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Music Week: When music makes a game (or why I love Zuntata)

Close your eyes.

Music can make a game, but sometimes it is the game. OutRun without Hiroshi Kawaguchi's selection of iconic tracks is like a country drive without any tunes on the stereo; it's a journey robbed of its heart and soul. Few other game series feel as dependent on their score as Darius, but rather than the sun-kissed, summer breeze of OutRun the mood summoned by Taito's in-house band Zuntata here is... Well, it's something else entirely.

I used to have it down as otherworldly, which is perhaps an overly literal reading of all that dissonance you'll find during Darius' late 90s pomp - listening to the soundtracks for Darius Gaiden or G-Darius, where the strangeness is maxed-out, it feels like you've chanced upon some transmission from a distant star. Earlier entries chimed with alien melodies, sampled voices that sound like they're reaching out to you from another dimension while beats skitter in and out of time - a realisation of composer Hisayoshi Ogura's desire to break free from soundtrack convention.

"At the time, it was pretty adventurous to use avant-garde rhythms and irregular meter in game music," Ogura said in a remarkable interview a few years back. "I remember telling one of my juniors at the company that a few years from now, this kind of thing will be everywhere, so... I mean, I think I just wanted to destroy something, and saw Darius as an opportunity to wipe out what was considered common sense in game music at the time and recreate things from the ground up."

To talk about Zuntata is to talk about Ogura, really. As beguiling as the idea of an in-house band is, it was merely a construct as Taito joined the trend that saw the likes of Sega's SST Band, and that had Ogura head up his own outfit. Like SST Band, Zuntata also took to the stage under Ogura's direction for some incredible performances in the late 90s, the members decked out in dazzling matching gold outfits. It's where you'll see them run through Visionnerz, a standout track from what's arguably Zuntata's crowning moment - Darius Gaiden's exquisite soundtrack.

"It was created based on a concept that had roots in Jung's idea of archetypes," said Ogura of the piece, which quickly moves from eeriness to straight-up abstraction. "For Visionnerz, I took lyrics that read, 'Truth isn't what lies in front of you. Truth lies elsewhere' and had them sung in an operatic fashion. I think that makes it a rarity among my works; not many of my songs have a concrete concept like that within the work itself. Put succinctly, it's the collapse of the ego given musical form."

Cover image for YouTube videoZuntata Live '97 / Visionnerz (from Darius Gaiden)

It's a high concept to accompany what's often assumed is the most simple of genres, which is probably why it works so well. Ogura's considered compositions moving to fill the space with something psychedelic, unnerving and thought-provoking. It's one hell of a trip.

Ogura left Taito in 2005, seemingly dissatisfied with its shift away from more traditional games development, though he's made numerous cameos with the Zuntata band that lives on. A fine outfit they are too, still performing to this day to great success, though for me their crowning achievement will always be that strange soundscape that accompanied Gaiden. It's the very essence of Darius, and at the very heart of the series' appeal.