Friday, December 31, 2010

Video Games Live in Newark: Review

I had a series of strange dreams while sleeping in a hotel in New York City the other night, and most of them involved the concert that was to occur the day after. In the first act of my dream, a horde of Adoring Fans from Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion spawned out of nowhere and swarmed the concert halls, slaying everyone in sight. As if nothing happened, the dream shifted to a scenario where another horde, this time consisting of zombies, launched another attack on the hall and dragged away special guest Kinuyo Yamashita. After that, it turned out that the concert was to be held outside my house, and less then fifty people showed up.

Finally, my friend Josh ran away from home, took me with him and we both joined a military school that looked exactly like his old house in Blue Bell. We flew around with hand gliders.

I don't remember that last time my dreams were that vivid, but unfortunately that's not the subject of this review. No, this is a review of Video Games Live, a concert that's made its latest stop down in Newark, New Jersey at the NJPAC Music Hall. Our trip to New York had included the performance as the final hurrah of the vacation, and we were both psyched to witness the magic happen again. This time was special when it came to my parents, as my Mom went with me to the show in Orlando (2008) and my Dad accompanied me to the Kimmel Center performance (2009). Despite being unfamiliar with the music/games represented, both of them were blown away and had an incredible time. In Newark, we all went together!

A bit of background information: Video Games Live is a concert based entirely around video game music, and was co-created by Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall, composers with major experience in the game music field (Earthworm Jim and Myst, respectively). Despite haven been met with disbelief from the game and music industries for even producing such an idea, the two managed to get the show running in 2005 and it has since grown into a massive success. The show features music from games both ancient (it always opens with brief takes on Pong, Donkey Kong, Ghosts 'n Goblins, and other arcade classics) and modern (Super Mario, Halo, Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, and God of War, to name a few), and the crowd goes wild with each and every segment.

The show isn't just about symphonic music, however. Video Games Live is loaded to the brim with a rock concert atmosphere and accommodates it as such. Colored lights fill the hall and synchronize to the music. Footage of games play on their respective segments, and the crowd roars when their favorite game pops up (Looking at you, Ocarina of Time!). Interactive segments feature Frogger, Space Invaders, and Guitar Hero being played by lucky participants, with the orchestra playing the music on the fly! Even Tommy Tallarico joins in with one of his many guitars, and riles up the crowd, most notably in the Final Fantasy VII and Castlevania segments.

If you've read my Symphonic Legends review, you probably already know how I go gaga for video game music. To this day I still can't find my place in mainstream music, but something about the music I come across in my games manage to soothe me in the right spots. I feel inspiration, magic, nostalgia, and heroic all rolled up in a medium I can't feel anywhere else. Orchestrated game music, in particular, is my absolute favorite genre and I constantly listen to takes on pieces I've grown up with. To visit a live concert that plays music from video games is something I never dreamed of doing...until now.

So anyway, back to those dreams. They were glued to my mind during the day of traveling around New York City, and it was then I came to a sudden realization. Were those dreams an omen? It would make sense as to why no cabs were picking up us during New York's rush hour and why it took so long finding Penn Station. Were the cabbies simply too busy to take us to my salvation? Holy shit, would the show really be invaded by zombies? Worst of all, were we...were we not meant to see Video Games Live that night?

Nah, we finally found the station and arrived at the NJPAC an hour early. It should go without saying that waiting at the hall is by far the hardest part, but I nabbed myself a copy of Video Games Live's Vol. 2 CD, which thankfully had more of the songs I'm into then the first one did. The hall appeared to be packed with much more action then my two previous experiences, as arcade cabinets were littered waaayyyyy across the room. I was in no mood to play games, however. I just wanted to see the show!

It was go time. The doors opened early, and I situated myself in the A-block seats. The costume contest came and went. The orchestra took its seats. The obligatory Ms. Pac Man video induced the usual laughter. New conductor Wataru Hokoyama bowed to the audience and went right on to the Classic Game medley.

So much for omens, right?

If that's the case, why do I feel so bummed out?

I didn't enjoy the show at Newark too much.


They say disappointments are a part of life. Sometimes we can see them coming, and others arrive unexpectedly. Lately, I've come to take life's shortcomings as they are. So I have to work at a new internship on January 3rd while nearly everyone else gets off? No sweat, it's only two hours which means I'll have plenty of time to write and get to exercising. Epic Mickey's quests are too vague and the game feels somewhat unpolished as a whole? Well, sure it's unbelievably frustrating, but the game is so damn interesting you have to keep playing to find out what happens next.

The trick to life is simply accepting its faults as they are and enjoying what your life has to offer. I think I might have covered this already in one of my Kirby's Adventure posts, but I think it bears repeating here.

Thing is,'s VIDEO GAMES LIVE! How could anyone be disappointed with any of their shows? It is impossible not to take a liking to Mr. Tallarico's ambition towards his Mt. Everest sized goal, and as a gamer I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. Again, to see symphony orchestras around the world playing music from video games because of him and Jack Wall is a dream come true and I delight in every one of the show's accomplishments. So why can't I take my own advice and just accept the show's flaws that night?

And here's the thing: It's not like I had any huge expectations, either. The fact that I was actually expecting, get this, the usual, was my downfall. I guess I was premature in saying that I didn't like the show because in all honesty, there was a lot I enjoyed. And yet, there was something about it I didn't like. As such, I'm having trouble deciding which to go over first. The good...or the bad?

...what the heck, I'll go with the good.

As such, I may as well start with the biggest highlights. I want to commend the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra on their rendition of the Shadow of the Colossus piece, which was by far the best segment of the show and could not have been done any better. I've viewed perhaps ten separate videos of the show's take on the game, and my reactions were mixed on their versions of The Ancient Land and The Opened Way. The former would feel too thin, and the latter focused too much on percussion. That wasn't the case here. The two songs were just as haunting and bombastic as they should be, and as if they were playing the game itself live.

Other commendations should go to newer pieces, such as the cinematic approach to Assassin's Creed II. Coupled with guest Laura Intravia's vocals and the game's dialogue playing over the speakers, the segment played out very much like a movie trailer and was unlike anything else in the show. Street Fighter II played out just as vigorously as the original game, and impressed me despite not having played the game since I was maybe nine.

The concert opened with the relatively new Mega Man segment, which sent retro fans wild along with the Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross pieces. Tommy Tallarico revealed himself to be a diehard fan of Tron and as such played the segment to celebrate the new movie Tron Legacy. Staples such as Halo and World of Warcraft lit the modern fans ablaze, particularly when Master Chief himself raced across the orchestra with a flag in tow.

Special guests were also abundant that evening. The aforementioned Laura Intravia once again assumed her role as Flute Link and played to the tunes of various Zelda titles. The guy who could play Mario on the piano blindfolded was absent, but in his place was Youtube sensation Brentalfloss, who sang a hilarious blues version of the underwater theme from Super Mario Bros. I made a mental note to check out more of his works of poetry.

In a surprise twist, Kinyuo Yamashita, the original composer for Castlevania, appeared near the end. Get this: she actually accompanied the orchestra for their Castlevania segment! She kind of shuffled near the back, but she obviously had a great time playing.

Perhaps the most intriguing piece was the one for Afrika, an obscure title for the Playstation 3. The title is the self-proclaimed "baby" of show conductor Wataru Hokoyama, who acknowledged the game's failure in the American market by confirming that no one in the audience had played the game. The game's footage seemed to suggest a modern version of Pokemon Snap, albeit without the on-rails style of play and marketable cuddly characters. Despite the game's low critical score, I'm now interested in trying the game out once I nab my PS3 net year. Marvel vs Capcom 3 and LittleBigPlanet 2 take top priority, however.

So, there's the good.

Wait, that's a lot to be excited about! They played Mega Man and Shadow of the Colossus and Final Fantasy VII and Street Fighter and much more! They had Flute Link! They had a freaking Japanese composer come down to play with the symphony! How could you NOT be satisfied?!?

Quite a few reasons, actually. I'll start out with the lesser of the two evils.

What I think is one of the most appealing aspects of Video Games Live is what I mentioned before about it not just being about a symphony. What you witness on the show floor isn't just music being played. You'll always see some form of music video relating to video games being played before the opening medley and in the intermission. You'll always have people rise from the audience to play an arcade classic with the orchestra. In a way, these quirky little skits became an invaluable component of the show.

That said, they had a lot, and I do mean a LOT of comedy skits shown on video that night. Before, it was just the music videos, the quick poem, and the Ms. Pac-Man video. Not in Newark! They had a series of quick shorts involving gaming crossovers, with the more modern titles such as Grand Theft Auto and Contra beating the shit out of characters from Frogger and Duck Hunt, respectively. All of them were hysterical, most notably Mortal Kombat vs Donkey Kong which was the biggest knee slapper I've encountered in forever and I nearly died laughing. Check it out below.

However, I can't help but feel a line has to be drawn somewhere. In particular, I have to wonder if showing off Top Ten Worst Voice Acting in Games or Top Ten Worst Game Titles have their place in a concert. I'll admit, it certainly is an experience being surrounded by other gamers who know this type of thing and can all laugh at it together. Maybe I'm just bitter from having already seen them, but it's pretty obvious most of them were just ripped from Youtube and it gives the show a cheap feeling I've never really felt from Video Games Live before. Funny as they may be, this is something I feel has a home in anime/game conventions, not professional concerts.

There's another problem I have with this, and I can't help but wonder if the over-saturation of these videos will have an impact on my future visits to the concert. For one thing, they kept finding their way into nearly almost after every segment, and it got to the point where there was just too much. Despite the good intentions of these skits, were they taking up time better spent on performing another favored performance? Should they have been coupled with the Ms. Pac-Man video? Perhaps I'm just being greedy, but the orchestral performances are the main attraction.

Which brings me to my next point.

There are over 45 video games represented in Video Games Live. Some become defunct over the years, and you only see maybe thirteen at most at each show. But that's okay. Mr. Tallarico has stated that he constantly revisions the tracklist to keep each and every show fresh. Of course, there are the segments that become essential staples of the show. Games and songs that everyone knows and are 100% guaranteed to make their debut.

I waited patiently throughout the entire show, entirely sure that two certain games would make their appearance. They were at virtually every other concert Video Games Live has played at, why shouldn't they be here? Plus, y'know, being a huge fanboy of a certain video game company had me all excited. They would pop up.

No sign in the first half. Strange, I thought, since they always played one of them around this time. I shrugged, knowing they would eventually make their debut. The intermission soon ended and I was ready for the second half. I continued waiting. Time passed, and they didn't come on. There was one song left. I couldn't believe it. It had to be one of them. It had to be-

Nope. A performance of Portal. I walked out of the show floor in a state of shock.

So, what was the big deal? They didn't play two songs? Were they anything important? Oh, not really. They just didn't play Mario or Zelda. So, anyway-

Wait, what?

They didn't play Mario or Zelda?


So, they didn't play this?









-you just








Okay, enough of the fanboy rage.

That's it? They didn't play Mario or Zelda? So what? They played tons of other songs from the top games in the industry. Why couldn't I just forget those two and appreciate the other performances?

Hear me out for a moment.

Tommy Tallarico has stated numerous times that his biggest goal with Video Games Live was to prove just how culturally and artistically significant video games have become over the past two decades. At the beginning of each and every concert, he brings up the misconception that video game music is just a bunch of bleeps and bloops, which might be true...if you were in the Atari age. Each and every one of the games he has chosen to be performed represents an era, an achievement in the game industry, and just how far we've come with video games.

I'd like to expand on that vision by adding some of my own perception of the show (not to say Mr. Tallarico doesn't feel the same way). I view Video Games Live as not just a celebration of video games, but also as a form of respect and unity. Here's what I mean: I'm not really to into Halo, I'll probably never get into Guitar Hero or Final Fantasy, and I avoid World of Warcraft and Civilization for their legendary prowess of sucking you in and never letting you go. There are games we just never end up playing, ones we never hold an interest in.

However, when I see the music of these games being performed live, I can watch not just the orchestra performing or the footage being played, but the reactions and cheers from others in the audience. In a way, I absorb their vigor and joy of their favorite video games and sometimes I can get just as excited as they can. Heck, take my Mom as an example. She said that even though she doesn't like World of Warcraft (Let's just say she's heard enough "excuses" from students in her educational field), she can get past that and appreciate the beauty of the piece played.

That all changes with my favorite segments. As of this writing, Mario, Zelda, and Metroid are the only Nintendo franchises represented in Video Games Live, excluding the brief appearances in the Classic Game medley (and while I'm at it, what on EARTH is taking Super Smash Bros. so long?!?!?). Whenever those titles come on, it's my time. Once that Mario segment starts up, I am hit with a wave of nostalgia that the Youtube videos can't quite nab. I can bop to the music by heart. I cheer and scream with the rest of the audience when the underwater/underground pieces pop up. I roar when my favorite games show up on screen, such as Super Mario 64, Zelda: The Wind Waker, Zelda: Majora's Mask, Super Mario World, or even Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. It is pure euphoria.

You know what's the best thing though? When they come on, I can point right at Mario or Zelda and say, "That's my Halo. That's my World of Warcraft. That's my Final Fantasy. These are the games I grew up with and I am so proud of being a fan of them." And I'm not alone. There are so many others in the audience that feel the why I do. They are the series that erupt some of the most cheers. And hey, they feel the same way about their games too. Perhaps I sound a little selfish, but those two games represent my moment in the whole concert.

I didn't get that moment the other night.

And no offense to Mr. Tallarico, but I feel kinda left out.

Am I saying that those two series take top priority over everything else? Not really. I mean, obviously more heads will turn to the names of Super Mario and Legend of Zelda then they will for Afrika. But the thing is, those two games are staples. Everyone knows the main themes for those games. And they weren't played? Is this gonna happen again?

I'm definitely not trying to imply that I'm taking it personally. It's just a concert. But as I said before, I take this concert as a form of unity amongst game fans. The retro guys not only get a Classic Game medley, but ones for Mega Man and Street Fighter. Modern game fans get their Halo and God of War and Guitar Hero. Nintendo fans get their Mario and Zelda. Online enthusiasts get their World of Warcraft and Starcraft. Even the rabid fangirls get their due with Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts.

And it's not just gamers that are appeased to, either. Many, many non-gamers have gone on record to say how much they enjoy show and how it has opened their eyes to a completely different portion of the video game world. My parents are no exception. My dad loves the rock atmosphere, the variety between each segment, and has great respect for Mr. Tallarico's dream. My mom loves the vocals of the choir, the interactive segments, and watching me having the time of my life. They can appreciate a game concert for what it is, why can't I? Isn't that weird?

Take a look at that list I gave two paragraphs above. They took one out that night and one fanbase feels barred out. Or, who knows? Maybe it was just me. Was I that obsessed with these two segments that I couldn't appreciate everything else? Or I was I right in assuming they would eventually arrive thanks to their status as expected staples?

Who knows.

Are there segments I love other then the Nintendo ones? Yes. I love rocking out to Mega Man, I love Chrono Trigger, and I firmly believe Shadow of the Colossus is one of the finest masterpieces of the past decade, both in terms of gameplay and music. But the truth is is that they don't quite reach out to me the way Nintendo games do, and don't incite the same cheers I reserve for those pieces. As talented and charismatic Laura Intravia (love her Hyrule Castle piece!) and Brentalfloss are, they don't quite fill in the gap for the main orchestral segments.

Bottom line is, you didn't have much that night if you put Nintendo before anything else. And as someone who believes Video Games Live is about unity, I can't help but feel genuinely disappointed.

Believe it or not, I met up with RawMeatCowboy, who's the webmaster of popular news blog GoNintendo, a site that I've visited for about four and a half years. In case you're wondering, the beard gave him away instantly (along with the announcement of their donated DSi at the show). After our initial greeting, we both discussed the absence of our favorite titles from the show. Rawmeat exclaimed that in the eleven or more times he's gone to the show, that was the first time they've ever excluded those games.

He went on to describe the presence of what I believe where his younger cousins, who are enamored with New Super Mario Bros. Wii and were all looking forward to Video Games Live's take on the series. He assured them it would make an appearance, but we all know what happened with that. It was then I remembered a thought that crossed my mind during the show, where I was glad I wasn't seven years old and wondering what the hell Diablo III and Portal were and why Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario were taking so long. I probably wouldn't have gone back.

I ping-ponged the decision of going in the line for the meet and greet. I decided to give it a shot. Everyone signed the insert of my new CD. I told Mr. Hokoyama I'd be sure to try out Afrika sometime. I greeted Ms. Yamashita with a konbonwa (Japanese for "good evening," she was impressed). I told her I enjoyed her performance even if I never played Castlevania, to which she just smiled.

Then I met up with Tommy Tallarico for the second time in my life. I tossed the ball in his court. "You guys didn't play Mario or Zelda tonight."

He shot it right back. "What?!? We had Flute Link on stage that night! We had Brentalfloss singing the water theme!"

The mentioned couple gave me dirty looks in comedic nature. Me and everyone at the table had a good laugh.

It was just a concert.

And hey, who else can say they engaged in dual-stone busting with Tommy Tallarico?

Mr. Tallarico once said in an interview last year that "You gotta play some of the standards. People want to hear Mario and Zelda, and Metal Gear, and Kingdom Hearts, and certainly Final Fantasy." We can certainly live without Kingdom Hearts (Even though I love the music score), and I suppose I can make an exception for Metal Gear Solid. But taking out Mario, Zelda, and Final Fantasy? No way, man.

Funny thing is, at that night's show they only game they played from the quote above was Final Fantasy. Isn't that just crazy?

They took out Mario and Zelda. I still can't believe it.

It's okay to deviate from the norm, but sometimes you just have to stick to certain roots. No hard feelings, Video Games Live. Just don't leave me out in the cold next time.


And that's about it for 2010. A bit of a low note, but that's life.

I'm ready to turn my life around with 2011.

See you next year!!


  1. I get it...and am ready for 2011 as well!
    Nicely done!

  2. Another great blog-- you really are an excellent writer!!