An Evening With iam8bit: Custom Consoles, Retro Renditions & Art

The iam8bit gallery in Los Angeles never ceases to entertain. Whether they’re holding events in conjunction with Machinima, throwing 90′s Nickelodeon-themed parties, or displaying video game-themed artwork from dozens of artists (as was the case last night), this geek-minded creative space on Sunset always has something interesting both hanging on its walls and on the minds of its attendees.

Thursday saw the launch of iam8bit Entertainment System, a month-long art exhibition displaying the works of over 80 artists, and one special piece of hardware. iES, as I’m calling it (which runs through the end of June), combines art based on classic 80′s and 90′s video games with a new “console” designed and built by LA local Travis Chen.

The console is also called the iam8bit Entertainment System, and the mini PC/mini MAME cabinet is a work of art in and of itself. The hand-built, laser-cut bamboo and acrylic case houses SANWA sticks and switches imported from Japan (much like the Mad Catz fightstick you might have at home), and the rest of the hardware list is something any DIY PC enthusiast will recognize. Travis used a Micro ATX motherboard with HDMI out, dual-core Intel Core i3 CPU, 64 GB SSD, 4 GB of RAM, and Windows 7. The MAME portion of the console comes via the installed Hyperspin Arcade software.

Talking with Travis during the event, I learned the origins of the iES were very recent, and rather comical. “The [iam8bit Entertainment System] really started as a joke. Jon [Gibson, iam8bit founder] and I were talking about doing a mock console release around E3 this year, because of all the new hardware coming out.” After mulling through some mock concepts, Travis, who happens to be an established, veteran DIY fight stick enthusiast, decided to build a real one. The thesis for this project was to make a MAME cabinet that anyone would be proud to display in their living room. As for the look, “the design stemmed from me wanting a custom controller I’d be happy to have on my coffee table…more like an art piece than a controller, really.”

The iES really is a work of art, from the beautiful grain in the wood and the rainbow of buttons on the top, to the voltage meter and LCD display above the controller ports on the front. The controllers fit in perfectly with the console, too, using the same wood, buttons and sticks.

The console came together in roughly a month, with Travis still doing some soldering in the hours before the event. While it’s on sale for $2,500, it’s more of an art piece than a consumer device, or as Travis put it, “a console made with love.”

Three games are pre-loaded on the iES: Canabalt (2009, Adam Atomic), BaraBariBall (2012, Strange Flavor), and Adventure Time: Bad Atticube (2013, Travis Chen and Nolan Fabricius). Travis is a mobile game developer by trade – building custom fight sticks and PCs is a hobby – so he and Nolan developed Bad Atticube during a 48 hour Adventure Time Game Jam. It’s a fun two player take on the classic Snake game type, with pies to eat, assassins to dodge and walls to smash into.

Because the iES runs on Windows 7, the console can easily be used as an HTPC, too. The integrated Intel graphics will handle most indie titles with ease, and should give you playable frame rates with certain big budget titles (think Orange Box titles).

And let’s not forget about the prints from 80 different artists, all of which were up for sale throughout the night. Much of the art used classic Nintendo characters as inspiration, although there were a few Mega Man appearances, too. My favorite piece on display? “Here Ducky, Ducky” by Philip Tseng (see above). I loved it so much, I bought a print, along with another piece, “Arcade” by DKNG Studios (see below).

If you’re in Los Angeles for E3, or you find yourself in the City of Angels anytime before June 30th, be sure to check out the gallery. The console is playable, and the artwork is retro magnifique. I’ve included some other choice work on the next page, but know that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

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