Sega’s surprise launch of the Saturn in May of 1995 was disastrous for a number of reasons. Retailers were not prepared, gamers certainly weren’t, and more importantly third party titles were not ready in time. That left their own titles to sell the system, and sadly nearly all of them had issues. Virtua Fighter and Daytona alone could not carry that system, especially at $400. Probably the greatest tragedy is that Panzer Dragoon did not get the recognition and sales it deserved. Panzer Dragoon, while a bit simple, is one of the few early Saturn titles that has held up and is still great.
While everyone else were fawning over Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA Panzer Dragoon was the real star of the Saturn lineup. This original title was everything a launch title should be: new, breathtakingly beautiful, and most of all fun. More so than any other Saturn title it also showed off the hardware with its combination of great art direction and technical prowess. Panzer Dragoon would spawn a brief but still missed series of rail shooters and is still one of the best in the genre.
Panzer Dragoon tells the story of Keil Fluge, a member of a hunting party. When he is distracted by two riders battling it out above his partner is killed, leaving him stranded in a cave to avoid being eaten. Before he can be eaten one of the dragon riders saves him. The dragon rider is dying, and entrusts Keil with his mission to stop the black dragon from reaching the Tower and becoming complete.
Panzer Dragoon is a rail shooter along the lines of Star Fox. However compared to that title it is a bit simple. You don’t have full control of your movement; you control the targeting reticule. Your dragon will slightly follow its movements but that’s it. You also won’t find a list of cool weapons either. Aside from your blaster the only other attack are your dragon’s homing lasers. The tradeoff between both is speed; it takes time to lock on to multiple targets whereas your blaster has rapid fire.
It’s a testament to the game’s design that it still remains so compelling despite its simplicity. While you travel along a set path you can rotate the camera in 90 degree increments. Your radar tracks enemy positions, allowing you to prepare for an ambush or try to reach 100% hit rate. A large part of what Panzer Dragoon special is its reliance on spectacle. Enemies attack from every direction and the game makes smart use of the environment to not only hide them but also present a guided tour of this unique world. There’s an art to the way the game mixes of smaller fodder among capital ships and beasts as a distraction. It’s tempting to rely on the homing lasers but many targets have weak points that only your blaster can reliably hit.
Sega could have eased up on the difficulty a little. This is a tough beast for a variety of reasons. You have a single life with limited continues. Worse yet, as there are no items your health is only slightly restored at the end of each level. Its brutal and a cheap way to force you to replay each level multiple times for optimal results. Even most arcade games aren’t that stringent. The high challenge could also be a way to cover the games’ brevity. At six episodes the game is incredibly short. I made the comparison to Star Fox but at least that game had multiple routes for replay value. Make no mistake, you will play this multiple times. But it really could have used more content.
Panzer Dragoon was a stunning achievement at the Saturn’s launch and you can still appreciate its aesthetic. However it has lost a bit of its luster. The frame rate is inconsistent; at its best the game is very fast, especially during episode four. But under heavy stress it chugs. The look is also heavily pixelated, making it difficult to appreciate the superb texture work. It is the absolutely fantastic art direction that what always made the package so amazing. Sega partnered with French artist Moebius to create the fascinating universe of the series. The mix of sci-fi and fantasy is still unique in video games and draws heavily from Nausica of the Valley of Wind. Despite its brevity the game spans a variety of locales, such as ancient temples, a sweeping desert and a ridiculously pretty forest. They really spared no expense for in the game’s creation and it shows.
And I haven’t even mentioned the music! The game’s sweeping score is atmospheric and rousing. The game knows when silence is effective to highlight particular moments and to heighten the tension. Sega even went as far as creating their own language for the game, lending it an even more alien feel.
I can’t say enough good things about Panzer Dragoon. That particular generation did not age well, especially launch titles for all three consoles. Yet Panzer Dragoon remains fun even to this day. While not readily available it has been re-released in various forms on the PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. Any version will do in order to experience this great game.