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The String Arcade Review: Video Game Music Plucks Into Your Heart
Video game music has become an indelible part of our brief gaming history; young gamers have grown up as talented musicians with an eye for their nostalgic past of memorable chiptunes, while many of today’s games show off the talent and creativity of both big budget orchestral scores and the efforts of a single multi-talented musical wizard. Arranging familiar game tracks for concert performances has become popular in recent years, and The String Arcade, a collection of video game tracks arranged for string quartet, successfully interprets a vast array of genres, styles, and eras of gaming into a unique blend of symphonic pleasure perfect for violin-lovers and video game music fans alike.
Beginning life as a Kickstarter project, The String Arcade is the brain-child from award-winning video game composer Dren McDonald (Nerdtracks.com) to arrange both classic and recent game tracks for string quartet (cello, viola, and two violins). The funding campaign was a success, and all proceeds go toward an after school music program for burgeoning young musicians. McDonald targeted a wide variety of game music, as well as his own work, to create an auditory feast for both the music-loving gamer and game-loving musician.
The album comes equipped with 17 tracks – the last of which acts as a bonus track showing off the Videri String Quartet playing the requisite Koji Kondo classic The Legend of Zelda title theme. It’s a beautifully well done arrangement but one most VGM fans have grown increasingly accustomed to over the years. Thankfully the rest of the album includes an incredibly diverse collection of arranged game tracks: classic themes from Ecco, Sonic, and the shocking but awesome inclusion of Altered Beast stand alongside recent favorites from Portal 2, Minecraft, and Plants Vs. Zombies. Here’s the full track list:
Note that two of the tracks are available only on the physical CD (and Kickstarter backers) – “Altered Beast Title Theme” and “Tron Arcade Medley.” Four of the tracks were arranged by film and game industry veteran Jason Poss (“Echoes of Ecco,” “Sonic 2 Scherzo,” “Tron Arcade Medley,” “Dance of the Space Bugs”).
Many of the arrangements slide into the soothing realm of Easy Listening with flowing strings and effortless movements, though many tracks can sound a bit same-y to the untrained ear. “Engii” from beloved indie darling FTL didn’t quite grab me like the original track did, and while I enjoyed that McDonald included some of his own body of work as violin interpretations, it was more difficult to pick apart the individual creative strides than the other tracks. On the flip side, it’s absolutely fascinating to hear Ecco’s rarely remixed but rousing soundtrack (with faux dolphin sounds in the middle!) in orchestral display in “Echoes of Ecco,” transforming the track into a complex sea chanty that could easily be found on the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack. The first track on the album (which can be downloaded for free), Plants Vs. Zombies’ somewhat iconic “Grasswalk” was already begging for a string arrangement, and McDonald pulls off a masterful structure that shows off exactly how a handful of talented musicians can transform a simple game track into a classically arranged ensemble piece.
My personal favorite tracks were the most creative interpretations; crunchy, upbeat video game music that seemingly had no business being explored through the complex layering of even a small, strings-only orchestral arrangement – yet here they were presented in such glorious new ways that even just the passing fan couldn’t hep but fall in love. When the head-bobbin’, toe-tappin’ boss theme triumphantly enters near the end of the glorious “Sonic 2 Scherzo” arrangement I couldn’t help but revel in the crisp strings and sheer joy of the talent on display. If you’re familiar at all with the Sega Genesis classic Altered Beast, you’ll be as surprised as I was to see the very rock-heavy title track arranged as a beautifully haunting dirge that would be right at home in any fantasy epic.
Hands down the best track on the album is the incredibly creative orchestral interpretation of the techno-happy Galaga – Galaga! “Dance of the Space Bugs,” arranged by Poss, presents the album at the height of creativity as the track explores the theme song through the captivating, slow-building intro before crescendoing into the upbeat and exciting melody. The track settles into an understated groove, as if drifting peacefully through space, before the violins return to duel the deeper strings as battle ensues, finally ending with that hilariously iconic sound effect.