The golden oldies of video games, classically presented

By Rob Watson
Inquirer Staff Writer
The Video Games Live concert at the Merriam Theater Saturday night gave fans of Atari, Nintendo and Sega something few could have imagined.
The audience heard tunes from some of the greatest video games of all time, performed live by an orchestra and chorale, with trailers and in-game footage projected overhead.
Although the show's focus was live game music, this concert felt more like a documentary on games. And everyone, gamers young and old, ate up the whole thing.
I had seen the trailers, talked to cocreators Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall, and read as many Web postings as possible, but I found it hard to imagine before the show what it would be like to sit in a theater and listen to an orchestra and chorale perform music from video games. Would it be too highbrow? Would it sound like those horrible orchestrations of pop tunes they used to sell on K-tel back in the '80s? Or should I calm my fears of maximum cornball?
As it turned out, not only was the show pretty cool, but it also offered a trip down memory lane that could have been surpassed only by heading down to the basement and dragging out old Atari, Nintendo and Sega systems.
Things got off to a hilarious start with the big overhead screen showing a small white circle bouncing between two white rectangles. Yes, it was Pong, and the orchestra's string section synchronized each hit with a pluck of the strings. The crowd, which filled about three-fourths of the theater, went nuts.
Even those who, I am sure, weren't old enough to ever have twisted paddles back in the '70s were into the "Classic Arcade Gaming Medley." A hodgepodge of blips and bleeps from the intense old-school action of quarter-eaters like Tempest, Tetris and Joust came later.
"Tell me that's not Dragon's Lair up there," a gamer asked his friend in front of me. "That game took all of my allowance for years!"
Not all of the sounds on this unreal night of gaming were reproduced by the orchestra. Some rhythm tracks and a number of sound effects playing underneath invariably meant a few sync problems. How could any instrument sound like the laser in Space Invaders?
That game was one of two interactive elements in the show. Tallarico selected an audience member to play the game onscreen. He moved horizontally across the stage as if he were the laser cannon, while the orchestra droned that ever-quickening cadence of doom. The guy didn't do well, and he knew it because everyone in the audience voiced his superior skills.
As the music became more current, Video Games Live tossed in onscreen introductions by composers or gamemakers. Considered one of the gaming gods, Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear Solid fame put in a word. God of War composer Gerard Marino appeared, and even Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Nintendo's Mario Brothers, greeted gamers. It was a nice touch.
A highlight was the Medal of Honor segment. This is one of the most successful World War II shooting games, but Tallarico and Wall came up with something different for the visual presentation. While orchestra and chorale played a moving score, there were no images of the game onscreen. Instead we saw real footage from the war. This mix of reality and virtual reality was downright eerie - likely the point. Sometimes gamers forget that the lines do intersect at times, and this was a great reminder.
The show ended with another huge hit from recent years, the music from Microsoft Xbox's best-selling video game, Halo. Strangely, it didn't seem to move about half of the crowd. Either these gamers were just too tuckered out or there were too many PS2 fans there. Gamers can be like that sometimes. I kind of hated on the Everquest segment just because PC games are my least favorite.
Fans of the hit Guitar Hero series got a treat after the show as the guitar player for both games, Marcus Henderson, came on stage and pretty much ground his axe into oblivion with screeching riffs as the orchestra exited.
It was a fitting end to it all: As games and their music become ever more complex, in the end, we must remember, they are always supposed to rock.

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