The venue was the Tokyo International Forum. The event was Video Games Live Tokyo 2009.
This was the show’s first trip to Japan, which is surprising considering that there have been nearly 200 shows performed around the world in the past four years. Our host was prolific videogame music composer Tommy Tallarico (Advent Rising, Earthworm Jim). He expressed how it had been a life-long dream of his to perform in Japan as it is where videogame music is most honoured and respected. He and fellow composer Jack Wall (Mass Effect, Jade Empire), who also took the role of conductor for both evenings, had organised quite the treat. They were bringing composers from the US and Japan together on stage, with many Japanese composers performing live on stage for the first time in their home country.
Despite getting lost on our first trip to the centre, we eventually found ourselves waiting outside the right hall. We collected our passes and I headed straight for, you guessed it, the merchandise stand. Tower Records had a stand where they were selling videogame soundtracks from composers or game series that were part of the show. However, CDs over here can be pricey. More pricey than UK pricey. No, what I was interested in was the Video Games Live merchandise. I picked up a T-shirt, poster, programme, CD and a ticket to meet the composers afterwards. We were meant to be helping out any which-way we could, but thanks to Japanese efficiency there was apparently nothing left for us to do, leaving us feeling slightly lost and guilty for not earning our great seats on both nights. We took our seats, and a veritable Magical Sound Shower unfolded.
The show started with Pong being flashed up on the screen above the Tokyo New City Symphony Orchestra with only its trademark “bleeps and bloops” audible. This, however, transformed into an an assault on the senses – a host of of classic arcade games appeared and “Ride of the Valkyries” kicked in. At the appearance of Donkey Kong, the music stopped and the Orchestra launched into Donkey Kong’s “How High Can You Get?” sample, followed by Donkey Kong’s timeless tune and sound effects perfectly synced to the gameplay. A medley of other arcade games with their respective tunes followed, with the appearance of OutRun and Ghosts ‘n Goblins sticking firmly in my mind.
After Tommy Tallarico’s heartfelt speech on taking videogame music seriously the real show began. To the delight of the crowd, the first song was the Instrumental Version of Hikari, the Kingdom Hearts theme. Two performances from Japanese composers really stood out on both nights. Firstly, that of Akira Yamaoka (the man behind every sound of the Silent Hill series, producer of the series since Silent Hill 3). He played Silent Hill 2’s dramatic Theme of Laura wielding his Gibson Les Paul on stage with the iconic introduction movies of Silent Hill 2 and 4 playing behind him. Later, Norihiko Hibino (Metal Gear Solid series, more recently Ninja Blade) set the mood playing the sultry saxophone section of Metal Gear Solid 3’s Snake Eater theme.
Fan favourite Yasunori Mitsuda (of Chrono Trigger/Cross, Xenogears/saga fame) was also in attendance, and took to the stage before a few Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross numbers, backed up by Jack Wall on acoustic guitar. Dressed for the occasion, renowned composer of both the Castlevania and Suikoden series, Michiru Yamane, was joined on stage by the glamorous Kinuyo Yamashita, composer of the original Castlevania (or, indeed, “Dracula”) as well as the odd classic (Parodius, anyone?). Martin Leung, also known as the (occasionally blindfolded) Video Game Pianist performed a medley of instantly-recognisable music throughout the course of the night. He played a medley of Super Mario World music for his hero, Koji Kondo (Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda series), as well as ten Final Fantasy tunes and an increasingly frantic version of Nintendo’s Tetris theme. I never saw him, on or off stage, in any mode other than what can only be described as beaming. Koji Kondo too, despite appearing to be quite nervous, appeared on stage to play some of his own favourites on piano.
On the second day I had quite the shock when I realised I was sat next to childhood hero of mine, Jun Senoue (Sonic the Hedgehog series composer from Sonic 3 onwards). He was given a call out after a recorded speech from Yuji Naka and the original Sonic the Hedgehog End Credits medley. A number of other Japanese composers in the audience were given shout-outs too. Takenobu Mitsuyoshi (Shenmue and Virtua Fighter series) was asked to stand up and give us a sample of his voice acting from ’90s fighter Burning Rival, although unfortunately none of his music was played during the show. Kō Ōtani also had his moment of glory before his epic theme from Shadow of the Colossus was played. Conductor Jack Wall’s work was also represented and he himself led the orchestra in one of his own powerful operatic compositions from the Myst series.
Video Games Live is not just a one-trick pony though. Interspersed throughout the show were features that tried to create as much interaction as possible between the audience and the stage. Tommy Tallarico commanded the stage on both nights, managing to rally everyone despite the language barrier thanks to his stage presence and charisma. Over the two days that we attended several cosplayers took part in a competition for best-dressed at the start of the show. Despite valiant efforts from opponents, Mario costumes won on both nights. Another section of the show had two audience members come up on stage to compete for the highest score on Frogger, with the game’s music and sound effects being played by the Orchestra. The winner received quite the VGL swagbag, whilst the loser walked away with a handheld version of Frogger to “practice on”. Ralph Bear, credited as the creator of video games, appeared on the big screen live via Skype, despite it being the middle of the night for him, for a heartwarming interview.
Towards the end of the show Master Chief made a cameo on-stage to prepare the audience for the Halo theme. Tommy Tallarico oohed and aahed along with the Senzoku Gakuen College of Music Choir to the song’s introduction then produced his guitar to strike the recognisable riffs synonymous with the theme. The audience really enjoyed his energetic performance. It was hard to guess whether he enjoyed playing as much as he enjoyed hearing the orchestra and choir perform part of his own award-winning Advent Rising score in front of a Japanese audience. Indeed, Tommy Tallarico seemed humbled when Norihiko Hibino took the reigns and interviewed him on stage about composing the score for Advent Rising.
Before the finale, Tallarico led the audience to substitute lighters for any form of electric light they had available to them, causing the hall to suddenly fill with beams of light emitting from mobile phones, DS and PSP units… and even laptops for the encore. The show really went out with a bang. As the legendary Final Fantasy VII track “One Winged Angel” began Tommy Tallarico changed to a groovy Spider-Man guitar. He sang its Latin verses along with choir and as the piece reached its apex Jack Wall’s smirking face appeared on-screen in an homage to the game’s final fiery battle with Sephiroth.
After the show, the composers gathered outside the hall for a meet and greet. This was my chance to shake hands with some of the greatest videogame music composers in the world. Starstruck, I approached each composer, shook their hand and said “Thank you, I really appreciate your work” (cringe), with the exception of Akira Yamaoka – “cool jacket”.
On the second night we used our after show guest passes to go backstage. Well, not quite. Wallflowers that we are, we stood to one side gawking, until eventually working up the nerve to talk to Akira Yamaoka who offered to take us backstage. It was quite surreal to see so many renowned Japanese videogame music composers all in one room talking to each other. Koji Kondo seemed very reserved and quietly wandered around the vicinity. Despite my deep admiration and appreciation for his music I couldn’t work up the nerve to approach him. Creator of the “GE-ON-DAN” Video Game Sound Creator’s Alliance Yuji Takenouchi, known in the West for his work on ’90s arcade game X-Men and more recently sound designer for Demon’s Souls, was also sauntering about and looking very dapper.
I spent most of my time backstage chatting with Jun Senoue. A very easygoing and approachable chap, I had an interesting talk with him after the show about the supposed role of Michael Jackson on Sonic 3’s soundtrack. While he didn’t confirm or deny anything, he noted that the “whoo” sounds in Knuckles’ theme did sound intriguingly like the King of Pop himself. Hmm. Meanwhile, my other half talked fashion and shopping with Kinuyo Yamashita. All of the composers were friendly and charming, as were the Video Games Live staff. We took the opportunity to take photos of as many composers as we could when they weren’t being interviewed. Akira Yamaoka and Yuji Takenouchi weren’t strangers to the camera, and both of them seemed more noticeably “out there” than the rest of the composers. After commenting on Akira Yamaoka’s fashionable get-up and snazzy jacket, he stroked his jacked and slyly informed us it was “dead animal” with a look of glee on his face.
If you’ve ever had that chill run down your spine and your ears prick up to the sound of your favourite game’s theme then Video Games Live is an experience that should not be missed. Even if you are just keen on videogaming in general you should not miss the fantastic opportunity to meet up with true pioneers of videogame sound. Having enjoyed it two nights in a row here in Japan I can’t say you can do any better for a great evening out. In the words of Tommy Tallarico… “Rock On!”