Game Review #2 - Panzer Dragoon (Sega Saturn)
Updated: Aug 28, 2019
With a remake of Panzer Dragoon coming soon to Nintendo Switch, I thought it would be fun to play and review the original game for the Saturn. Although the Sega Saturn is typically forgotten or even maligned in video game history, it produced many hidden gems that never got re-released on other platforms. The result? Highly expensive and sought after games. However, the original Panzer Dragoon was considered a success on the console. For one reason or another, though, it has gotten almost no attention since the early 2000's.
For anyone that's played and enjoyed a Star Fox game, Panzer Dragoon will make them feel right at home. The game is an on-rail shooter, meaning that the player mounts a dragon, flying on a per-determined path while enemies come toward them in various fashions. The goal is simple: shoot down the enemies and make it to the level's end.
5th generation games (Saturn, PS1, N64) are often thought to have aged poorly in terms of graphics. I think there are some exceptions to this rule, but Panzer Dragoon isn't one of them. The textures are extremely "muddy" and torn. It is sometimes difficult to tell when projectiles are flying at you. Water is especially hard to look at in this game. At the time it was a technological marvel, but now, sadly, its age is apparent.
The controls are about as simple as it gets. The bottom row of buttons on the Saturn controller (A,B, and C) shoot a laser. If players hold it down and aim the recital over an enemy, or multiple enemies, they can trigger an auto aim shot. The top row of buttons (X, Y, and Z) are used to change the player's view in relation to the dragon they're riding. I found the initial view of being right up the dragon's butt to be annoying and difficult, so I adjusted it to a far out view myself.
L and R allow the player to look and aim to their left, right, back, and front. This is without question the game's most unique mechanic. At the top of the screen is a radar, which shows enemy placement all around you. With that as a reference, you can see an enemy coming from behind, use the mechanics to turn around, then shoot it. It's worth noting that unless you're facing forward, you can't maneuver the dragon; you are only able to aim. In later levels, this becomes a huge pain, as enemies will fire projectiles at you and there's nothing that can be done so far as I've found.
There's a cinematic flare to Panzer Dragoon which I appreciated. Occurrences mid-level, like giant explosions, or flashy entrances of the end stage boss. There are some cut scenes, but they're pre-rendered, another aspect which hasn't aged so well. Even so, there's a full mythology and interesting story if you don't mind waiting to hear it.
There's a certain ambitiousness to the game which I admire. Level three in particular caught my attention. Players fly at blinding speeds through a series of tunnels and at different angles. It's a beautiful and fun experience to shoot down enemies at high speeds, all while your dragon maneuvers through obstacles on their own.
There are two debilitating weaknesses of the game: One is the lack of analog control*. You as the player are flying around and aiming with a d-pad. To be fair, this was all we had back in 1995. The Saturn analog controller didn't come out until later. The imprecise commands of the d-pad make auto aiming difficult. There were quite a few times where I thought my recital overlapped an enemy while I was holding down the shoot button, but nothing happened. It was frustrating to have happen in tense scenarios where my health was low.
The other issue is how unforgiving Panzer Dragoon is. Perhaps it was to make up for the game's short length, but the developers decided to start players off with only one "credit". This means from the get-go, you have two chances to complete the level or it's game over. Playing a level well enough (Hitting a high number of enemies) will help earn you more credits, but if you barely scrape by, get ready to be punished. Not only will you get no credits if you aren't good at a level, the next level you start off with half health! I despise when games do this. It feels like a cheap method to make you lose.
To my knowledge, there are no health pickups in the game, and no checkpoints either. In later levels, this becomes infuriating. If you make it all the way to a boss only to lose, you have to start the entire level over. These levels are several minutes long, and it wears on you after a while. Even with my credits built up, there was one point where I didn't really feel like doing the level all over again to reach the boss.
Panzer Dragoon has an arcade-like feel to it, and not in the good way. It feels as if it were designed to suck the quarters out of kids pockets with the cheap mechanics listed above.
A lot of hype surrounds this game's soundtrack, and I'm sorry, but I just don't understand why. It's passable and inoffensive, I guess. But amazing and groundbreaking? There's got to be some nostalgia factor for people saying that. A lot of the soundtrack is stuff that blends into the background. That doesn't make it bad, but it's not catchy either. Kind of like a lot of modern game music, actually.
Even still, this is a fun game that's easy to get into. If you want to invest the extra time because the developers decided to pad the game's length out with an annoying and unforgiving structure, I wouldn't blame you. There's a lot of cool ideas packed in here, but I have to say, it could use that remake. Having analog control would be a huge boost to begin with. I imagine the remake won't use that archaic credits system either.
Overall, this is a staple of the Sega Saturn. It has aged and even upon its release had some archaic and frustrating structure, but the cinematic flare and fun ideas shine through to make this a solid experience.
* I found out after writing this review that for some reason, the analog controller for the Saturn, which came out after the first Panzer Dragoon, is compatible with the game. Sorry for any confusion caused by this, but my experience was strictly with the 2D controller. I never would have imagined the game was programmed for analog control. What reaosn would they have to add that in, for a controller that didn't exist yet, after all?