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Level Up: Panzer Dragoon

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Level Up - Panzer Dragoon

On-rails shooters don’t get a lot of love these days. Every so often we get blessed with the trippy Child of Eden or the sensational Sin and Punishment 2, but the genre remains largely underrepresented. The 2D-scrolling shmup (shoot em’ up for the layman) ruled the arcades and consoles with franchises like R-Type, Gradius and Thunderforce. But the transition into 3D left the  genre in the dust. Very few publishers took interest in bringing the genre into the third dimension and even fewer developers pulled it off. One such successful case is Panzer Dragoon released on Sega’s ill-fated Saturn in 1995.

Truth be told, I was a Sega kid. My first gaming experiences were on a DOS PC, but my first console was the Genesis. In retrospect the SNES probably had the better library, but the Genesis was just too rad. Sonic was fast and edgy, Mario was a slow plumber, the Genesis was sleek and black, the SNES was a grey and purple box. Who can argue with genius advertising like “Genesis does what Nintendon’t”? No one, that’s who. Even after the debacles of the Sega CD and 32X add-ons, I was still excited for Sega’s next console, the Saturn.

Imagine my glee when Sega decided to launch the Saturn four months early in May of 1995. Now imagine my sorrow at the 400 dollar price tag. What was an 11-year old to do? Luckily these were in the days of mom and pop video stores that would actually rent out consoles. A Saturn with Virtua Fighter and Panzer Dragoon were mine, even if it was just for the weekend. Having played Virtua Fighter in the arcades, I popped it in first. The game played well, but I was disappointed by the graphics, which were blockier than the arcade version.

My lack of expectations for Panzer Dragoon made it all the more mind-blowing. Instead of the flat-shaded, Tron-esque polygons of Virtua Fighter, PD features a fully texture-mapped world that’s epic in scope. CG cut-scenes introduce a post-apocalyptic world of high technology and dragon-riders. After surviving a myriad of dangers the protagonist mind-melds with a dying dragon-rider. Without hesitation he assumes ownership of the departed’s dragon and is ready for adventure. Even this simple setup is light-years beyond 16-bit games in terms of production values and presentation.

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You soon find yourself flying over the ocean, dodging ancient pillars and blasting enemies from the back of your new dragon pal. Like Star Fox, your forward momentum is forced, hence the monicker “on-rails.” You control where your dragon flies on the X and Y axis, but remain on a predetermined course throughout. The main action is dodging, aiming and shooting. This roller-coaster design imposes hard limits on the ways a player can approach the game. The player’s choice is always the x-factor in game design. By limiting it the developer risks game’s the illusion of freedom, but gains immense control over the experience the player has. Eliminating those loose ends by keeping the experience railed is likely how Team Andromeda was able to make PD so visually stunning.

The visuals ride a line between archaic fantasy and a technological sci-fi. This combination gives the impression of a once-advanced civilization that fell into dark ages many thousands of years ago. Relics of the technological past are scattered about the landscapes, appearing worn-down and ancient, not shiny and new. Technically the game is a marvel. It should be noted that the Saturn was originally planned to be a 2D system. When Sega saw that the industry was moving toward 3D, they didn’t redesign the Saturn, they just added another processor. The challenge of getting the two-processors working together is immense. An even bigger obstacle is that the Saturn’s 3D capabilities are based on quadrangles, while most 3D design tools are based on triangles. This caused a slew of problems, especially when porting over games from the Playstation. Panzer Dragoon was a launch title on the Saturn and the fact that it remains one of the best looking Saturn titles is a testament to the smart design choices Team Andromeda made.

The music too, shows a quantum leap from the digital tunes of the 16-bit era. The sweeping strings of a full orchestra blend with synthesizers and industrial percussion, all made possible by the new CD format. Each stage’s music is composed  to evoke the mood of the visual landscape. Since each stage is a set length with predictable events the music was designed to reflect the drama. This type of sound integration is only possible because Team Andromeda’s choice to limit the player with the on-rails design.

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The Panzer Dragoon series went on to have amazing sequels, Panzer Dragoon Zwei, Panzer Dragoon Saga, and Panzer Dragoon Orta. However, the series never went beyond its cult-status to break completely into the mainstream. The majority of its legacy lay in Panzer Dragoon Saga. This unique adventure RPG set in the PD universe is one of the most rare games of all time and will cost you a pretty penny on eBay. It’s also very, very good. PD Orta on the Xbox is a great addition to the series that returns to it’s on-rails roots. It’s been over 10 years since we’ve flown through post-apocalyptic skies on the backs of dragons and the spiritual successor Crimson Dragon has been delayed indefinitely. Perhaps it’s time to see if my Saturn still works…

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