Imagine yourself as a gamer in 1995 and just try to appreciate the magnitude of experiencing the very advent of 3D gaming on home consoles. This was a remarkable time, and even more staggering when you realize that in the grand scheme of video history, it didn’t take very long to get there. Hell, it barely took much time to get to the 8K resolution gaming experiences that are coming in the future. A little over two generations of human life have passed since the very creation of video games. Let that sink in for a moment.
Back in 1995 people were still waiting for the Ultra 64 to show up, but in the meantime, the Saturn tried to get an early mover advantage whilst clearly underestimating the then-new kid on the block, PlayStation. Still, gamers were salivating to get their hands SEGA’s new console, and they couldn’t wait to play home versions of arcade smash hits Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter. Then, there was another mysterious title that formed part of the console’s early lineup of must-have titles, Panzer Dragoon.
At the time, gamers were no stranger to the rail shooter genre. With games like Space Harrier or Star Fox, the genre itself had a growing fanbase as developers found new ways to create these adventures. In hindsight, however, it’s safe to say that none were prepared for what SEGA and director Yukio Futatsugi, were about to unleash: a rail shooter with a healthy dose of metaphysical surrealism.
Long before Fumito Ueda became an industry icon with games like ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, it was Panzer Dragoon, which first made use of abstract surrealism to create a breathing world, one that felt much larger than what the players were given a glimpse of at the time. Using a “less is more” approach, Panzer Dragoon immediately enchanted players with its vibrant yet mysterious game world, a world that felt fully realized and yet left players in a constant state of awe and wonder. The game even had its own fictional language, a feat Ueda himself would replicate much later when creating his virtual universe.
Panzer Dragoon was a straight forward rail shooter that didn’t give much away in the main narrative, and yet it had a profound effect on players as they got a glimpse of its luxurious setting, which felt otherworldly in the most real sense. A stellar sequel would follow (which is set to receive the remake treatment in the future), with the trilogy of Saturn titles concluding with an epic 3D RPG, which is ridiculously expensive on eBay.
After some time, the series saw a release on Xbox and a spiritual successor of sorts on Xbox One in the form of Crimson Dragon. Given the incredible richness of the Panzer Dragoon universe and the many fans it continues to gain, the series could definitely use more entries. In 2020, the remake of the original Panzer Dragoon landed on Nintendo Switch just in time to commemorate 25 years.
Twenty-five years ago, the Saturn had a surprise launch in North America with less than stellar results, and now 25 years later, the surprise launch of Panzer Dragoon Remake on the Switch eShop fared about the same. It’s not a terrible remake by any stretch, but it certainly could have used some additional development time. The experience is there; the strict rail shooting action is all intact, and for the most part, the graphics look decent, but the surrealist visual style, which made the Saturn game look like a piece of abstract art come to life, is sorely missed here. The graphics are sharper and shinier for sure but lack the same soul and artistic depth of the original. The gameplay takes a bit of hit too, where the targeting system and hit detection don’t always map well with the new graphics engine.
As someone who only recently replayed the Saturn game, I think Panzer Dragoon Remake still gets the job done, and hopefully, a few updates down the line can remedy some of the nagging issues. For newcomers, this is still a remarkable venture into one of SEGA’s most legendary and imaginative IPs.
The alternative? Well, plugging in an old Saturn with a copy of the game isn’t going to be ideal, and getting ahold of the SEGA PC release is a bit roundabout too. Still, there is a way you can play the game on Xbox One via the backward-compatible Panzer Dragoon Orta, where the entirety of the original Saturn release can be unlocked in the Pandora’s Box (either beat Orta once or clock in 5 hours, whichever occurs first).
Regardless of how you experience it, Panzer Dragoon was a pivotal point in gaming history and remained as one of the hallmarks of rail shooting adventures in gaming. Above all, it introduced a fascinating surrealist world which still has many uncharted territories.
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