I've been waiting for Video Games Live to come to Boston ever since their debut in 2005. Last Friday, the wait ended when the touring group that performs live renditions of video game music finally came to its founder's home state.
My two tickets in hand, I showed up at the Wang Center early enough to take in the atmosphere before the doors opened. The first element I encountered was my fellow concert goers. There was no mistaking this crowd: from their apparel to their hair to their glasses, these were gamers. Almost any stereotype you could imagine applied to this throng who diligently played their DS and PSP handhelds while waiting for the doors to open. A few people dressed in costumes, though more often these were children being paraded by their parents.
The orchestra and choir, both local and conducted by Jack Wall, then took the stage. Each number was accompanied by a montage of scenes projected onto a screen above the orchestra, complementing the game's live rendition with a visual component. I wondered if this perhaps detracted from the experience. I've enjoyed many orchestral performances just by watching the conductor and his players, but here my eyes were naturally drawn upward and away from the source of the music. Of course, if I wanted to focus on the music, I have plenty of video game soundtrack CDs that stand alone just fine.
As it turns out, my previous blog post had presented in order the show's two opening acts: a montage of classic games, followed by a Metal Gear Solid medley. After witnessing the music of God of War, we were introduced to Ken Levine from nearby 2K Games, who briefly discussed the importance of soundtrack to a game such as his BioShock, whose music we then heard. A representative of the Massachusetts governor's office briefly appeared to offer his congratulations and support (and a brief reminiscence of King's Quest III), but otherwise didn't add much to the evening. A 21-year-old gamer was also then ushered onto the stage from the audience to clear a round of Space Invaders on the big screen, with live music from the orchestra. Not only did he fail the challenge, he was nearly booed off the stage before he even began by admitting to having never played the game before. Shouldn't that be a prerequisite for attendance at such a concert?
The next two pieces featured some guest performers. The music of Civilization IV included Ron Reagan, the soloist who sang for the original soundtrack. Next came YouTube phenomenon Martin Leung, aka the Video Game Pianist, who played ten Final Fantasy pieces, demonstrating some brilliant and subtle transitions between tunes from the entire storied series.
VGL's repertoire includes 50 arrangements, but each concert features only 20. Apparently, the pieces can be voted on at their Web site, and more than any other city, Boston had requested Metroid. With a follow-up of Zelda music, this Nintendo fan boy was in seventh heaven; the two pieces together made the perfect conclusion to the first act.
Time between acts was filled with two more video tributes that had apparently been floating around the 'net for a few months without crossing my path. Both Junior Kickstart and My Childhood In Four Minutes had plenty for the "older" crowd to appreciate. Speaking of which, the audience was composed almost entirely of twenty-somethings. A few older folks were there with their kids, though it was hard to tell who had dragged who along.
But it was the oldest gentleman in attendance who opened the second act. Everyone knows and respects Shigeru Miyamoto for inventing Mario and Donkey Kong in the Eighties, and Yuji Naka for Sonic in the Nineties, but Ralph Baer precedes them both by decades. Mr. Baer is often considered the father of the video game industry, because it was his invention, Pong, that Nolan Bushnell popularized in arcades with Atari. Pong was not the first video game — that honor likely belongs to Spacewar! — but without Mr. Baer, the modern landscape of electronic entertainment would be very different indeed. We saw a video of Mr. Baer compete against Bill Harrison in a 1969 match of Pong before both men were reunited on stage. Rather than a rematch, an eight-year-old was invited from the audience to play against Mr. Baer using one of the original Pong machines. It was a close game that eventually went to the younger generation with a score of 5-4.
After that, the second act relied less on guests than the first act had, proceeding to again play from both old and new scores. Kingdom Hearts, Sonic the Hedgehog, World of Warcraft, Starcraft II, Super Mario Bros., and Tetris were the next pieces. Martin Leung returned for the Mario medley, playing a few pieces blindfolded before engaging in more challenging and extremely fast compositions.
The next set relied on an audience member who had won a Guitar Hero contest during intermission. The gamer was challenged to play Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" on stage, with Ron Reagan on vocals and show designer and emcee Tommy Tallarico on bass. This gamer wasn't prepared for the "Hard" setting, though, and insisted it be changed — to "Expert"! He blew away the 200,000-point challenge Tommy had set to him, much to the audience's delight.
Speaking of which, Tommy Tallarico has the ego to be on stage: he loves to perform and be the center of attention whenever possible. And that's not a bad thing, since he is both a talented and prolific performer. He loves his work, his art, and his fans, and was happy to accommodate them all. He stayed on stage to play guitar for most of the next pieces, which were Halo, then two encores: Final Fantasy VII's "One Winged Angel" followed by a Castlevania composition, with Martin Leung on organ.
It was a brilliant evening shared with an enthusiastic crowd that didn't want to see it end. As an old school gamer, I didn't fully appreciate many of the pieces, such as God of War or even Halo, which makes the majority of their first album (iTunes) unappealing. But every piece was professionally done, and the variety of genres, eras, and styles played to everyone.
If I had one valid criticism of the evening, it's that not all the music was live. One of the choir singers told me, "They did have some percussion/rhythm tracks that they played on some pieces. For the choir, we were backed up on most of the pieces by a choir track, although they did mix us into it." Though this mix may've produced a sound more akin to the original soundtrack, I don't think such imitation was wholly necessary; as sites like OCReMix have proven, variations and original arrangements are more than welcome.
Several of the evening's numbers have made their way to YouTube, but it's no substitute for the environment, audience, and sounds of a live performance. Check VGL's their tour dates to find when you'll have an opportunity you won't want to miss.