Lost in Time: Panzer Dragoon
Man, talk about a game with everything against it. Between the name, the box art, the system it launched for, and the awful timing that came with it, there was just about no chance this title would wind up with any real level of success. However, the amount of awesome packed into this dragon flight simulator was so undeniable that it managed to overcome these hurdles, spawn a few sequels, a spinoff RPG, an anime, and a cult following that rivals just about any other franchise’s in history. It’s weird. It’s beautiful. It’s fun. It’s Panzer Dragoon.
Panzer Dragoon was released on the Sega Saturn on May 11th 1995, right alongside the console itself. Being a launch title its usually a good thing since folks are typically eager to bring some new games home with their console, and choices are limited, resulting in more willingness to take a chance on a new franchise. But Sega had to go ahead and launch the Saturn without telling anybody, thereby making it difficult for the few retailers that actually got the darn thing to promote it. What’s worse, retailers who were left out of the surprise launch shipments weren’t exactly given any good reasons to even bother. So, the console it was on was troublesome right out of the gate. But then, they had the name to contend with. What the bloody hell is a Panzer Dragoon? Panzer is a German word referring to either a type of tank, or “armored” and a dragoon is a heavily armed European soldier of some sort. And let’s be honest, I only know that because I looked it up. Why didn’t this game get renamed when it was brought to the states? Sega has localized things before. They must have known this was silly at best. Plus, it’s a game about dragons! So, instead of putting the word “dragon” in the title, you go with “dragoon?” That’s confusing for confusing’s sake! Finally, there’s the box. Look at that. This game is about FLYING on a DRAGON, so… is… is that supposed to be a dragon? Don’t make that obvious or anything, and certainly don’t show its WINGS! Teeth. Let’s draw all our attention to the thing’s teeth and the fact that we couldn’t be bothered to put some sort of texture inside the thing’s mouth. Solid yellow. Good plan. Hell, your dragon doesn’t even bite anything in this game! At least the Japanese cover art had some color. It may not have been the right fit to sell it here in America, but it’s a beautiful piece of artwork in its own right, it shows off what the game is about a hell of a lot better than this image with a flat black background does, and it certainly couldn’t have been worse than this piece of garbage!
But what of the game itself? That’s where Panzer Dragoon got its fans from, because for its time, it was quite the graphical showpiece. I know it doesn’t look like much in these screenshots, but you’ve got to remember at the time this was really amazing, especially in motion. Saturn demo units in retail outlets always had this one playing, and for good reason. It’s flashy as all heck. If you’ve never been lucky enough to play one of these games, Panzer Dragoon is an on-rails 3D shooter similar to Star Fox, where you ride on the back of a dragon and blow stuff up. You’ve got your gun which shoots small rapid fire shots, and your dragon’s homing lazer that it shoots out of its mouth. It’s awesome. You just move a reticle around the screen, lock on to your target, and your dragon barfs out blue lazers that automatically hit almost any target. What truly sets Panzer Dragoon apart though, is the amount of control you have over your surroundings. You’ve got this sort of radar in the corner of your screen that shows your current cone of vision. That cone can be rotated 360 degrees around your dragon at any time to hit enemies coming from all angles. So while your dragon is automatically flying forward, you are taking care of making sure everything that even thinks of crossing your path is blown to bits. It’s incredibly intuitive, and immensely fun.
Another aspect that sets this game apart is its incredible presentation. Even through the Saturn’s blocky, low rez graphics, the unique art style shines through. I’ve never really seen anything quite like Panzer Dragoon’s world, and that’s a testament to just how stylish it is. Of course later sequels would build on this world exponentially, but this original title laid the groundwork, and it did an amazing job. The music is also quite beautiful. Like the graphics, it is a bit dated, but there’s no denying the intensity and beauty of the score.
So what’s the problem? Sega clearly hasn’t forgotten about the franchise, going so far as to include it in Sonic and Sega All-Star Racing, and the original Panzer Dragoon was even polished up for a Japanese PlayStation 2 release back in 2006. The trouble is, that was a long time ago, and to my knowledge, the original game is no longer readily available on any service. This could be attributed to any number of issues, not the least of which is the fact that the Saturn is notoriously difficult to emulate. Wikipedia seems to suggest that it was available on the Japanese PSN in 2012, but while that would signify Sega has some functioning Saturn emulators working for them, I can’t find much information about that, nor does it change the fact that people here in America simply don’t have access to this game, which is a shame. Panzer Dragoon and its sequels are some of the coolest shooters ever made, and the criminally underplayed Panzer Dragoon Saga still stands as one of the best RPGs to come out of the 32-bit generation. Unfortunately poor marketing decisions, difficult to work with hardware, and Sony’s meteoric success all contributed to the Saturn’s eventual demise. It’s sad, but it’s hard to say that it wasn’t earned.
A lot could be said of the Saturn, but there’s no denying that Sega was at least turning out some new ideas and franchises at the time. Between this, Bug!, Clockwork Knight, Mystaria, Burning Rangers, and NiGHTS, to name a few, there’s a reason the Saturn still has the following it does. As far as the future of the Panzer Dragoon franchise goes, it’s really hard to say. Sega isn’t exactly predictable these days, nor are their studios brimming with the kind of talent I would want handling a new entry anyway. Maybe there’s hope for some eventual Saturn download service? Who knows? Will we ever see this dragon fly again? One can only hope.