Video Games Live: Level 2
Shout Factory // Unrated // $29.93 // October 19, 2010
Review by John Sinnott | posted October 14, 2010
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Graphical Version
The Show:
Sure, I think that most people will agree that a lot of the images and designs that go into a modern video game could be considered art, but what about the music?  Is the haunting theme from Halo to be taken as seriously as a piece of classical music from a contemporary composer?  To composers Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall the answer was a resounding "Yes!"  If video game compositions are 'real' music, wouldn't people enjoy hearing them in a live concert setting?  From that idea emerged Video Games Live (VGL), a touring orchestral performance of video game music with visual effects and a few surprises.   VGL released their first CD in 2008, and this year their second disc, cleverly entitled Level 2, hit stores along with a DVD and Blu-ray release.  For fans of video games, like my two sons, this is a fun disc that really entertains.
This performance was recorded in New Orleans and features the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra as well as a 34-person chorus, and it's quite an impressive set line-up.  While I don't pretend to know anything about classical music (I generally listen to music that has been proven to cause sterility in lab rats at 50 yards) I was really impressed by the performances of both the soloists and the general orchestra. 
They start out with a medley of tunes from classic arcade games that really got the audience excited and in the right mood for the show.  These old 8-bit games had some catchy tunes playing (over and over and over...) in the background and applause would erupt from the audience when they'd segue into a popular theme.  They followed that up with music from Halo.  If anyone doubts that teens and tweens could get excited about attending the orchestra, these two pieces alone will remove all doubts.
Video Games Live is more than just the music though; it also incorporates video from the games being shown on large screens over the stage.  I was impressed that it was synchronized so well.  At the precise moment a ship crashes into a planet on the screen the cymbals clash and the drums pound.  It's a nice touch that works quite well.
Not all of the 'immersive' sections of the concert worked so well however.  I'll give the creators credit for trying some new ideas, but having a guy in a Spartan uniform run across the stage waving a big flag at the end of the Halo section was a bit hokey, and the smoke blasts the infrequently erupted from the stage didn't really fit.
The show also featured an appearance by Ralph Baer arguably the father of video games, who played his early version of Pong with a member of the audience.  That was nice, but it did ruin the rhythm of the concert by bringing things to a screeching halt for a bit.  The other major mistake was including a song from Guitar Hero.  It seemed to be counter to what they were trying to do, create an appreciation of orchestral music to a new generation, and it also begs the question 'does the world really need another cover version of Sweet Emotion?"
The way the concert is presented on the disc wasn't the way I'd do it either.  In between most selections they cut to a short interview with a video game composer or one of the performers in the show who would talk about either their composition or how wonderful video game music actually is.  These segments broke up the flow of the concert and were a bit jarring, not to mention a bit over the top.  There were a few cringe worthy moments, especially when someone would try to wax poetically about the joys of the show.  They just came across as a used car salesman trying to talk someone into the car of their dreams. 
These were minor faults though.  Taken as a whole the concert was a lot of fun and well worth watching, and that goes double for video game fans.     
The songs performed in this concert are as follows:
Classic Arcade Medley
Halo Montage
Civilization IV:  Baba Yetu (Duet Version)
StarCraft II:  Wings of Liberty Theme
Sonic the Hedgehog:  Staff Credits
Advent Rising Overture
Interactive Guitar Hero: Aerosmith - "Sweet Emotion"
Warcraft Montage
Chrono Cross:  Scars of Time
Mass Effect Suite
Megaman Montage
Myst Suite
The Legend of Zelda Suite
Super Mario Bros. Medley
God of War:  Revenge and Redemption
Martin Leung - Mario Solo Piano Medley
Martin Leung - Tetris Solo Piano Medley
World of Warcraft:  Lament of the Highborne
Castlevania Rock Overture
The Blu-ray Disc:
This Blu-ray disc comes with the DVD version in a two-disc combo pack.  Both are housed in a single width Blu-ray case.
The 1.78:1 1080p image looks very good, especially for a live concert, something that necessitates recording under less than ideal conditions.  The level of detail was very good, allowing the viewers to see the fine grain in the wood that makes up the cellos and texture of the violin strings.  The vintage video game footage didn't look so hot, especially when it was magnified to a size it was never intended for on my screen, but that's to be expected.  NES graphics weren't meant for large HD monitors.  I would have used the game footage more sparingly than the director of this disc did, but it's not a grievous error.
The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio sounded very good, with one exception (that I'll get to later.)  The range was excellent and the audio was very clear. I also liked the way they mixed the disc, with a few percussion effects and audience sounds coming from the rears and the front soundstage being reserved for the orchestra.  I would have liked a little more bass in the mix, but this was a minor qualm. 
The one area that the disc could have been improved was with the levels between the concert and the interviews that played between songs.  The interviews were mixed rather high and when the music was set at a nice level they'd come across as blaring.  
The set has a good number of extras, but I wasn't really thrilled by any of them.  First off is a commentary track by the creators, which I thought was a bit unusual but it wasn't bad.  Then there's extended interviews with Tommy Tallarico, Ralph Baer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Russell Brower, Gerard Marino, Christopher Tin, Martin Leung, and Jayson Hayes.  Some of these were interesting but most of them were a bit over the top.  Jamie Lee Curtis' for example.  In addition there are four behind the scenes bits (Tommy's Guitars, Joystick Podium, Behind the Scenes Tour, Composers Party in Japan) and a series of trailers to various video games.  I think I enjoyed this last bit the most.  The trailers include: Video Games Live 2010 Trailer, Tetris - 25th Anniversary, The Making of Dragon's Lair, Halo Reach, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Sonic the Hedgehog 4, Civilization V, God of War III, and a Yuri the Only One For Me music video.
Final Thoughts:
While there were a few things I didn't like about the way the show was presented (the interview clips between songs being the main one) I actually enjoyed this show a lot.  I'm not a big gamer, but hearing the Mario Theme or the music from Sonic the Hedgehog did bring a smile to my face.  It's a great performance and an outstanding way to get someone interested in music.  Recommended.

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