Video Games Live Toronto Show Review

When Tommy Tallarico comes to town with his traveling show, Video Games Live, we do what we have to and make time to go see it. We recommend the show to everyone who’s seen it, and when we talk the talk, we walk the walk; we’ve seen the show six times.

Four of those times were massive shows at The Greek Theatre and Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles during E3 while the other two were right here in Toronto. Fortunately for us, the last VGL we saw was last night, and we wanted to give you a rundown of the show and the surprises.

We’ll start by prefacing the review: we saw Video Games Live just over four months ago in Los Angeles where Tommy likes to announce some pretty big things and have some insane special guests (it is the week of E3, after all). But don’t let that fool you into thinking that smaller shows like Toronto wouldn’t get some pretty awesome surprises. Because there were more than a few.

The show started out right away with a bang: Tommy came out and announced the music to none other than Castlevania as he rocked away at his electric guitar. The intro began with thunder and lightning in a spectacle of lights and incredible showmanship. And it just got better from there.

Tommy then came out to actually talk about a game that recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. He announced that, while the music we’d hear would be from the games, the visuals we’d be seeing on the projection above him would be from each characters’ original movie. Of course, the next tunes were from none other than Kingdom Hearts.

Christopher Tin, who had been conducting through to this point by the way, is one of the world’s most recognized video game composers, both in and outside of the video game world. His theme “Baba Yetu” actually became the first piece from a video game – that game was Civilization IV – to win a Grammy. Oh, and his album won a Grammy, too. So, of course, not one to sweep massive achievements under the rug, Tommy voraciously introduced Mr. Tin as the two-time Grammy-award winning composer that he is.

Christopher conducted his award-winning piece with the help of Laura Intravia as centre vocals. We see a lot more of her as the night goes on, but we need to touch on Baba Yetu itself first. The song might not make much sense if you listen for the lyrics only. But as a melodic piece, it is filled with tribal rhythm and heartwarming bass such that you instantly know this is a family song. Baba Yetu is actually the Christian Lord’s prayer in Swahili, and when sung by the right vocalist, the music has so much meaning and depth, it is probably the most underrated piece at the entire show.

Following Baba Yetu was the first of many unique additions to the evening: a Super Smash Bros. competition. Tommy hand-picked four people from the audience (one of which was wearing a Spider-Man sweater) to play against each other, while the orchestra played music to the game. Of course, Tommy can’t do anything by the book, so while he let people play the Melee version of the game, he had the orchestra play the music from Brawl, citing it as the better music. He was right.

Moving along into something epic, we were treated to the music of the Mass Effect series. This, fortunately didn’t bring any spoilers along, but it got the audience going as you might expect.

Following Mass Effect, Laura Intravia made another of her many appearances of the evening to play the music to her favourite game of all time, Donkey Kong Country. We can’t argue with the game choice, and while it’s not our absolute favourite (you know where you can find that list), the music in the game instantly evokes childhood memories while the on-screen video reminds us how frustratingly difficult the game actually was. Probably the most interesting part of this portion of the show was Laura’s choice to play her part on an EWI, or Electronic Wind Instrument, pronounced “eewie”. We’re not entirely sure how to describe that thing, but we will say that she put on a great performance!

Tommy returned to the stage to answer a question that he is often asked, and that is his favourite game to have created music for. His answer was Earthworm Jim, and so began another set of music dedicated to the franchise. Seeing visuals for that game was also an incredible thing because we realized the amazing (and often weird) things going on in that game in a different way than when we played all those years ago. Things like hamburgers on a barbecue in the background of a platforming level. Yeah, we know.

See, that’s the amazing thing about Video Games Live. It isn’t only a concert showcasing video game music. Of course, that’s the easiest way to describe it if you don’t know anything about it, but once you add in the lights, the personality, and more importantly, the visuals of these games on screen, you realize just how big of a thing “a concert showcasing video game music” can become.

Here’s a perfect example of that: after playing through some of the most melody-rich music from the game Journey, we are treated to a creation called The Tetris Opera. And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. With visuals of the dozens (if not hundreds) of Tetris games in the background, Laura Intravia returned to the stage to perform the music to the games. How do you vocalize the theme from Tetris? Well, you add lyrics (they sounded like Latin, as they should have), and you belt it out as an opera.

This was the perfect time to take an intermission, and it was an incredible way to finish the first half of the show.

Upon return, Tommy emerged after an introduction from David Hayter’s Solid Snake, who in turn introduced Laura once again, this time dressed in her green tunic and ready to FluteLink all over the place. For those who don’t know, FluteLink is a character Laura created many years ago (it’s also how Tommy found her for the show, by the way!) to showcase her talents with the flute. This time around, Laura performed her tribute to the 25th Anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, an arrangement of music she put together herself with some of the most iconic themes from the Nintendo franchise.

From here, Tommy reintroduced himself and discussed his love for game composers. Not because he had to, but because that is what he loves. His favourite, as he said, is Nobuo Uematsu, who created some of the most recognizable music in the Final Fantasy series. Because the crew at VGL decided against playing “One Winged Angel” since most of the audience had probably heard it before, they played two songs from the franchise, both crafted by Uematsu-San.

Skyrim followed some equally epic music, which was then followed by Laura with a neat rendition she called “FluteMario”. This time around, rather than visuals from the actual games, we saw cartoon visuals from each game in a parody or satire style of sorts, and it gave the audience a laugh while they heard their childhood favourites.

The second piece of audience interaction took place towards the end of the evening in the form of a Guitar Hero competition. As the show drew to a close, one audience member was picked from a talented lot of players before hand to play The Pretender by Foo Fighters. While he didn’t crack the 400,000 point score he needed to, Tommy awarded him the prize for being a great sport (he even turned around at one point and played pretty well with his back to the screen!) and sent him on his way.

After a brief stint of music from Street Fighter II, Tommy thanked the audience along with Christopher Tin and the orchestra for being such gracious hosts.

Of course, all is not what it seems as they returned to play a medley of music from Pokemon, a game they only introduced to the concert series about a year ago. They rounded out the show to Portal‘s Still Alive and closed out the show.

Video Games Live is a total feat of engineering, emotion, passion, and just pure balls. Every little detail, from the joystick pedestal the conductor stands on, to the conductor himself being the incredible (and two-time Grammy-award winning!) Christopher Tin, down to the meet and greet for every single  attendee at the end of the show, has been perfectly and heartwarmingly thought out.

Perhaps Tommy said it best:

Some people think video games are just for kids.
Some people think video game music is just a bunch of bleeps and bloops.
And some people think video games are the cause of violence.

Well, we’re pretty confident that, with the show that Tommy and his team have created, a lot of people are realizing just how powerful a video game and its music can be. Congratulations to Tommy, Laura, Christopher, and the entire team.

Until next time!