This Dragoon May Be On Rails, But It Has Heart
On May 11, 1995, the world should have momentarily halted, due to the North American release of the Sega Saturn and one of its best launch titles: Panzer Dragoon. But it didn't. If Sega hadn't broken so many hearts with console add-ons and screwed over third party developers with a surprise system launch, things may have been different, but alas, they were forced to retreat and plan a new system.
Even though I wasn't exactly what you would call a "broken-hearted fan," I missed out on Sega's bulky CD-ROM-playing system. I was too busy playing the Nintendo 64 (and later the Playstation) to even remember that it existed.
Several years later, I decided that it would be in my interest to purchase a Saturn to experience some classics I had missed. I wasn't really sure where to start (well, I was more afraid of certain games' price tags to be honest), so I decided to start with an inexpensive launch title that initiated a renowned series of on-rails shooters. Of course the title I'm speaking of is none other than Panzer Dragoon.
When I received my boxed copy of this game sporting a German title, I immediately tested the disc to see if it'd work properly on my first functional Saturn. Unlike my copy of Panzer Dragoon II Zwei, the first game in the series loaded without a hitch, so I decided to see it through to the finish.
When I began my adventure, I immediately noticed a lengthy cut scene. The Full Motion Video quality wasn't up to par with Final Fantasy VII's cut scenes, but it wasn't bad for 1995. The detailed opening sequence featured a boy named Kyle who was being pursued by an evil empire. When the Empire finally had him cornered, he was saved by a dragon who he'd ride throughout the entire adventure.
Once the opening sequence ended, I was thrust into the first episode. I found myself flying a dragon in what must have been a stunning 3D world during the year in which Panzer Dragoon was released. Sure, it looks dated now with its blurry textures and pixelated explosions, but in 1995, this was an impressive polygonal showpiece for the Saturn, which was thought to be incapable of producing decent 3D graphics.
What made the visuals even more impressive was the buttery smooth frame-rate. Shooters (even on-rails ones) were known for having heavy slowdown during the 32-bit era, so it was quite impressive to see a fluid game with detailed environments and numerous enemies on-screen.
Panzer Dragoon's visuals may look archaic now, but those crusty polygons can't hide the game's amazing level design. In this aerial title, you'll glide through decaying ocean palaces, race through twisting underground caverns, and you'll raid heavily fortified imperial camps at night. Panzer Dragoon's stunning missions mostly make up for the title's simplistic gameplay and dated visuals.
On-rails shooters typically feature fairly basic gameplay, and Panzer Dragoon is no exception. In Panzer Dragoon, the player guides a dragon through the air, shoots unguided energy blasts, and can lock on to multiple enemies with a homing attack (similar to what you'd find in later titles like Rez and Star Fox 64). Obviously, there isn't much depth to Panzer Dragoon's aerial battles, but there is one other nuance--the player can turn in any direction by pressing L or R.
At first, I didn't realize this, so I couldn't reach enemies racing towards my rear. I could only see my impending doom predicted by the on-screen radar. Once I discovered that L and R rotated my dragon, my visits to the Game Over screen were less frequent.
Well, fortunately for the black screen of death, it did get to embrace me now and then, as I had to switch difficulty levels. See, Panzer Dragoon has three levels of difficulty: Easy, Normal, and Hard, and you can't complete the game on each of these settings. I attempted to complete the game on Easy, because I would constantly get worked on normal. Sadly, my mission ended in failure.
Easy would only allow me to complete the first four levels, so I had to move on to Normal or Hard to complete this seven mission adventure. Thankfully, there was a handy cheat code that powered up my dragon to make my dream of completing this mission come true. Normally, I don't approve of cheating, but my main intent here was to experience Panzer for its visuals and music, so I didn't feel that it was necessary to repeatedly tackle levels that featured no checkpoints.
I already mentioned Panzer Dragoon's amazing level design that turned heads at the time of its release, but something even more stunning is its music. Panzer Dragoon's CD-quality sound put to shame many titles of the 32/64-bit era that still relied on midi files for their sound. Its musical compositions weren't necessarily better than the tracks its competition had to offer, but the stunning sound quality provided for an unforgettable experience.
Panzer Dragoon feels fairly dated now with its simplistic gameplay, rudimentary polygons, and unforgiving nature, but it's still worth a play-through to experience its wonderful music and creative level design. This on-rails shooter's early 3D visuals may be unappealing today, but they're worth looking past to experience the beginning of one of the Saturn's most renowned series of games. After having experienced this musical delight, I look forward to seeing what the rest of the Panzer Dragoon series has to offer.
· One of the best early 3D on-rails shooters
· Features a wonderful soundtrack
· Panzer Dragoon's sound quality is some of the best of the 32-bit era
· Excellent level design that keeps players on their toes
· There's nothing like battling airships with a dragon
· Cheat codes are plentiful
· Gameplay is simplistic by today's standards
· Panzer Dragoon's rudimentary 3D visuals aren't very appealing in the age of HD
· There are no checkpoints
· Certain attacks are nearly impossible to evade. Panzer Dragoon is incredibly short