: Discord. Dig into the Mario Paint Hangout forums, and you can find a (surprisingly still active) link to Super Mario Paint Chat where most of the Mario Paint composers gather to talk about and share their unique craft.
Xanderoni is a moderator in Super Mario Paint Chat and does a fair amount of work in the community, including organizing collaboration projects with other musicians. Xanderoni also created the Mario Paint Collection, a compilation of songs created with Mario Paint Composer’s limitations in mind.
“It first started as me wanting to listen to Mario Paints in the car for work,” Xanderoni explains. “But [VolcanBrimstone] was making a playlist of Original Compositions done in Mario Paint. So I decided to turn my little playlist into a preservation project to keep track of as many Mario Paint [songs] as possible.” Xanderoni has preserved 2,000 songs with the Collection over the last year with the help of the Mario Paint community.
Despite Mario Paint’s oddities, Xanderoni continues to use the application to make music. “For me, it’s easy to understand the nature of the program. It’s rebuilt from the ground up based off of the SNES version of Mario Paint, which was made so kids could easily make music.” Super Mario Paint is therefore easy to learn, but it becomes hard to master when dealing with note limits. “My dad asks me often why I don’t get higher quality music software,” Xanderoni explains. “It really does just come down to accessibility.”
This mix of accessibility and constraints is why many return to Mario Paint. Oh_spap_its_me is not a Mario Paint music composer but creates art in the SNES game and posts it on Instagram as The Mario Painter. Despite the different creative mediums, the two groups use Mario Paint for the same reasons. “I personally love using Mario Paint because of the novelty of it all. The concept of using such obsolete technology to create artwork and music that still look and sound good in their own charming way is really fascinating to me.”
Creating music and art with tough limitations definitely makes for unique results, and it isn’t a concept limited to Mario Paint users. Black MIDI, which CyanSMP64 mentioned earlier, is a genre of music where MIDI sound files are overlapped one another. It is named after the layers of black from the tablature. The results are often eye-catching affairs that are impossible to replicate with the live playing of an instrument. MIDI files are low-quality recordings, but the artists overlap the recording to alleviate the resulting remix.
But that is what makes these programs and genres fun: the ability to create something so unique that it can’t be done anywhere else. Creative minds love to be challenged, and there’s little more challenging than plopping someone down with a basic, limited application and have them go at it.
The unusual remixes can attract a lot of attention, too. “Out of the blue, on December 18th, I noticed that I was receiving a large number of comments on my cover of The World Revolving. It was blowing up and appearing in peoples’ [YouTube] recommended sections,” said CyanSMP64. They gained a ton of views and follows from the Deltarune remix. “Seeing a video blow up on my channel is like the best feeling ever.”
CyanSMP64 finds making music in Mario Paint to be a rewarding hobby, but he wants to make music as his future career. “My future goal is to compose music for video games ... and FL Studio is my typical go-to for music production.” Cyan doesn’t have a public portfolio for his non-Mario Paint work yet, but he has no problem with his public output being only from Mario Paint remixes for now.
Even now, the community continues to work in the Discord. Composers post updates almost daily, and collaboration projects are met with excitement from the community. Whether the broader gaming or music communities notice them doesn’t really matter. They’re making these songs for themselves — and for the challenge.