Panzer Dragoon is something of an iconic franchise for SEGA, albeit in a low-key kind of way. It’s seen an anime adaptation, been featured as a track in Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Transformed, and was even a part of the resistance fighting for the multiverse against Sigma in the Archie Comics Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man SEGA/Capcom crossover event, “Worlds Unite.” And of course, no SEGA Saturn collection is truly complete without it.
Ah, but that’s the kicker, isn’t it? Even the biggest fans of SEGA’s modern output might not own a SEGA Saturn for one reason or another, and alternate ways to play the title aren’t exactly, shall we say, “mainstream friendly.” Ports made their way to the PlayStation 2 and Microsoft Windows, but only in Japan, and almost a quarter century of upgrades would probably make the latter less than user-friendly at this point, even if it had seen a worldwide release. And unlike their Genesis output, SEGA’s been more than a little shy about giving us Saturn re-releases.
Fortunately, as we discovered at Nintendo’s E3 Direct in 2019, that’s where publisher Forever Entertainment and developer Megapixel Studios come in. They’re not only bringing both Panzer Dragoon and its pre-sequel to the Nintendo Switch and Steam, but remaking them as well. Much like Streets of Rage 4, if SEGA isn’t going to do it themselves, at least someone is.
How to Claim Your Dragon
For what it’s worth, Panzer Dragoon is kind of light on story. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop SEGA’s Team Andromeda from making the most of it through a rather lengthy intro sequence, which Megapixel has replicated here.
Players take the role of Keil Fluge, a member of a hunting party who gets separated from his colleagues out in the desert. He ends up discovering a ruin, where he’s ambushed by a creature against which his weapon is ineffective, only to be saved in the nick of time by the happenings of another nearby conflict — this one between two skybound dragons. The rider of the blue dragon is fatally injured in the fight, and before he passes on, charges Keil with taking up his weapon and preventing the black dragon from reaching the black tower. Fortunately, the blue dragon knows the way.
Additional cutscenes are littered about between stages as well, though there is little other exposition after you’ve pressed Start (er, +, I guess).
Remakes of games from the fifth generation for a new era are a hot commodity right now, and just as we’ve seen with the likes of Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot, the main idea is to create games which play the way we remember the originals while giving them a new coat of paint. With that said, what Panzer Dragoon: Remake gives us is kind of a mixed bag in that regard.
Graphically, the game is beautiful, but not on the cutting edge. Technologically speaking, it is definitely a step up from the original release, though whether it’s better or not is a bit more subjective. For instance, one would note that in the first stage, the original presented striking reflections of the ancient architecture throughout the stage in the water from which they emerged. Those reflections are still here, but are considerably more subdued.
Even so, the stages are more varied and filled with models and textures which give several stages a greater sense of place than the original game. Other improvements see more seamless transitions between sections of stages, where in the original, they had been masked by fading in and out.
On the whole, the quality of the models makes me think of something you would see in the latter Xbox/PlayStation 2/GameCube era, or even the early Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era. Unlike the former, the visuals do have a nice high-definition crispness to them that is appreciated. The result is a visual style which kind of feels like a retro stopgap; not as primitive as what the originals looked like, nor as sophisticated as what we might see today. In a way, it’s kind of like how some people might remember it looking — better than it was, but with an extra layer of HD polish over it. So it still feels like an older game, but in a way that holds up better today.
If you like how it looks, then Remake has a nice extra feature: Photo Mode! From the pause menu, you can enter this mode and rotate the camera around, alter color filters, tilt, and position everything for the perfect screenshot using the Switch’s built-in screen capture.
Gameplay is where things get a little bit interesting here. Truth be told, I barely played the original — I think I tried it on a demo unit once, but not even long enough to really get the hang of it. (“But then, how can you compare the graphics?”, you ask. Ah, the wonders of YouTube and a bit of research.)
The go-to comparison is one I know all too well: Star Fox from Nintendo. And I see where the comparison comes from, but getting into it, the similarity is really only skin deep; if you go into this expecting a Star Fox clone, you’re going to find those expectations defied.
The game is a 3D on-rails corridor shooter, and you have a homing attack that locks on to enemies. That is literally it.
Control-wise, things are very stripped down here. Your dragon has no boost, nor any way to slow down. There are no barrel rolls, aileron rolls, Smart Bombs, power-ups, checkpoints, life refills, or even extra lives (you do get continues in Easy and Normal, but these send you back to the start of the current stage). There’s you, your dragon, your gun, its breath, and fortunately, a fairly beefy life meter which helps to alleviate the absence of all that other stuff I just mentioned. You gun fires standard shots, and charging it passes things over to your dragon, who will unleash a multi-projectile homing burst of firepower upon anything you’ve managed to lock on to.
It sounds incredibly basic, and in a way, it is, but there is something more to the gameplay which Star Fox doesn’t have. Taking advantage of the 3D environment and graphics, Panzer Dragoon has enemies come at you not only from the front, but from the sides and behind as well. To combat them, you’ll rotate the camera to face in the appropriate direction and open fire. The downside is that when you’re facing any direction but forward, you seem to lose your ability to maneuver. The blue dragon may know the way, but he doesn’t know much about how to dodge, and it becomes an increasing issue later in the game (there’s a reason you don’t see many 3D bullet hell shooters).
What Goes Up Must Come Down
While Megapixel has done a great job of recreating the Panzer Dragoon experience, it’s not without its flaws. The core mechanic, shooting, has some slight issues in that the targeting reticle is comprised of four components, and it’s the smallest one that is the hardest to keep track of — and really, the only one that seems to count for locking on to enemies, which can make doing so difficult at times. I was often left kind of wiggling the thumbstick around what I wanted to target in the hopes it would pick up the lock, and it didn’t always do so. In a way, the other components are more of a distraction, not really serving any real useful function — at least, not more than an easier to see single reticle would. Some who have played the original have even commented that targeting is more difficult in this version.
The dragon bounces around a lot more as it flies here than in the Saturn original. It may look more majestic and impressive, but in practice, one gets the feeling that the reason the Saturn version didn’t move similarly was less of an artistic or technological restriction, and more of a design decision. The wings flap a lot more here, and can get in the way a bit when trying to fight enemies on the sides; in the Saturn game, they flapped less and seemed to be positioned more behind you, while here, it feels more like they’re flapping right in your face.
Two control schemes are provided: Classic and Modern. Modern allows you to control the dragon’s flight with the left stick while allowing you to aim with the right, but most who have played this (or similar games like Star Fox 64, myself included) seem to prefer the Classic style, in which the left stick controls movement and targeting together. Unfortunately, you can’t change this in mid-game; you have to return to the main menu in order to do so (and even then, the toggle is on a separate screen from the one showing the controller layout). This is doubly unfortunate, as it not only makes trying both out a little cumbersome, but I can see myself wanting to attempt some boss battles with the modern scheme (the Guardian in Episode 4 seems like a really good one for this), though I’m not willing to put up with them in order to get there and find out.
Oh, and amusingly, the game features no Dpad movement, despite that being all the original would have had.
It’s also worth pointing out that the game is rather short at six episodes (and a final boss-only chapter), and depending on your skill level and the difficulty settings, it’s beatable in less than an hour. A special menu with all sorts of features is unlockable upon beating it on Hard, which adds some replay value, but it does leave one to wonder if they would have had a more enticing package if they’d waited to have the sequel done and bundled them together for a little bit more.
So here’s the thing: While Panzer Dragoon: Remake may not be as good as the Saturn original in some ways, it’s still quite good in others, and the folks at Megapixel Studios and Forever Entertainment seem committed to making it even better (an update patch is due soon, which will add an orchestrated soundtrack, in addition to the original it currently has, for example). And as noted, unless you’re ready to hunt down a working Saturn and used copy of the game in order to play it, this is the best option you’ve got.
It may not be as good to some, but at the moment, it seems just good enough — especially if you’ve always wanted to try it, but have never had the opportunity until now.