Music for geeks. And music that non-geeks might like, too, given the chance. This is their chance.
The Video Games Live concert is a concert event featuring game music performed by a live symphony orchestra and a choir, and it has been touring the world since 2005. Tommy Tallarico (you know him from game review shows The Electric Playground, Judgment Day, and Reviews On The Run) hosts it; and he himself is a game musician. He created the show with his partner, the conductor Jack Wall (composer of a number of games, including Myst III: Exile and Myst IV: Revelation). It was certainly an event not to be missed. It finally came around to Edmonton, with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Kokopelli Choir performing, and I had a chance to see the concert on the second night here (Jan. 23).
At each performance, there is a pre-show festival. The events and activities vary depending on the locale. My group (my brother, five friends, and two friends-of-friends) and I arrived over an hour after the start of the pre-show festival (which apparently started at 5 PM) so I'm not sure if we missed a lot or not much at all. Unfortunately, I'd wager it was the latter. This is Edmonton. Not a small town, but not a huge metropolis... certainly no one would expect the kind of celebrities of the kind that show up when they play at the Hollywood Bowl. There wasn't much, really. There were a few tables set up with merchandise; my brother bought a Video Games Live T-shirt and two friends bought Halo and Halo 2 soundtracks. There was a Guitar Hero II competition; one of my friends is a big fan and competed in that. And there were some Xbox 360s and PSPs set up. Upon receiving an Xbox 360 sticker and a PlayStation 3 lanyard, one of my friends who had accompanied me down to E3 last year made a joke about collecting "swag". Where was Nintendo? With Mario and Zelda always on the playlist, you'd think they'd have some presence here. Oh, well. I filled out a couple ballots to win an autographed poster and an Xbox 360 and then got a $5 coupon towards the purchase of any video game or PC game from Future Shop. Overall, this pre-show festival was not very exciting. But that's okay, I came for the music. When the doors finally opened, I grabbed the program on my way in.
The playlist changes, depending on the location. Here in Edmonton, we got these:
Classic Arcade Medley
Metal Gear Solid series
God Of War
Medal Of Honor
Final Fantasy VIII
The Legend Of Zelda series
Sonic The Hedgehog series
World Of WarCraft
Final Fantasy series (piano solo)
Super Mario Bros. series
Super Mario Bros. series (piano solo)
Halo & Halo 2
Halo 3 teaser
Final Fantasy VII
I pocketed the program and we went to find our seats: main floor, center, row C... not too shabby! A large screen above the stage showed the Video Games Live logo: a Space Invader with headphones. With a few minutes left until the show would start, a woman walked on stage with a six or seven people who had dressed up for the Costume Contest. I suspect the turnout would've been better if this was the first night (which I suspect has more of the hardcore gamers) or if this wasn't Edmonton. Anyway, the best dressed were already chosen in the pre-judging, so the woman asked for applause in deciding who of the three finalists would win a prize. The finalists included a girl dressed as Aeris from Final Fantasy VII, a woman dressed as Ms. Pac-Man, and a boy dressed as Cloud, also from Final Fantasy VII. Well, he could've been the character Zack as he hadn't dyed his hair blonde, but you couldn't ignore the cardboard-and-foil sword that was as big as he was. Unsurprisingly, it was unanimous, and Cloud (or Zack) won. I didn't hear what the prize was here, but at another concert it was a video card.
The lights dimmed at 7:32 PM and the familiar sound of a codec echoed through the auditorium. A voice claiming to be Solid Snake roused the crowd. He introduced the conductor, Jack Wall, who also pumped up the crowd by running across the stage and raising his arms to get applause and cheers from each side of the audience, as if to outdo the other. Then, the performance began.
Yes, the Video Games Live concert, just like video game history itself, begins with Pong. (Photo from videogameslive.com)
The Classic Arcade Medley was a great way to start off the concert, and I believe it's one of the pieces you can expect at every show. It began with a game of Pong on the big screen, with beats pounded out when the square "ball" bounced. Then there were early classics like Space Invaders, Asteroids, Robotron, Joust and more set to a classical tune (the name of it escapes me now). The orchestra then continued with their symphonic renditions of in-game music. I recognized Front Line, Donkey Kong (which got a lot of applause), Frogger (a definite favourite, it was longer than most tunes), Elevator Action, Dragon's Lair, Space Ace, the arcade versions of Duck Hunt and Punch-Out!!, Ghosts 'N Goblins, Gauntlet, Rastan, OutRun, and ending with the arcade version of Tetris.
Tommy Tallarico came on stage, dressed in a suit with a Spider-man T-shirt clearly visible underneath. He thanked the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and then he made some statements about video games and their music. Upon saying that some people think that video games are just for kids, people jeered. Then he said that some people think that video games are just for nerds and geeks - which got many cheers, probably the whole "proud to be a geek" kind of response. So he went on to say how this concert was meant to show how "artistic and culturally significant" that video games and their music are, and then thanked the audience for making video games the "entertainment of choice for the 21st century". And this evening we would be entertained by game music, but in a different way.
Following an introductory video with Hideo Kojima, the theme from Metal Gear Solid series was the first whole segment, and for us in Edmonton, the only one with live-action (other than the volunteers playing the "Interactive Symphony" games later on). The video cycled through various scenes from the Metal Gear Solid games (including Twin Snakes, but excluding the Game Boy Color game) - I noticed that scenes from the trailer of the upcoming Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns Of The Patriots were added since the version I'd seen on the Internet. Spotlights scanned the stage as a guard walked by. Someone followed him in a cardboard box, Solid Snake-style. At some point, something caught the guard's attention, and an exclamation point popped up above his head, causing laughter from gamers who recognized the expression. (But being in Row C, it was pretty obvious to us beforehand, as the exclamation mark was not exactly hidden.) It would've been more interesting if they could've done more than just having the guard walk back and forth... the box just sat there after it reached the other side of the stage. I guess the Jubilee Auditorium's stage isn't large enough for chases and/or fancy "climbing-up-ropes" stuff I'd seen in the trailer on the official Video Games Live web site. But anyhow, the Metal Gear Solid theme was still pretty rousing.
The person under the box turned out to be Tommy himself, and he joked that he was the only one that would fit in there. Seeing another introductory video from someone (unfamiliar to me, and I don't remember his name) who worked on God Of War, we journeyed into a montage of that game. Not having played the game, I couldn't tell if God Of War II footage was included, but I was interested to see if I would enjoy it. I wanted to recommend this concert to everyone I knew, but some of them not being gamers, I wasn't sure if they could appreciate it without the nostalgia or the understanding of a particular game. So, would I enjoy God Of War, since I've never touched the game? It was certainly not unenjoyable, at least. The epic music matched the epic scenes... the character of Kratos taking on beasts or deities or whatever they are, multiple times, some maybe hundreds of times, larger than himself. Since the concert is for all ages, the bare-breasted women were obviously blurred and the fight scenes tried to avoid showing direct hits or blood-spilling. While the visuals were memorable, I can't say I remember the music, other than that it wasn't bad at the time.
To mix things up a bit, we got a segment with Space Invaders, which I've seen called the "Interactive Symphony". Tommy asked for a volunteer, and he picked out of the crowd a large guy near the front who vaulted up onto stage in excitement. Tommy gave him a shirt with the Space Invader ship-cannon thing on the back of it, which I suspect allowed his movements to be tracked. Yep, movement was involved. The participant was given a button to fire, but he had to run across the stage in order to move his ship. Tommy told him that he would win the dollar amount equal to the point value of the bonus mother ships that he shot down, if he could clear the first stage within 90 seconds or two minutes (one of the two, I don't quite remember). The audience cheered the volunteer on as he clomped across the stage, (the orchestra played the music to match the action) and Tommy repeatedly shouted that shooting up the sides would've been a good idea. A mother ship was finally shot down when time was almost up, but the stage was not completed. After being given a consolation prize, Tommy made an amusing remark when the guy decided to use the stairs this time.
The Myst series is a series I finally got around to totally playing a couple years ago, and is one of my favourite game series, period. Of these games, my favourites are Myst III: Exile and Myst IV: Revelation. Whether by coincidence or not, those two games were composed by the conductor, Jack Wall. The video was a montage of scenes of the five main Myst games shown in order: Myst, Riven, Exile, Revelation, and End Of Ages, with music from each of the games matching the current game montage. The choir was particularly impressive here, and I got chills when they got to the theme of Revelation, the tune from the Myst series that I find the most powerful and memorable.
The Medal Of Honor montage was not made of game footage. Instead, it was a montage of black-and-white historical wartime video. Tommy mentioned something about Steven Spielberg. I was never interested in any of the Medal Of Honor games, or nearly any game that takes place in World War II. That's not to say I lost interest here, as some of the footage was pretty moving, especially that of children that you assume might be orphans because of the war. I suppose given the tone of the music and the family-friendly nature of the concert, showing game footage would've been out of the question anyway.
After that, Civilization IV was next to please the history buffs, and it was certainly less heavy. The epic score was emphasized with the game's building animations... lots of them. The Pyramids, Babylonian Gardens, and other wonders. My brother is a fan of the Civilization games; he certainly loved this segment.
Tommy brought up an interesting problem... Square-Enix would not allow the use of footage from their games in this concert. (I remember their booth at E3 last year... they wouldn't allow pictures or videos of their theatre or the screens of their games on the floor.) Final Fantasy VIII's operatic opening theme, "Liberi Fatali", didn't need it, as Tommy pointed out. We didn't need to see the opening scene with Squall and Seifer dueling, or other scenes from FF VIII to enjoy it. And I really noticed the orchestra now, without the big screen to distract me. And of course, the choir was involved here too. Where we sat, it was really difficult to see the choir in the back, but we certainly heard them in this piece. Both the orchestra and the choir were certainly working together well.
Before the intermission, we had to hear something else that was big, especially coming off of Final Fantasy. So of course, it was The Legend Of Zelda series that was next. In the same format as the Hideo Kojima and the God of War guy introductory videos, Koji Kondo appeared, credited as the composer of "Mario Bros. and Zelda". He emphasized his pleasure of showing footage from the "new" Zelda game, Twilight Princess. Well, having finished the game over a month and a half ago, it wasn't really "new" to us, in fact, it was footage from an old trailer, showing scenes that did not end up in the final version. There were large humanoid creatures, some Moblins, and also an Armagohma chase, which are not in the game. But I digress; I should be reviewing the music. There's nothing bad to say about the recognizable Zelda overworld theme! My only beef is that they should've stayed on that one theme a bit more instead playing other pieces from the series. The footage didn't just show Twilight Princess, it cycled through many of the Zelda games. I'm pretty sure some of the footage is the same as the retrospective found on The Legend Of Zelda: Collectors Edition Disc that Nintendo Power gave out a couple years ago. (I also really noticed the lights here... they showed off patterns of yellow triangles, no doubt a reference to the Triforce.) All in all, very enjoyable, if I'm let down at all it's only because I'm such a Zelda fan and expected more of the theme and for it to be longer overall.
The intermission was twenty minutes long and a meter like that of a game's loading screen appeared on the big screen. It read "Video Games Live - Loading Act II", and slowly filled up with green as time passed. There was a dash to the bathrooms and back, of course. Anyone who was still in the theatre enjoyed geeky music like "Dragostea din tei" (the "Numa Numa Dance" music), a track from PaRappa the Rapper, and other tunes played softly and just barely audible over the chattering of the excited nerds in the audience. The meter filled up when the twenty minutes were up, and the screen read "Press Start (or clap) to begin." After some applause, the lights dimmed and the show resumed.
Frogger gave our group something to be excited about. It was an "Interactive Symphony" game, like Space Invaders, but this was a game for two players, and one of them was Clint, one of my friends. He was up against a larger guy named Roy, and they were playing Frogger to win $100 worth of gift cards for Future Shop. Roy was up first and got a score of about 3000 or so. Clint (whose name Tommy must've forgotten, because while he kept referring to Roy by name, he seemed to avoid saying "Clint") clearly played better than his opponent. Even after overtaking Roy's score, the crowd got more excited when Tommy pointed out that the highest score ever was over 5000. When Clint got over 6000, that clearly beat that, and there was much applause. They were then given their prizes. They both got a goody bag, which included an autographed program booklet and a volume of manga (Clint got a volume of Ragnarok), and while Clint got the four Future Shop gift cards, Roy was given a home version of Frogger (one of those plug-directly-into-the-TV thingies) as a consolation prize.
The audience got immediately excited for the next segment. As soon as Tommy asked if there were Disney fans, it was pretty obvious, and then he asked if there were Square fans. Some people were already shrieking the title of the game, so Tommy asked everyone to do it in unison by the count of three. "One, Two, Three, Kingdom Hearts!" Because of Square-Enix's insistence that their footage not be used, it was pretty much a montage from Disney movies. There were clips from Aladdin, The Beauty And The Beast, The Lion King, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Winnie-The-Pooh, some shots with Goofy and Donald, and it ended with a shot of Mickey from Steamboat Willie. Watching it made me think of Fantasia... it's good orchestra music with matching visuals, but unless you were a huge Kingdom Hearts fan, you wouldn't think this had anything to do with video games if you saw this anywhere else.
The video for the Sonic The Hedgehog series was similar to the Myst montage in that it took music from the various games in the series, and played them in chronological order. This was made very evident with the title screens included in the montage, as most people would have trouble telling the first few games apart. The lights showed patterns of yellow circles, meant to be like the Rings that Sonic collects in each game. Everyone got a laugh at the opening when the choir sang "SEGA!" as normally chanted at the beginning of many of Sega's own games, especially in the Genesis era. The music was a medley of stage music from Sonic The Hedgehog, Sonic The Hedgehog 2, Sonic The Hedgehog 3, Sonic & Knuckles, Sonic Spinball, Sonic 3D Blast, Sonic Adventure, Sonic Adventure 2, and Sonic Heroes. I remember thinking "why won't he run?" as the Sonic The Hedgehog video showed Sonic running into things just as often or more than just plain running. I was hoping for Chemical Plant music when it came to Sonic The Hedgehog 2, but alas, it was not performed. Sonic Spinball's inclusion was a surprise to me, as it must've been for others, as it got some chuckles and applause when the title screen came up... same with Sonic 3D Blast. Sonic CD was absent; or else I must've missed it. While I don't mind the later games' J-pop, I know there are many of you who do mind it, but thankfully then, none of that was included. The final shot was of Sonic Heroes, where Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles were in their "Mission Clear" poses. Now that's how you do a montage!
I'm not a big fan of World Of WarCraft. I know that many people are, though, including one from our group. Again, it was booming, epic music, fitting for a fantasy setting. If memory serves, I think some of the footage was actually from trailers of WarCraft III. And if I am mistaken, most certainly a WarCraft fan will point that out. I would've liked it more if it were a WarCraft montage spanning the whole series, actually... I do have fond memories of the music from WarCraft II.
The Final Fantasy series (piano solo) was next, and performed by Lee Ann Leung. As far as I know, there's no relation to myself, however, she is the sister of Martin Leung, the "Video Game Pianist" made famous on the Internet for playing tunes from the Mario games while blindfolded. Martin performs at many of these concerts, but not this one. He was mentioned as having arranged this medley, and the original composer Nobuo Uematsu was also credited. This piano solo began with the Final Fantasy theme (you know, the one that goes up-and-down the keys) and went through the various games. There was applause when she played the ones I also recognized instantly, including the opening theme of Final Fantasy VI, "One-Winged Angel" from Final Fantasy VII (if I'm not confusing this with the finale), "Liberi Fatali" (again) and Waltz For The Moon (the dance scene) from Final Fantasy VIII. The applause she got at the end was thunderous.
Tommy got the crowd excited again when he shouted, "Have you played... Baldur's Gate? Have you played... Neverwinter Nights? Have you played... Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic?" He made the point that BioWare developed these games, and BioWare is based right here in Edmonton. The upcoming performance was from Jade Empire, a game that they developed and that Jack Wall himself composed for. Because the show changes depending on the location, this was actually just added, and it was the second time ever that this was performed (the first time was at the first Edmonton concert on the previous night). Unfortunately it was not memorable to me, probably because I hadn't played the game, but I do remember enjoying it at the time, like some of the earlier pieces.
Jack took the microphone here and joked that he does speak too, as up to now he had been pretty silent. He said that after playing something that he wrote it would only be fair to play something that Tommy wrote. So up came music for Advent Rising. I had heard that this game was very cinematic, and it certainly looked that way, and had the music to match. The game footage looked interesting, but it felt longer than the other pieces, and even included a scene with spoken dialogue in the middle. Considering that the game didn't sell as well as hoped I almost wonder if it was only this lengthy because of Tommy's involvement in the soundtrack and intended as a push to sell the game. One of my friends made a comment after the concert that he was interested in this game, so I guess it might have worked, at least to get our attention.
What's a video game concert (or anything about video games) without Super Mario? Tommy joked that this was the other "short Italian" that we were all looking forward to seeing. The video for the Super Mario Bros. series was introduced with another clip of Koji Kondo, remarking that he didn't think that twenty years later, people would be enjoying a full orchestral performance of the Super Mario Bros. theme. That, along with the underwater and underground themes of Super Mario Bros. made up the music for this sequence. The video showed off not only the "main" Mario games, but also Donkey Kong, Dr. Mario, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, Super Mario Kart, Mario Kart 64, Mario Golf, Mario Power Tennis, Super Smash Bros., Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, Mario Vs. Donkey Kong, and possibly others. There certainly was a lot of variety here. The synchronization between the music and the video was really impressive here. I had seen a video of this on YouTube, but seeing it again live seemed so much better.
After that, Lee Ann Leung came out and performed a Super Mario Bros. series (piano solo), much like the one that made Martin Leung famous. She didn't do it blindfolded, but she also has lightning-quick fingers. The close-up of her playing was as impressive to watch as it was to hear. She received a standing ovation.
Halo & Halo 2 have a recognizable theme, even one that I can appreciate despite only playing the first game on the PC once through. With clips from both games, the powerful theme seemed to energize the audience. Probably many Halo fans were present.
Once that was finished, Tommy came out in more casual attire and a guitar. Screaming "finish the fight", the Halo 3 teaser played. The Halo theme came on again, and Tommy joined in with his guitar. I suppose if I was a Halo fan that would've been a nice encore of sorts, but I found it to be somewhat redundant considering we'd just heard the theme. At least it was really short, but that made it seem a little more out of place.
To finish off a video game concert, you have to have boss music, right? Final Fantasy VII's "One Winged Angel" was the final tune. Again, lack of footage meant that we couldn't see the evil Sephiroth doing his thing, but hey, the music was still pretty moving. No doubt the audience was excited as the choir chanted "Seph-i-roth!" The concert ended with more thunderous applause, right at 10:00 PM.
I didn't stick around for the meet-and-greet post-show (despite being invited by Tommy himself at the NintendoWorldReport (formerly Planet GameCube) forums). Tommy Tallarico, Jack Wall, Lee Ann Leung, and probably some others were signing posters and the like. The line-up was already really long by the time we got there, and so we didn't bother. Oh, why did the concert have to be on a Tuesday?
Jack and Tommy did say that they hope to be back again next year. It was the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra that wanted Video Games Live to come here in the first place, and as the home of BioWare, they said they'd be happy to return here. Since the show changes a bit each time, I would also be happy to see the show again. Maybe next time they'll play some Castlevania, which is one of the game series they do perform, they just didn't do it here. Pretty much my only major gripe.
I'd recommend this show to gamers, obviously... but what about other people? Well, good music is good music, no matter what it is originally composed for or where it came from. The visuals make it more exciting than most other orchestral performances. So, yes, non-gamers will have a good time too, but clearly, gamers will have the most fun.
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