Originally posted on Kombo.

Since 2005, gamers have been flocking to listen to their favorite video game music at Video Games Live. The concert is hosted by video game music composer Tommy Tallarico and has seen great success in the last three years it has toured the U.S.. Each show is different, but there’s a general formula in place. Shows feature popular video game music being played by an orchestra, synced alongside footage of the game the music is from. Additionally, each show has a few surprises for attendees, including free giveaways.

Kombo Senior News Editor David Oxford recently attended Video Games Live at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada. Below, you’ll find his recap of the evening, including some photos of the night’s event.

Editor’s Note: This show took place about a month ago, and while we were originally planning on running this article much sooner, one thing led to another and it didn’t make it up. We’ve decided to post it regardless of how late it is, so please enjoy (and forgive some of the low-quality photography).


On Saturday, February 9th, my wife Nadia and I were fortunate enough to be able to attend the performance of Video Games Live at Massey Hall in Toronto, Ontario.

We arrived at the box office early to pick up our tickets early, but unfortunately, not early enough; we were surprised with a pair of orange “all-access” wristbands that let us backstage, but unfortunately we missed the early meet-and-greet with the performers, as we had no idea one was to take place.

Soon, things started to settle in. Our seats were the far-left center section of the auditorium, and as a result there was a little obstruction from where the ceiling had hung low, blocking the top of the screen. But hey, as long as we could hear the music, that’s what mattered, right?

Before the show started, there was a little “poetry” (Roses are #FF0000…) and a video of Ms. Pac-Man being chased by three ghosts through New York. Then came a costume contest hosted by Mary Ann McKenzie, Manager of Marketing and Entertainment for Future Shop (a Canadian electronics store owned by Best Buy) in which people dressed as Dark Link, a female Simon Belmont, Pikachu, a Raving Rabbid, Princess Peach, a young Link, and Spider-man. The youthful Link was the crowd favorite, hands down.

Our conductor for the evening, Video Games Live co-creator and executive producer Jack Wall, came out and had some fun with the crowd, prompting lights and cheers from different parts of the hall before letting things settle and starting the show.

The show began as you might expect, with some classic fare, and quite an assortment of it at that. Pong, Space Invaders, Asteroid, Defender, Centipede, Joust, and others… games which ironically are not known for their music, largely due to the absence of any, thus leading to some sound-effect and melody improvisation by the orchestra. Then things started to really pick up with the classic Donkey Kong themes, and moved on to Frogger and Elevator Action. Dragons Lair got an ovation from the crowd, soon to be followed by Space Ace (which didn’t seem to thrill as much), Duck Hunt (which did), and the arcade version of Punch-Out!!. Ghosts ‘n Goblins came next, whose stage theme sounded quite impressive when performed. Gauntlet succeeded it, then Rastan, Outrun, and finally, some classic Tetris, which got people cheering.

It sounds a little long, but the medley of melodies flowed quite smoothly, and is especially pleasing to those who remember and enjoyed games when the medium’s music was still very primitive. Also interesting to note is the way the videos carried a sort of theme starting with Donkey Kong, wherein most segments seemed to end in the defeat or death of the hero/player before the next song would begin.

The stage went dark as my phone began to ring. As I was trying to figure out why no one was there, Solid Snake’s voice made it all clear as it came up on the speakers, getting the crowd ready for his introduction of our host for the evening, the other executive producer and co-creator of the event, Tommy Tallarico, who appeared in half-casual/half-formal attire, at least from where I sat. He explained a bit of what Video Games Live is and is about, as well as exchanging banter with someone who’d attended the show before in regards to how this performance would differ a bit from past ones.

At this time, I’d like to go ahead and establish that my memory of the evening isn’t exactly 20/20, so to speak, so some of the sequences may be slightly out of order from here on out, but only slightly; I think I nailed most of it.

Hideo Kojima gave a video introduction, explaining that he wished he could be here, to a montage of various clips of footage from Metal Gear Solid 1-4, all accompanied by the orchestra playing. Interesting to note they used the original PlayStation 1 Metal Gear Solid, rather than the Twin Snakes remake, which created a greater degree of visual disparity between that game and the other three. Personally, I was a little disappointed at the seeming disacknowledgement of the series’ roots with the 2D top-down adventures from the MSX and NES, but even so, hearing the familiar themes live was a unique thrill.

During the Metal Gear Solid portion, there was a little something extra going on as well, as the “pursuit” theme which plays when Snake has been spotted was being performed. A person dressed as one of the grunt soldiers came out with his rifle, looking around for Snake as a cardboard box followed behind, along with a few spotlights shining around. The klaxon-signifying exclamation mark even went into effect before the guy went backstage. And yet, the box remained…

There was a God of War piece introduced by creator David Jaffe. At this point, I started to wonder if more of the music we would be hearing would be based on newer games that might be more familiar to a younger or newer audience that might not appreciate the classics, be they performed by a live orchestra or not. “They wouldn’t skip on Mario or Zelda, would they?” I asked myself, hoping the montage at the start wasn’t it for oldschool.

But don’t get me wrong, the God of War piece was quite good, and fun to watch, but didn’t exactly resonate with me the way it likely would with others, myself never having played a God of War game before (and nothing against the series, but it’s not at the top of my list at the moment, either). Hell, I’m just taking it on good faith that the music was actually from the games.

As the show continued and Tommy Tallarico returned, he referenced an earlier mention that tonight’s show would be different from their last performance here (which I did not attend, this being our first). To illustrate the point, he noted that he was the one in the Snake box last time, but lo and behold, he was right there, and so was the box! So who could be inside?

The box rose, revealing Martin Leung, the pianist whose claim to fame prior to joining Video Games Live was his performance playing Mario tunes on the piano… blindfolded.

However, that’s not what he was here for right now, as Tommy explained that Video Games Live had received a lot of requests for performances of pieces from the Chrono series, Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger. My wife, a greater fan of the latter, was a little disappointed when we only got music from the former, though she did seem to appreciate the performance given just the same. As with God of War, I was able to enjoy the performance more for what it was, less for what it was from.

Liberi Fatali from Final Fantasy VIII was played, but because the people at Square calling the shots on something like this are total dicks, no footage was able to accompany the music, or any other Square music.

Ok, maybe they aren’t TOTAL dicks– they still got to play the music, after all.

Soon thereafter came one “for the kids,” though I’m sure my wife drew some appreciation for it as well, having read all the books and seen all but the movie upon which this game was based. It was a video of footage from the game Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, accompanied by music made especially for that game. Personally speaking, I’m not a huge Potter fan, but just enough of one that I can watch the movies and appreciate them, and this kept quite well to that spirit and tone. Didn’t seem too spoilerish or anything, either, but then, I’ve not read the book nor seen this last movie, so maybe something I would have otherwise recognized was shown. Either way, I couldn’t tell, so I just sat back and enjoyed.

Tommy appeared on the stage to introduce a local group, which he’d accidently jumped the gun on earlier in the show. My wife, and to her credit, some of the people sitting behind us, were crossing their fingers for The Arcade Fire (despite not being local. “Canada” is one place to everyone else, anyway), but alas, it was not to be, though they’ve played this venue before.

Instead, a group calling themselves The Runaway Five and consisting of only four members (as Tommy was quick to point out) came up and played jazz-styled renditions of Zelda’s Lullaby from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and a stage theme from Super Mario World. Unless you count Donkey Kong, then this was our first taste of the Miyamoto/Kondo classics for the evening.

Tommy came out to introduce a rather special segment, unlike the others this evening. Like the Square Enix songs, this one would not feature video game footage, but for a very different and fascinating reason. For the World War II-based Medal of Honor segment, they did use a song from the games, but instead proceeded to show a video of footage contributed by the History Channel, depicting scenes from their programming about the war upon which the game was based.

While you can count me among those who think the World War II FPS thing is reaching the point of oversaturation, the uniqueness and significance of this piece was such that I could appreciate it, regardless of the turn the genre may arguably have taken.

A young man (listen to me, I’m only 28) from the audience who’d won a contest on G4 Tech TV got to go on stage, where he would compete for a special MAME arcade video game player worth about 2500 dollars. All he had to do was clear the first level of Space Invaders within a few minutes… but with a catch: he had to wear a shirt which tracked his movements, following him as he’d go left and right across the stage, pressing a button to fire at the oncoming invaders of which the title speaks, presumably from space. All while the orchestra gave some musical accompaniment.

Though my eyes were fixated more on the screen, I couldn’t quite tell if he was just doing really badly, or if the shirt (which he got to keep) just wasn’t tracking him quite so well. Tommy coached him on as he went, urging him to go for the edges, but it just wasn’t quite happening. I believe his consolation prize was a collection of home arcade video games. But it all makes me wonder if anyone’s won the challenge to date, and how well they performed.

The stage lights grew dim as Nintendo’s most famous composer, Koji Kondo, appeared on the screen, voicing his pleasure at the reception people have given his music, and proceeding to introduce a Zelda montage, which covered many of the biggest console games, from the original The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link, to A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, and ultimately, Twilight Princess. This is what I had been waiting for.

The intermission came, complete with loading screen for Part 2. Turns out there was merchandise and other fun downstairs, including overpriced drinks. The biggest game shown off on the Xbox 360 and Wii was Guitar Hero III, while PlayStation 3 had a sort of living room-style setup for their entry, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Plus, there were some contests, flyers, and Future Shop coupons with a short fuse on an expiration date (likely done by the time you read this).

The big game for me was seeing Super Mario Galaxy. Of course, I’ve played it– I own it. But I had not seen it in HD until that night, and it was quite a sight to behold. It may not be up to the HD standards put forth by the other guys, but it looked spectacular to me, which leads me to believe that people who diss on how the Wii looks on an HDTV may just be full of crap. That, or I just got the best example if what could be done, but just hasn’t been prior.

The game room was really crowded, though, so more of my time was spent at the merchandise table, where there were cool t-shirts of designs featuring Sonic, Mario, a couple of others, and Video Games Live itself. There were also Mario and Sonic plush toys, various soundtracks, programs– all the stuff you’d expect at an event like this. But the big draw for me was the posters stacked to one side. They all appeared to be Nintendo-centric, and from the GameCube, for the most part. Among them were two of my favorite games, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, plus others like Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and Mario Party Advance.

So, after cherry-picking the best stuff and putting it all on Kombo’s tab (Editor’s note: Hah), I did my humble best to get back to my seat without any of my stuff being damaged, and waited for the next part to begin.

After the intermission and a reintroduction of Tommy(wearing an animated Pong t-shirt) from Snake, two people– one boy and one girl– were chosen to come up and compete in Frogger while the orchestra filled in for the music. The girl, who “owns at Frogger,” got to go first, and was immediately run over by a car. She didn’t do so hot, and the boy won by a fair margin, and won a giftbag full of prizes. The girl won something as well– a home game of Frogger, to practice on. Zing.

Back to the music, there was a World of Warcraft segment (including snowfall in the auditorium), followed by a StarCraft II segment they’d recorded in Korea. Can’t profess to playing any of either (what kind of gamer am I, anyway? The kind that fears heavy addiction, that’s what), though I do have a bit of familiarity with the former due to its rather heavy influx into the mainstream. I may not know Warcraft, but I can damn sure still appreciate it.

A touch that I was a little mixed about was the faux snow falling before the stage, to accommodate the covered mountains and climates shown during parts of the video. It’s certainly an appreciated touch, but at the same time, lately? Snow is the last thing I want to see after trudging through the stuff on half-uncovered sidewalks throughout Toronto. I don’t begrudge it, though; I actually laugh thinking about the almost cruelly teasing irony.

Yuji Naka, the “creator” of Sonic the Hedgehog (and I use the term loosely; he’s co-creator at best), gave his video introduction for an orchestrated rendition of the music which ran through the end credits of the first Sonic the Hedgehog game, which if anyone remembers was a sort of remix that segued each stage’s songs from throughout the game together into one whole. During this, however, footage was not limited to that original game, but actually continued on throughout most of the Blue Blur’s console career, including Sonics 2, 3, & Knuckles, the less-popular 3D Blast and Spinball, and into the modern age with Sonic Adventure, Adventure 2, and closing up at Heroes.

I guess they haven’t updated this since Sonic’s later fall from grace began. Maybe they wanted to show him at his finest? But then, why have 3D Blast? And to further blow that theory out of the water, conspicuous by its absence was the perennial fan-favorite Sonic CD. The mind boggles. So I run with the notion they just haven’t updated it.

The Kingdom Hearts theme music was played, and much like with anything else Square Enix, they missed out. Much like the Medal of Honor portion, they used video not taken from the games, and as such, one can only draw a single conclusion as to what was shown: Footage of cartoons from across Disney’s vast history. And since Square more or less decided to live up to their name (as they’re wont to do), the piece actually seemed better for it. Like a sort of karmic bliss.

Nintendo’s master maestro Koji Kondo appeared once more upon the big screen to introduce to us that which perhaps made him most famous: A Mario montage to beat all other montages in the show. As a character who takes the term “video game mascot” to a new level, our friendly neighborhood plumber-man has made tons upon tons of appearances, doing so while just avoiding stretching himself too thin (though there are those who would surely argue the contrary).

As such, there was not only plenty of music to choose from, but also tons of footage spanning all over Mario’s mighty career. Ultimately, they used three pieces: The traditional Mario theme, the underwater theme, and the underground theme, woven together into a masterful musical tapestry. Incidentally, there was some footage from games I didn’t know Kondo had worked on– assuming he did. Even if not, no harm, no foul. And unlike the Sonic montage (but like the Zelda one), this kept current, including footage from none other than Super Mario Galaxy. This piece elicited a lot of cheers throughout, maybe more than any of the others.

Oh, and it closed on a funny note, with some shots of Mario and Peach… before landing on a final shot of Mario and Pauline gazing at each other at the end of Donkey Kong.

Martin Leung came back out to applause, and according to Tommy, there are people who thought his video was fake. And so, why not have him prove himself right here this night? And so he performed a little Mario solo of his own, starting with the classic Mario theme while wearing a blindfold, adding a little freestyle when someone shouted “Ray Charles!” Upon completion and blindfold removal, someone called out “Star Power!” and that’s just what they got as Leung went into the piano tune used throughout Super Mario World. And damn, this guy can go fast.

Partway in, the crowd began to follow along with clapping. Then he kicked up the “time is running out” tune and went into overdrive; his hands were a blur. And when he finished, the sold-out crowd went wild. Tommy then appeared once again, noting that Tetris appeared at the start of the show, and we should get it one more time, to which Leung obliged, still followed by the clapping of the audience.

Civilization IV is another game I’m not as familiar with, but nonetheless had a fascinating video accompanied by some cool ambient music called “Coronation” and “Baba Yetu,” depicting many famous structures and, well, civilizations throughout history being formed, brick by brick and stone by stone, all at an impossible speed that made it all seem to rise right out of the ground.

The end featured a montage of Halo preceded by a special appearance by one of the game’s composers, Michael Salvatori. Now, like some other stuff tonight, I’ve never really gotten to play Halo before (though I did get number 3 for Christmas, now on my backlog), but what I know of the series has always been pretty cool, and this was one song I did know and enjoy in spite of my limited familiarity. Tommy joined in with the orchestra, rockin’ out on his guitar, and Master Chief himself came out at the end. For whatever reason, Halo felt like a fitting end to the evening’s music…

…except it wasn’t quite the end just yet. Tommy told us how in the old days, people would hold up their lighters for an encore. Naturally, things are expected to be a little different here; instead we were instructed to hold up our cellphones, our PSPs, our DSs, and other things of that nature, to which many of us complied. What a moment. I held up my DS (the “Phat” model, not the Lite), and Tommy pointed in my direction, commenting that someone was “holding up a laptop.” So there was either someone I couldn’t see holding something big up, or it was an amusing quip directed at my antiquated version of the best-selling Nintendo portable. You be the judge; I prefer the latter idea.

For an encore, they performed One Winged Angel from Final Fantasy VII with Tommy breaking out a Spider-man guitar, having a good ol’ time (with no game footage, of course).

It was a great show, after which there was a “meet-n-greet,” which the wife and I elected not to attend, as the absolute mob swarm plague of people that were going to it was just absolutely too much; fun though the evening was, and as much as I’d have liked to show my appreciation to Tommy Tallarico, Jack Wall, and the rest for putting on the show on that evening. Unfortunately, the wife and I were a bit worn out (some of those songs can get you pumped), and experience has shown that people at this kind of thing don’t often stick around to see everybody, so we cut our losses and left (and on the way out, some guy undid a doorstop, nearly damaging my swag). We’ll know for next time, though. Until then, I hope that they see this.

If I had one complaint about the show, it’d be a minor, personal gripe in that I was hoping to hear more of the “classics.” As noted earlier, it almost felt like the show was skewed more towards the modern gaming crowd, and I was disappointed to hear no Mega Man, no Metroid, no Contra, no Castlevania; it came as a surprise to me to learn upon writing this review that the latter three are actually listed as part of the VGL experience; apparently, they perform different songs on different shows, with perhaps some staples kept throughout all of them (can you imagine one without Mario?). So while it was unfortunate that I didn’t get to hear some of my favorites performed at the show, it does keep a beacon of hope lit that I’ll get to the next time they come through, which makes for an interesting practice to get people to visit again.

Incidentally, I imagine there are some skeptics who think that an orchestra is just some boring, stuffed-shirt type of event up there with the opera or the ballet, but keep your mind open: Soundtracks for movies such as Back to the Future, Star Wars, the Tim Burton Batman movies, Indiana Jones, and even games such as Super Mario Galaxy, and Super Smash Bros. Melee and Brawl are performed by orchestras, too. Sure, U2 and Papa Roach and Dragonforce and whatever the hell people listen to these days are all fine and good, but it’s hard to write this stuff off for some good dramatic, ambient music without cheating yourself.

In conclusion, it was a great time that I recommend to anyone who appreciates video games, or just fine music. There are plenty of videos on YouTube, but I can tell you firsthand: They do not do this event justice. You truly have to experience it live to get the full effect, or else you’re just wasting your time.

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