Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s ongoing hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-ass sounds they make. Today’s pick comes from the dawn of the 32-bit era, when makin’ “Virtua Fighter, but with robots” just seemed like a natural thing to do.
Upon its September 1995 American launch the PlayStation had no shortage of flashy 3D fighters, polygonal fisticuffs having quickly become the hardware demo format de rigueur. I personally ended up with Tekken, and managed to avoid ensnarement by the kusoge-adjacent Toshinden. But lurking in the shadows was a lesser-known contender, which the guileless enthusiasm monsters at DieHard GameFan, forgetting to note the nascent genre was less than two years old, called “one of the best 3-D fighting games of all time.”
The supposedly legendary gem those goofballs were worshipping that issue was, in fact, Zero Divide (YouTube / longplay / VGMdb), an odd robot-focused Virtua Fighter wannabe from odd Japanese developer Zoom published in America by (oddly) Time Warner Interactive. (It declined to publish the 1996 sequel.) Approximately several dozen people noticed. I was one of them, and I still didn’t bother buying or renting it.
I should’ve. If you check out that longplay you’ll see it’s a pretty damn complete package for a 1995 launch title, with workmanlike VF-style action (con robotos), good-looking arenas, and more than its fair share of unlockable secrets, most famously a three-stage “tiny” version of Phalanx, that X68000/SNES shmup best known for its bizarro U.S. cover. Point is, there was a lot to appreciate, as Zero Divide was clearly a labor of love by its likably eccentric devs.
The same could be said for its music, which was some seriously good stuff. It’s mostly the work of Akihito Okawa (Soundcloud, Facebook), who is a synthesizer genius on par with Patel. (Zoom house musician Hideyuki Shimono also contributed two tracks, the wonderfully dancy “Kurage” and “Nippon.”)
This track here, “A Nation of Poison,” is pretty representative. One of the stage/character songs, it’s solid enough synth rock for the first minute, but then around 1:20 crashes into a transition with these lovely stereo-panning wavey synth sounds pulling us along to the next passage. After one more round, 2:36 begins building to a final guitar-noodling climax, after which the waves carry us out.
The reliable progressions, high energy, and showboat-style noodling continue in the next track, “The Power Beat.” Okawa doesn’t have to go as hard as he does, but bless him for doing so. That said, I’m not the biggest electric guitar / metal / shred fan, so I appreciate the turn toward jazzier funk in “Confusion,” which is as good of a ‘90s video game fusion track as you’ll hear today.
My personal fave may be “The Art of Destruction,” the sub-boss robot’s theme, which augments the pulsing electronics and guitar lead with a bit of wonderful jazz piano that elevates the entire affair. I’m a sucker for this sort of piano composition, and combined with the synths it’s a stunner.
The closing credits track “A Voyage” bends genres yet further, voyaging itself into the vaunted territory of what might be termed “space jazz.” And how appropriate, because Okawa also contributed the five tracks that score the bonus, built-in space shooter Tiny Phalanx, including the mini-game’s excellent ending music, which didn’t make it onto the Zero Divide soundtrack proper.
Sadly, the two-and-a-half Zero Divide games, a little-discussed racer, and a few other projects are the extent of Okawa’s game work. He apparently leveraged his synth expertise to become a developer of acclaimed artificial guitar VSTs (sample-based software/plugins musicians use to compose with virtual instruments). Luckily, he’s still posting new original compositions on his company’s YouTube, should you wish to check in. Pleasing to see all the love he’s getting from admirers.
Me, I’m gonna check in on the two main Zero Divide games next time I have an OG PlayStation phase. Think I’ve waited long enough.
That’s a wrap for today’s Morning Music! Speaking of waiting, after several months of slow going I almost have my new PC assembled and configured. Almost there! What are you up to this week?