I have been playing Video Games since the ripe old age of three. The first video game I ever played was the immortal Bad Dudes on the NES. At the time I didn’t appreciate the simple concept of rescuing the President from Ninjas, but now I do. The game that made me a gamer, however, was a little known title called ‘Dinosaurs for Hire’. If not for that 2D Side-Scrolling Shooter for the Sega Genesis, I would not be the nerd I am today.
One of the major factors in what makes a video game memorable is the music. Look at all the video games that are etched into our memories: Mario, Zelda, Sonic, Halo, Warcraft, Metal Gear Solid, Mega Man, Castlevania, Contra, and Final Fantasy are just a few of the games that are memorable in the eyes of the gaming public, and each and every one of those games has some memorable music. Growing up, I would pop Mega Man II into the NES, and leave it at the start screen just so I could listen to that killer opening theme. But of course, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who DIDN’T rock out to the Mega Man theme at some point in their lives. Regardless of what your favorite video game is, I promise you that you remember a song or two from it.
Last Friday (July 6th) I went to see Video Games Live. For those of you who are unaware of what VGL is, it’s basically a traveling group of people who get together with symphony orchestras from around the world, and put on a concert comprised entirely of music from classic video games. I went to the show at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall at Max M. Fisher Music Hall in Detroit, Michigan. It was a beautiful venue, if not a little small for the event taking place, to which was packed. I arrived around 6pm, and met up immediately with Mike Tallarico, VGL’s Merchandising Manager, to get my reserved tickets and All Access passes. After that was complete, we entered the meeting hall, which was a fairly large room with video games on display, an area to buy merchandise, and lots of room to just walk around and talk with people. They had a Nintendo Wii with Wii Sports, a Playstation 3 with Fight Night, and two Xbox 360s to which players could either play Halo 2 or Madden 07. On the other side of the hall there were two Playstation 2s set-up to play Guitar Hero 2. This was, by far, the most popular attraction. At the high point before Showtime, there were easily 100 or more people gathered around, watching each other play. The adults could buy a beer or a sandwich, and watch a little television in the other lobby, while their kids ran around with all the games, so there really was something to occupy everyone’s time.
The turn out for this event was most excellent, with many characters coming in “cosplay” (which is to dress up as your favorite character from a game, anime, etc.) attire. I even got my picture taken with Albert Wesker, of Resident Evil fame. I assume it was fate that made me notice my favorite Video Game character in the crowd. Most of the people in attendance were in the 18-22 age bracket (myself included), but there were kids as young as six, as well as grandparents in attendance. It was actually a very diverse crowd, and I never thought I’d see the day where Goku would be taking pictures with a sixty year-old man in a suit. It was actually very surreal.
The show itself started at 8pm. The crowds filed into the Auditorium and took their seats. The stage set-up was ingenious, considering the lack of space they had to work with. Between the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Choir, I was amazed that they were able to fit anyone on the stage at all. The show opened with a powerful ode to classic gaming, beginning with Pong. The hall went dark, and the large screen behind the Orchestra faded from the green VGL logo to the game itself, showing a score of 07-06. As the “ball” moved across the screen, the Orchestra would perform the bleeps and bloops as the ball hit the paddle. ALSO, when the ball struck the paddle, an entire pillar of white lights would flash for only a second or so before dimming. I know it doesn’t sound all that impressive, but to see it, and hear it was absolutely surreal. The Pong bit began a ten-minute medley of classic music from classic Arcade titles from the 80s, including games like Out Run, Defender, Missile Command, Ghosts and Ghouls and Gauntlet, were featured prominently in the opening medley, which received an uproarious applause from the passionate crowd. Now as the orchestra played throughout, there was a light show that was synchronized perfectly with the music, which also worked spectacularly well with the video footage that was aired on screen.
After the medley of classic arcade titles, the crowd was treated to the voice of Solid Snake himself, David Hayter. Hayter, as Snake, introduced one of the most acclaimed composers in the industry, the co-founder of Video Games Live, Tommy Tallarico. He talked to the crowd for a minute or so before introducing a video introduction from Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear Solid franchise. Via video, Kojima introduced the next piece to be performed by the orchestra, which was a mesmerizing rendition of the famous Metal Gear Solid theme. Accompanied by footage from the entire Metal Gear Solid series, the opening hook was met with a cheer that drowned out the orchestra. Laughter from the audience soon followed as, while the orchestra played, a man dressed as a Soviet commando crept on stage. A moment later, another uproar of laughter as a man with a box draped over him, followed the Commando on stage.
A few moments passed after the Metal Gear Solid segment had ended. You could feel the anticipation in the air as the crowd, completely engrossed in the show, waited to see what was next. The lights went dim, the back screen illuminated once again, and the crowd went wild upon seeing Naoto Oshima, the creator of Sonic the Hedgehog. Oshima introduced the medley of Sonic the Hedgehog music that was about to be played, then the screen dissolved to footage from the entire Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, with the opening song being the music from Green Hill Zone, from the original Sonic the Hedgehog. The segment went on for a good five or six minutes, as the orchestra played through three separate songs from the Sonic franchise.
After the Sonic medley wrapped up, the house lights came on, and all eyes turned to the box, which had been sitting at the edge of the stage since the Metal Gear Solid segment. Finally, the man popped out of the box, and who else could it be than our old friend Tommy. After popping back up, the show took a break from the music for a moment, and Tommy brought a man up on stage from the audience. This rather husky fellow whose name I do not remember was picked by Tommy to play a round of Space Invaders for us all. But, like all things that seem easy, there was a catch: This man, who Tommy picked from the audience, WAS the ship. Holding a one-buttoned controller, he had to run across the stage to move the ship from left to right. He had two minutes to clear the board of all the enemy ships. As an added incentive, if he could shoot the red saucers that fly overhead, he’d get the assigned amount of points in cash. Throw in another distraction in the fact that the orchestra was performing all the music and sound effects while he was playing, and it becomes a challenge. Unfortunately, our stout friend didn’t quite make the two-minute mark, but he still left with fabulous prizes.
The next segment hit close to home for me, as well as many others in the audience. Tommy looked toward the concert-goers, and asked all current-or-prior-service members to stand, which always triggers an immediate dread deep within me because I don’t like getting praise I haven’t yet earned. The next musical segment that the orchestra performed was for the World War II franchise “Medal of Honor”. Rather than using footage from the games, however, The History Channel provided a video of old newsreel footage, showing images of the Jews fleeing Germany and Poland at the onset of WWII, to footage from the Pacific Front against the Japanese. But what made the piece powerful was the choice of video they used, and the lack of combat footage. There was a little but of actual combat footage, including the old reel film of the Hiroshima blast, but for the most part it was all video that set the mood to the music in such a way that it moved you. As a service member especially, I found myself welling up towards the end. I didn’t weep, but a few did. To me, this portion of the show was the highlight. And we were only about half-hour into the show.
The next segment was for The Legend of Zelda. It’s to my eternal shame that I was not able to see this portion of the show, for I spent it in the bathroom.
After The Legend of Zelda, it was intermission. The droves of gamers filed out of the auditorium and into the reception hall, where they could take part in four separate contests: Cosplay (Costume Design) competition, Space Invaders, a Guitar Hero 2 raffle, and a Guitar Hero 2 contest. I spent much of my time over at the Guitar Hero 2 kiosk, and all I can say is that after hearing “You Really Got Me” about two hundred times, I want to kill David Lee Roth.
After the intermission, we all filed back into the theatre. It was game time once again, as Tommy picked two young children to come up on stage and take part in a contest. This time, it was Frogger – and NO, the kids did not have to cross the ever-busy Woodward Avenue over and over. The two children faced off against each other in a friendly game of Frogger on the big video screen. The winner, a young lad of about six, won an AMD Ferrari Laptop. …a six year-old. What six year-old needs a freaking laptop?! The loser still got a grab bag full of goodies as well, and after Frogger, the show was set to continue.
Some of the games featured in the second-half of the show included Kingdom Hearts and World of Warcraft. Due to an awkward circumstance in which SquareEnix wouldn’t allow game footage to be shown, yet Disney would, the video for the Kingdom Hearts portion of the program featured video of the Disney characters from their original works, rather than in-game video. The World of Warcraft segment was simply amazing, as the lighting effects and the mood-setting opening cinematic to World of Warcraft set a perfect atmosphere and mood.
Following this breathtaking performance, to which started a minor Horde vs. Alliance war of words between the ticket holders, the show’s conductor, fellow well-renowned composer Jack Wall, took the mic and introduced us to Martin Leung. Now, odds are you are not aware of who he is by name alone, but you may know him as the “Video Game Pianist”. He’s the man who played the Super Mario theme song blindfolded oh, so many moons ago.
Leung began his performance by playing through a ten-song medley from the Final Fantasy series that was met with a standing ovation at the end. The ovation was short-lived, however, as Leung quickly retook his seat at the piano. After some obviously staged coercion from Tommy Tallarico, Leung played the song that made him famous – the music from Super Mario Brothers, which was also met with a thunderous applause and a standing ovation. Rather than taking a bow, however, Leung stayed sitting, pausing only a moment before moving right on to the NES incarnation of the classic Tetris music. After that, Leung took his bow, was met with a third standing ovation, and walked off the stage as Tommy returned.
About this time you knew the show was winding down. Tommy talked to us for a minute, building up the hype and anticipation for the next musical performance. In the middle of it all, he points to a man in the crowd, and says “We have a friend in the audience, why don’t you come on up here?” The man rises, and comes up on stage. This man is Michael Salvatori, the composer for the Halo franchise! He introduces the next segment which, to everyone’s delight, is indeed the Halo trilogy. The first game was performed admirably, with the orchestra and choir working together in perfect unison. Just as we heard the heavy drums begin to beat, and everyone knew that they were transitioning into Halo 2, Tommy returned to the stage with perhaps the smallest guitar I’ve ever seen in hand. Together, the Orchestra and Tommy threw DOWN on some Halo 2. Just as they hit the crescendo, Tommy shouts to the crowd if we want to hear some Halo 3? …well, duh. Leung came back out sometime during the Halo 2 performance, and had taken his seat at the piano when those three piano keys from the famous Halo 3 trailer.
By the time the performance had ended, I was so pumped up that I wanted to kill something. With my hands.
It was time for the final performance. Tommy was on the stage, obviously feeding off the adrenaline and vibes of the crowd. He told us for the final performance, we’d want to get our lighters out. But hey, we’re nerds, so instead Tommy had we, the people, flipping open our cell phones, Nintendo DS’s, and PSPs. Finally, it was time. In order to describe the finale, I need only say three words:
One. Winged. Angel.
The song ran about seven minutes, and when they finished there wasn’t so much as a blink of a second before the audience shot to their feet, the sounds of cheers and applause so loud that you would’ve sworn you just went deaf. After about a good, solid minute of applause the crowds began to file out of the auditorium, some to go home, but most to stay and meet the crew. I had my All Access pass, and Tommy remembered me from back in the early-G4 days. He and I hung out after the show, and shot the shit for a good 25 minutes with the rest of the crew before I, and my guest, finally departed for the night.
Overall, it was without question the time of my life, and one of the best events Detroit has seen in a long, long time. I still remember a gentleman of about sixty years asking me during the intermission “Is this the music they put in Video Games nowadays?”, almost mesmerized that video games didn’t sound entirely childish any longer. It’s truly a testament of just how far the industry has come in just over thirty years.
Look, if you ever get the opportunity to check out Video Games Live, do so. I promise you that you will have the time of your life.