There is something about the Panzer Dragoon series that’s always held a certain mystique within the retro gaming community. It’s likely because it was released onto the fated Saturn, a console which lasted only a few years, and is one of the few games that’s actually managed to maintain a reputation from that difficult period in Sega’s history. The console is notoriously difficult to emulate, which means many of its games didn’t benefit from the same retro revolution that the internet brought with it in the 2000s and thus haven’t had the same staying power as their SNES or N64 rivals. Unless you actually had a hard copy with a physical Saturn, playing the definitive games like Radiant Silvergun or Nights Into Dreams was a pretty daunting task.
Fortunately, we live in an age where publishers obsessively remake and re-release their back catalogue, meaning eventually we were going to reach a point where even the Saturn was going to see it’s games widely available through digital distribution. Despite re-releasing seemingly every other major Saturn game, the absence of the Panzer Dragoon series always stood out and tales of lost code and publishing rights disputes only added to the mythology of the fabled series.
This brings us to December 2019, when out of the blue, Sega announced a complete ground up remake of not just the first two games but also their imminent release. By March 2020, the first game was out as a timed Nintendo Switch exclusive with the follow up due to come shortly after. Unsurprisingly, I was extremely keen to try it out, having never even played on a Saturn despite my foolish attempts to get emulation to work, so I picked it up and blasted through it. Sadly, rather than finally getting to play this gaming holy grail, I’m left with slightly mixed feelings about the remake.
Panzer Dragoon is a rail shooter where you control a dragon and it’s rider as they shoot their way through a series of 6 levels, each with its own boss fight. While you are always flying forward through the level on a guided path, you can move around within the screen to dodge enemy bullets and missiles and can alternate between a single shot and a homing shot that can lock onto up to eight enemies at once. Most people will likely compare it to Star Fox 64, which is probably the most famous game in that style, and honestly it’s a little lacking compared to the features present in that game. It’s probably a little unfair to make the comparison as SF64 was released three years later but remember that this is a remake so addressing issues like a lack of complexity could have happened. This is as pure and simple example of a rail shooter as you’re going to see and there isn’t a barrel roll or alternative route in sight.
Panzer Dragoon does slightly set itself apart in that with the shoulder buttons, you’re able to have 360 vision around your dragon and take shots at enemies from all angles. It does lead to some exciting ambush style moments but you’re unable to move your dragon when you look around which did take some getting used to. That being said the core gameplay of blasting away hordes of enemies as you soar through fantasy ruins and jungles is really great so I can see how the developer felt this was enough. Locking onto eight enemies, unleashing a blast of homing shots and seeing them all explode at once is tremendously satisfying and really never gets old at any point.
The boss fights are the real high point. You’ll have to do some quick identifying of patterns in order to dodge super attacks and target weak points. It’s classic arcade boss stuff and I personally really enjoy the frenzied dance where you’ve finally completely memorised a boss’ pattern and can dispatch it without a scratch. It’s also the boss fights that really utilise scale the best as some of them are absolutely massive multi stage affairs where you’ll need to destroy specific parts of them before you can take down the whole. The final boss fight in particular, while not very hard at all, is a suitably dramatic duel over a raging sea against an enormous Super Dragon which anyone with an ounce of love for things fantasy will be able to enjoy.
The elephant in the room with Panzer Dragoon is really the fact that it is a top to bottom remake rather than a port. The graphical style of the game has been completely redesigned and levels have increased massively in detail and scope. All of the marketing around the game, from trailers to the steam page, have really leant into the “new graphics, updated for a modern audience” angle, so it’s clearly something that the developer and publisher really want to emphasize. The issue is that it actually doesn’t look that great which is really disappointing after seeing the initial trailers which clearly focused on the best looking elements of the game.
There is an ugly early era HD look to everything in the game, as if the lighting isn’t quite correct and all of the particle effects from the explosions look like something from an indie game. It’s genuinely really disappointing as the original was known for being a beautiful early 3D game that really used the Saturns hardware to its maximum potential. The original game’s art design was really heavily influenced by the strange sci fi artwork of Moebius or Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa, it’s a post apocalyptic world full of fantasy wonder but this is really lost in the new graphics. It just feels desperately generic looking which might have been fixed by them going for a slightly more “artsy” look rather than just straight HD polygons.
On top of this, there have been large scale redesigns to the actual look of specific levels and I’ve got to say they are also a mixed bag. For the most part, the level of detail in the environments has been massively increased which while you’d think it would be a good thing, can actually make some of the levels really busy looking and makes it difficult to spot enemies. Level 5 in the original is a notoriously boring looking “forest” level which is essentially just an endless green desert but it’s been remade into a luscious jungle canyon. It looks incredible in screen shots but the reality is the stage dressing makes it hard to spot smaller enemies that come in all around you. They previously dropped in against a clear sky so it disrupts the gameplay flow.
The worst offender has to be the opening level. Where the original famously opens with a fight over a mystical lake, completely with scattered ruins and mist (clearly meant to hide the low draw distance of the Saturn) which contributed massively to the games sense of mystery. It now has all this dialed up to 11 with the mist completely rolled back to reveal all of the crazy ruins and hills that go off into the distance. Call me old fashioned but I think it spoils that mystery. After all would Silent Hill be any better with the mist gone? I know it’s part of the physical limitations of the hardware but it actually adds to the overall feel!
On top of the mixed redesign and the poor 3d graphics, there are some really weird decisions in the actual gameplay that weren’t present in the original. The aiming cursor which previously projected out from the dragon itself, is now a flat aiming reticle that can aim over the dragon’s model. To say it looks bad is to do it credit as it actually ruins the aesthetic that you are controlling a dragon and firing from it’s back. It’s a really weird decision that smacks of laziness from the developer.
As if that wasn’t a strange enough decision, the dragon itself, the very name sake of the game, has been changed in a negative way. The model of the blue dragon that you fly on has for some reason been slowed down and made larger which makes the precise dodging and weaving much harder. Annoyingly, you now also bob up and down in flight which all combines to make the movement in the game much less smooth compared to the Saturn version. It’s really confusing as Panzer Dragoon is as much about movement as it is shooting and the remake basically eliminates the former.
As for the story, it’s almost non existent, there is a short open cutscene with no dialogue that essentially outlines the conflict at the heart of the game but that’s basically it. You play as an unnamed traveller who stumbles across a dying dragon rider who entrusts his dragon and mission to you. Obviously as any sane person would do, you hop aboard and trust the dragon to take you where you need to go. Really you don’t play this game for the story although I gather even as simple as it is, it forms the basis for the slightly more complex sequel and much more complex Panzer Dragoon Saga to build on.
I think the key to understanding just how this remake could turn out so extremely uneven is looking at the developer which Sega put in charge. If you can possibly believe it, Sega entrusted this long awaited project to Mega Pixel Studio – a French company that formed in 2018 and has developed precisely zero games before this. In fact the only game they’ve even done partial work on is Agony, a critically panned horror game where they weren’t the lead developers.
It really makes Panzer Dragoon such a confusing release. The core gameplay is still basically really fun, albeit a little simple, but only because the bones of the original hold up to this day. Almost every single addition or change is for the worse though. It seems odd to say but I genuinely think it looks worse, or at least the art design is inferior and the gameplay tweaks are really unwelcome and actually damage the overall experience.
Given a remake of the sequel has already been announced, we can only hope that Sega hears some of the criticism of Megapixel’s work and holds them to a higher standard next time. It’s disappointing that the opportunity hasn’t been taken to do the original justice and unfortunately for people who want the true experience, it’s probably still going to be a hardcopy and physical Saturn.