Interview: Squarepainter Adam Shub Talks Retro Gaming Art in Pixels, Playing Bass in Rock Band Rex Viper & Meeting Cobra Kai’s Ralph Macchio and William Zabka

From Super Mario to Sonic the Hedgehog to The Legend of Zelda to everything in between: Adam Shub aka Squarepainter transforms canvas squares and rectangles into pixelated art from games around the original pixel era. Designing ideas first on Photoshop, then later drawing grids on a canvas with a ruler and a mechanical pencil, followed up by layers of paint to finish a pixelated piece, all made by hand. Think about 80s/90s consoles like the (Super) Nintendo Entertainment System, the Sega Genesis, or handheld devices like the Game Boy or Game Gear. Whatever has pixels in it, has a place in Adam’s art. 

With years and years of experience, Adam simply gets inspired by playing one of the games of his own huge collection or just memorized one of the classics – and there you go: Either Kirby is dazing off with his sleepy head on, or Samus Aran is fighting in space while Knuckles the Echidna is gliding through the blue sky. Basically every title, famous or indie, is envisioned like an in-game scenario that creates the illusion as if you are back on the couch with the controller, playing for hours nostalgic game titles. And as if retro gaming art was just the beginning, Adam turned up a notch by combining music with retro games and movies as the bassist of Rex Viper: A side project of the comedy web series Angry Video Game Nerd, on YouTube channel Cinemassacre. Featuring AVGN’s creator and YouTuber James Rolfe, the band is known for their 80s covers of popular songs mixed with retro gaming elements, themes and references, or sounds from that era. Just like their famous “Mighty Wings and Hadoukens” song and music video, where Street Fighter’s Ken Theme and Cheap Trick’s “Mighty Wings” (from the Top Gun Soundtrack) creates a blend of the nostalgic era with a funny twist. Or in “Eye of the Tiger Electronics” where Survivor’s rock classic is altered with Mega Man tunes, making a fun parody about single-game handheld devices, having to battle Nintendo’s Game Boy in a boxing ring in the music video. All that, with plenty of conventions and events in between, makes up Adam’s retro world that he’s living.

Some of Adam’s many canvas paintings that he sells online. All inspired by pixelated games from the 80s/90s. Source: Facebook (individual images)

Originally from New York City and now based in Philadelphia, Adam Shub describes himself as an artist his whole life, always being into retro games, growing up with early console generations like Atari, Sega Master System, and the Nintendo Entertainment System from the late 80s/early 90s. While also being a bass and guitar player in punk rock and hardcore bands throughout his teens and twenties, Adam eventually went to college to study Graphic Design, though at the same time messed around with pixel paintings inspired by his love for retro gaming (“Nostalgia is the driving force, a very powerful emotion.”). With a whole bunch of paintings in his stockpile, and being in the mids of the 2008’s economic crisis that blocked his way to any graphic design job, Adam randomly got the opportunity to showcase his art when friends of his had a whole blank wall space in their house, offering to hang up his paintings to fill up the room with some deco. The many parties held in their house made a great ‘showroom’ for the tons of people coming over, and he slowly but surely made a name for himself: From positive reactions to encouragement to eventually having the first commission from a friend, finally leading to art shows in Brooklyn, then later conventions like TooManyGames and the New York ComicCon. Now, with around 200 conventions done as of the present day, Adam got the chance to combine his 8-bit art with the chance to rock in his aforementioned band Rex Viper since 2020, and juggles the life of a freelance artist together with his newfound band rocking on stage (“I’m incredibly grateful that I can do all that.”).

Below, Adam speaks with The Urban Twist about the development of his art, his band Rex Viper, his favorite video games, and how he met Karate Kid/Cobra Kai actors Ralph Macchio and William Zabka.

On Instagram, your first post is a pixel sketch from 2012 of Link fighting his shadow. Was that your first concept or did you start with your art before?

By 2012 I was already very very involved with painting, that just happened to be the first image there. Since 2009 I literally have done thousands of paintings over the years. People will show me paintings that I did and it’ll have my signature and say ‘Squarepainter 2011’ on the back, and I will have no memory of doing that painting at all because I’ve done so many. But the first one that I did was on bristol board mounted on cardboard, in very late 2005/early 2006. It was a painting of Mega Man in six poses, I still have it in my parent’s house. But yeah, my Instagram starts at 2012. I didn’t really start taking Instagram seriously until maybe about four years ago. You can see the evolution of my timeline of how I would post my art. I have a very streamlined way of how I post everything now.

Instagram is a great platform for artists, right?

Oh yeah, it’s great for artists and the algorithm is a lot easier to use on there as supposed to Twitter. With Instagram, it’s just proper hashtagging and being consistent with what you post. I hit five thousand followers back in December because I was getting ready for a big convention in January. I was posting two to three paintings a day that I was finishing, and I gained almost a thousand followers organically just over a few weeks because I was posting so much. So it’s good to know that the algorithm works with you, not against you on Instagram. It’s a great platform for artists.

When visiting your site there’s a load of nice canvas paintings in pixelated gaming style – like Mario, Sonic, Mega Man, Metroid, Legend of Zelda, etc. Basically everything from the 80s/90s game world, from NES, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, etc. How do you come up with all the ideas?

Either I’ll be playing a video game, I remember a scene or somebody mentions something online – I have no shortage of ideas. I have a whole archive on my computer organized by game and I’ll have sprite rip sheets in there for the levels and for the characters, and all the files that I’ve put together where I photoshopped the layouts first. So, I’ll be like “Oh, I haven’t painted a DuckTales piece, or haven’t done Contra or Sonic”, or something like that. I also had people mention this game called StarTropics to me which is a lesser known really good action RPG on Super Nintendo, so I’m like “Alright, I’ll do some StarTropics pieces.” Another time, I was playing Ninja Gaiden 2, and I saw a cutscene and I’m like “Oh wow, that’s like a really cool horizontal framing! Let me see if I could fit that one in a 12-inch by 36 canvas.” My brain never stops, I always come up with new ideas.

Adam shows his skills in a speed painting video of Mario being chased by the Sun from Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES).

How is the real-life reaction from people when selling your paintings at conventions?

It feels great when someone comes running up to my table, and they’re like: “That takes me back to 1988, sitting in my bedroom, playing the game. You took me right back to that moment!” That never gets old, that my art can take somebody back to a time in their childhood where they were happy and weren’t thinking about anything else, or were just playing the video game and loving life. That means everything when I can do that.

I always especially love when parents come up to the table with their kid who knows all the games. I once at a show had this kid come up to me who loved Super Mario Bros. 3. He was maybe 6 years old, and he kept coming over and looking at this Mario 3 painting. I ended up giving it to him and knocked about 20 bucks off, and he started jumping up and down and going nuts. His dad was thanking me, telling me I made his day. It just made me so happy to see that. It’s nice to see that kids today are into retro games and that the younger generation of gamers still appreciates the old stuff.

What’s your favorite retro game and favorite console and why?

My favorite game on Nintendo is Ninja Gaiden. I just recently was able to beat it – I could fly through three-quarters of the game, barely taking a hit, and it gets super difficult at the end. But I love it for many reasons, it’s just amazing. Super Nintendo is my favorite system but my favorite game of all time is EarthBound.

I got really into Role Playing Games starting with Nintendo, like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, but once the Super Nintendo came out, that was a golden age of RPGs: Secret of Mana/Evermore, the Final Fantasies, Illusion of Gaia, Soul Blazer, I could go on and on. When EarthBound came out on Super Nintendo, it look weird because it’s an RPG that takes place in a modern age, is turn-based, and looks very different. It’s a very strange game but had a lot to say about life, love, friendship, and really what matters in life. It got me through a very very difficult time in my life, being a shy awkward weird 14-year-old kid.

Me and my brother rented it from the video game chain Blockbuster, and we got so far in the game that we were like ‘we have to get this!’, but didn’t want to buy it and have to start over. So I wrote my bike down to Blockbuster and I had them look up which copy I rented on my parent’s account and asked if they still have it, which they did, and if they would you sell it to me. They sold me the game with box and the manual for like 20 bucks and my game happened to still be saved on there, so I was able to finish it. I still have my original cartridge (not my original save file though). Now you can play it on the Switch and it’s on the Super Nintendo Mini. The original EarthBound is so expensive now, you’re lucky to find a loose one for probably 300 dollars in the United States, it’s crazy. But everybody should experience that game, so play it how you can get it. I love EarthBound.

You made a painting of the NES Karate Kid game feat. Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence fighting. You presented it in 2019 at Awesome Con and met the real-life actors Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, also known for their follow-up series Cobra Kai. They both also signed the painting – what was the experience like, and how did this happen?

It was incredible! The Karate Kid is one of my favorite movies growing up. I was a shy weird kid so I really resonated with that movie. And Cobra Kai on Netflix was a 10 out of 10 for me, I loved it so much, and was way better than it has any right to be. 

When me and my partner Nina booked Awesome Con, and I saw that they’re gonna be there, I knew I had to do a Karate Kid painting to sell. When I got there, it was really slow that first day on Friday, and Ralph Macchio wasn’t there yet. William Zabka was just hanging out on his table with only one person in front of him. I don’t get starstruck, so I came up to him, like “Hey, what’s going on man?”, and told him that I do paintings and showed him my Karate Kid painting, asking if he would mind signing this. He’s like “Yeah dude, of course!”, and asked me if I want to get a picture, too. I come behind the table, he puts his arm around me and I put my arm around him, and I was like ‘F*** yeah!’. We hung out behind the table for a good 15 to 20 minutes, talking about Cobra Kai, movies, 80s hair metal, and stuff like that. I also mentioned other movies that he was in, like Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield, and he’s like “Oh yeah, that movie was great! There was a party every night with Rodney, it was like the craziest guy to hang out with.” William was just super chill, a super nice guy, just really genuinely happy to meet fans. The complete opposite of his character Johnny Lawrence.

The next day on Saturday it got really busy. When I finally get a chance to get away from my table, I went to Ralph Macchio’s line where he was closing up to do an interview. I run into him and asked his handler if I can get him to sign the painting really quickly, but she’s like “No, no, he has to go.” Ralph overheard what I was saying, and he turns to me and says “Wow, you painted that?” And I’m like: “Yeah! I got your rival to sign it, so you gotta sign this now, too ;)” We hung out for two minutes, he signed it, made a picture, and put his arm around me. It was awesome! I told him how much I loved Karate Kid, what it meant to me, and how good Cobra Kai was, and he’s just like: “Man, that means everything to hear that, I wish I could talk to you longer.” That was pretty amazing – ‘amazicon’ – to meet the two of them. I also met Martin Kove who plays Kreese in the Karate Kid franchise. He showed up in his Cobra Kai gear and was super nice! I made a picture with him, too.

2019 Awesome Con in Washington, D.C. Left: Adam with William Zabka, Right: Adam with Ralph Macchio (Source: Instagram)

Outside of retro painting, you are also the bass player of a retro cover band, named Rex Viper. How did this come about?

It started in 2019. I was at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo convention out in Oregon where I hang out that year instead of selling there. James Rolfe and the whole Cinemassacre crew were out who I’ve known for years. Me and James, my partner Nina and my friend Rob went to see Gwar, a crazy metal band in Portland which was a lot of fun, and we’re hanging out in a bar afterwards. James had mentioned before that he plays guitar and how I used to play guitar and bass, and how it would be fun to jam together, but nothing ever came about. He’s then telling me about this idea of mashing up music from 80s movies with video game music. I thought that was really awesome, and James shared the first idea that they had – doing Street Fighter’s Ken theme with Cheap Trick’s “Mighty Wings” as it’s virtually the same song which I never even thought of. Then in March 2020 when everything locked down due to Covid, we had the time to do it. Keeran from Cinnemassacre originally found out about the link between the two songs. He was never officially in the band but was our first keyboard player.

Music Video for “Mighty Wings and Hadoukens”

What was the inspiration behind the name Rex Viper?

We were trying to find the most 80s ridiculous-sounding name, and in one of James’ Angry Video Game Nerd episodes – about a truck racing game called Big Rigs – he made up this character called Rex Viper Rigs that would do the commercial for this game. Someone from the band proposed to name it after this character Rex Viper and I’m like, “Alright, that works, let’s go with Rex Viper for the name of the band!” We all agreed on it. It sounds like the most 80s-sounding daft wondering name you possibly could have.

Who are the members of the band and who does what?

It started with me on bass and James on guitar, recording and e-mailing some riffs back and forth, and kept getting more and more people involved: Our friend James Ronald who does the channel Epic Game Music up in Canada, started helping with arrangements, music production, and recording. Then a third James – James Harding, who fronts this amazing band Villainest, came in and did vocals (I know, there’s a lot of James’s, it’s hard to keep track, haha), and then we had a rotating door of members of playing keyboards and drums. Now Bradley Conklin is playing drums for us, I’ve known him for about 20 years and were always friends, both playing in punk rock and hardcore bands in the early 2000s, but never played in a band together. He was a big fan of Rex Viper so when our drummer quit, I messaged him on Facebook, like “Hey bud, Rex Viper needs a drummer, are you down?” And he’s like “Oh hell yeah!”, got on a Zoom meeting and joined that night. Our keyboard player is Dino Lionetti who played in the bands Chromelodeon and Cheap Dinosaurs. He’s a legend in the retro gaming chiptunes scene for keyboard playing and is now our keyboard player. So we now have our full six-piece lineup. 

Are there plans for an album and if so, what can we expect?

Yes, we want to put out an album this year and are still planning what it’s gonna be. We have a giant Google Doc of ideas for new mixes for songs and want to write originals, too. Four songs we already recorded, and two others that we played at the 2021 TooManyGames convention. One of them is “Push It To The Limit” from Scarface and the Corneria Theme from StarFox – we matched those together and it’s called “ScarFox”. We already shot the video for the song, so it’s just a matter of time until the release. The other song is “The Touch” by Stan Bush from the Transformers 1986 movie, and we mashed that up with Double Dragon and the Moon Theme from the DuckTales game. We’re still figuring things out and ironing out all the details. It’s a slow-moving machine for the band, but sometime this year we would like to have an album come out with new merchandise, too.

Is there going to be a tour in The U.S.?

We would like to play more conventions and would love to do a tour, also with some other nerd rock bands, and are already figuring things out for upcoming shows in The States. 

We’re trying to organize our schedules because getting the guys down from Canada is really hard and we all have our main things that we do. Rex Viper is like the side one, so trying to get everything to jell together for that, takes a lot of work. But we’re all dedicated and we all want to do it. Just the fact that we’re able to pull off what we did during Covid in the middle of the pandemic being in two different countries is pretty crazy. We’re all very happy about it.

Maybe one day a chance for you guys to perform in Europe, too? 

We would love to! Yet when you have a band you gonna run it like a business. That’s where we’re looking at things. And once we have an album out with a set of more than six songs, get things going with other bands, and work with a touring company to help us set up shows, then we can even have the chance to do a string of dates in Europe. I would absolutely love to, that’ll be amazing!

I never thought at this point of my life I would have the opportunity to play in a band that will go on tour, will sell records, etc. I played in a lot of different bands and all I wanted to do was playing in a big band, go on tour and make money to live off of that, but it’s so difficult to get four or five people on the same page, especially at a young age. I never thought this would happen and it’s amazing that it is. It’s very strange how life works. All of us in the band are so excited about it. Me and James were talking the other day about how hyped we were for all the different ideas we have for original songs and other covers that we want to do, it’s very cool what’s happening!

Mighty Wings and Hadoukens” is out on all digital platforms. You can stream the single, as well as follow-ups “Nintendo Power of Love”, “Hearts on Fire”, and “Eye of the Tiger Electronics” on Spotify here. You can also follow Rex Viper on their official Instagram/Twitter and watch their music videos on the Cinemassacre YouTube channel.

For Adam Shub’s Squarepainter Store, go to https://squarepainter.storenvy.com/

You can also follow Adam Shub/Squarepainter here:

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The lead picture is made by graphic designer Sakis Graphics.

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