Ave Mario: An 8-bit Orchestra

Montreal Video Game Orchestra to Premiere Super Nintendo-Inspired Concert

graphic by Sam Jones.

Songs from video games are the unsung heroes of the audiovisual world. Film scores are considered “high art,” with their own esteemed dedicated categories at the Oscars, and Top 40 radio pop songs sweep the Grammys every year. Video game music has yet to break free from its confines to the console.

But Montreal’s Orchestre de Jeux Vidéos is on a rescue mission. The wind instrument orchestra is made up of gamer-musicians who are expanding the ever-underrated realm of video game music from the Xbox to the box seats.

Sebastian Wall, a trombonist in the OJV, told The Link that the “semi-professional” orchestra, founded in 2008, was formed purely out of their love for games.

“Nobody in our orchestra is a professional musician, we’re all there to have fun,” Wall said.

“We had about 300 people at our first-ever show, which was really not what we expected. It’s our seventh year right now, and we’ve just been growing, growing, growing.”

The OJV is a spin-off of the Orchestre à Vents de Musiques de Films, a film soundtrack orchestra; both are headed up by Montreal conductor Jocelyn Leblanc. Last year, the two orchestras faced off in a rap battle-esque dual concert called “Final Fantasy vs. Star Wars.”

“We would have both orchestras play a little from their franchise. […] You had, for instance, Sephiroth vs. Darth Vader, or Princess Leia and Aerith,” Wall said.

“And then the two orchestras came together, about 80 musicians, and we played these arrangements that just mixed both themes,” he continued.

“[The response] was just great, the fans were going hectic in the concert hall. I think we had, like, six standing ovations during the show.”

Each OJV concert centres around a different video game franchise or theme. A popular concert in 2014 featured music exclusively from The Legend of Zelda games, such as A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Twilight Princess and more.

Last year also saw the OJV’s first ever NES concert, playing arrangements from Nintendo Entertainment System games only.

“It was our big Zelda year [in 2014], and we finished the year with the NES show that we thought would be a little smaller, and it turned out to be sold out again in a few weeks, which was about 600 seats,” Wall said.

“We were really impressed by that and we decided to go naturally to Super NES this year, and again, the response was amazing from the fans.”

Their Super NES Concert will feature music from beloved and timeless games such as Chrono Trigger, Donkey Kong Country, EarthBound, Star Fox, Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island and more. Both dates were sold out in a matter of weeks—a humbling trend amongst the OJV’s local shows.

“It’s really crazy. We’re not professionals, we’re really not used to that, we’re just doing it for fun. And to see those shows going sold out in a few weeks, it’s something we never expected. It’s really a great experience for all the musicians,” Wall said.

Along with their own private shows, the OJV also plays local festivals and conventions, such as Otakuthon, which they’ll be playing for their third time this year. Wall says it’s one of his favourite shows to play because the orchestra erupts into star-mode like a flashing, rainbow, invincible Mario with their biggest and best songs.

“That’s like our big treat concert for the whole year,” he said.

“We usually go with the classics. We play popular stuff like Zelda, maybe some Halo, Mega Man is always there, too, Castlevania and we try to put together a show that’s never gonna stop being epic, so we kind of set aside the nostalgic, quiet music and we just go all out for all of the show.”

Level-Up Concert

The appeal of classic video game tunes turned classical appears to span a number of generations, drawing a diverse audience.

“I was pretty surprised, at our NES show we had a lot of young people. For example, we played Mega Man, and we had kids, 13 or 14, they came to talk to us and were like, ‘Oh, man, Mega Man was so cool. So much fun.’ So it’s a very large [variety],” Wall said.

“That’s one of the cool things about the orchestra, that you get people from everywhere and get them exposed to orchestra music, [when] they wouldn’t be in a normal context,” he continued.

“It’s not everybody that’s gonna go and listen to Beethoven, but everybody knows Mario, so if you can take that music and bring it into an orchestra, well, then, all is fun and everybody’s interested. One of our missions is to be accessible to the very large public [that] maybe wouldn’t go that way without us.”

And Wall says the OJV wants to make their shows as memorable as possible—leveling up from a traditional orchestra show into a multi-faceted gamers’ delight, including providing up to eight consoles for show goers to play before the show and hosting small competitions.

“What we’re really trying for is to get out of the typical concert experience and bring, what we call among ourselves ‘Concert 2.0,’” Wall said.

“We always have a raffle; usually the big prize is a console. We had three Zelda chests made, they were amazing, and they looked like the real ones. And when the person would come onstage, they would pick one of the three chests, open it and they’d lift the prize out in their hands, and the orchestra would play the music that plays in Zelda when he opens a chest. So, it’s little things like that that we try to do to not be only a concert, but have a whole lot more to it.”

In the future, Wall says the OJV hopes to add a special light show to accompany the music, and feature cut scenes and sequences from video games projected onto concert walls. But for now, any updates or patches to the show remain under development.

While the Super Nintendo show is sold out, gamers and music fans can still catch the OJV in action this spring. The group recently announced an encore performance of their “Final Fantasy vs. Star Wars” show, back by popular demand on April 4.

Super Nintendo Concert // Salle Marguerite-Bourgeoys (Collège Regina Assumpta) // 1750 Sauriol St. E. // Jan. 23 + 24 // 7:30 p.m. // SOLD OUT

Final Fantasy vs. Star Wars // April 4 // More details T.B.A.