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Nathan Shaw Demonstrates His Arduino-Powered Circuit-Bent SNES

Gareth Halfacree

Nathan Shaw's Circuit-Bent SNES

There's an undeniable intersection between makers and artists, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the field of circuit-bending. An electronic artistic movement, circuit-bending involves taking existing electronic equipment designed to produce sound, movement or visuals, and deliberately corrupting it to produce something new. There are offshoots of this movement all around, ranging from glitch-art produced from corrupted JPEG images to demonic-sounding Furbies - but console-bending is possibly the most interesting of them all.

Multimedia artist Nathan Shaw, also known as BiTDEPH, has spent the last couple of years working on a project which interfaces an Arduino microcontroller with an old games console - primarily the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), but he has also experimented with its rival the Sega Mega Drive - in order to deliberately corrupt the signal that produces the game. The result: the ability to create controlled yet unexpected variations in the appearance, sound, and even in the way the games play.

"My first success with console bending was with an old SNES I had," Nathan explains in a write-up of the project's early stage, adding simple dual-knob control which has since been upgraded to include numerous switches and input jacks. "After carefully opening the case and looking at the circuitry inside I started researching the role each IC played in the workings of the device. After a little poking around I was able to pinpoint the video memory chips which contained the information used for rendering the video and could start experimenting. Luckily, unlike other consoles I have worked with, with the SNES all the ROM and video chips are easily accessible and bends were plentiful."

The videos published on Nathan's YouTube channel over the last year range from the near-unplayable to the only slightly tweaked. Other bends achieved with his Arduino-controlled SNES include revealing hidden vines in Super Mario World and even having the console react to its own audio in a feedback loop. If you're curious as to how it has all been achieved, Nathan has also published a hands-on video tutorial on the project.

I was actually surprised at how easy it is to get reactions from video signals and secondly I discovered that many consoles keep their audio chips ‘locked up’ and they are really hard to access and lastly I learned the importance of staying away from the power path. Having run out of crappy joystick consoles it seemed the next logical step would be working with early video game consoles. I had a few old consoles laying around, I dug them out of the closet and began exploring their circuitry.

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