With most of its rail shooter competition either dressed up in sci-fi clothing ready to shoot lasers at aliens and weave through asteroid belts or wearing a modern military theme, deploying fighter planes and helicopters to make everything coming towards you explode in a satisfying manner, Panzer Dragoon didn’t have to do much more than show up and show off its strong fantasy style to stand out from the crowd. “Fantasy” doesn’t quite do the game justice though, does it? This isn’t some simplistic off the peg Tolkienesque world – Team Andromeda had a much bolder vision for their debut 1995 Saturn shooter, their dragon refusing to conform to the usual role of a roaring knot of muscle and flame amongst an endless supply of swords and orcs. Here “dragon” usually means an elegant and lithe creature covered in sky-blue scales, its sinuous tail carving beautiful shapes in the air as it flies past ornate structures and strange organic shapes. Traditional genre expectations are also thoroughly ignored for the dragon’s enigmatic rider too as sixteen year old Kyle, the closest the game ever gets to having a traditional character, spends much of the opening movie either running away from ancient monsters his crossbow bolts harmlessly bounce off or narrowly avoiding death by evil prototype dragon shot before his knees finally give way and he falls to the floor, utterly overwhelmed by the impossible death-dealing horrors he’s only avoided by sheer luck. His reaction may not be heroic but it is exactly what this introduction needed: in a world as strange as Panzer Dragoon’s viewers need to know roughly where normal lies if they’re going to believe anything they see is special, a frame of reference to let them know dragons aren’t an everyday occurrence and most people are just trying to get by rather than seasoned adventurers ready for anything. Kyle crumpling to the ground in shock makes it clear to those watching this flurry of action was strange and new for everyone without saying a single word.
As the game goes on it becomes obvious that a single word is about as much as anyone in the game will ever say, the story content to keep players at arms length for its entire duration – and beyond. It is slightly frustrating to know there are no meaningful answers to be found here no matter how carefully you comb any region’s manual for information, how closely you pay attention to the brief between-episode cutscenes, or how well you perform in the game itself – but you realise it’s also a testament to the quality of the world building in there when the ending only leaves you aching to know more, your emotions once again mirroring Kyle’s own as he stands amongst dragon footprints in the sand holding nothing more than memories of a grand adventure now past.
You’ll always need to know more, but there is enough material around to scrape together an understanding of everything that really matters: Your Dragon (blue) and the Prototype Dragon (orange) clearly have some sort of longstanding rivalry going on, our Dragon at least is a sentient being not only able but also willing to preemptively protect Kyle in the game’s final moments before dropping him off somewhere safe, the empire is very interested in seizing ancient tech for its own nefarious purposes, and the ancient tech has a sort of scarily-powerful biomechanical air to it, slumbering bioweapons far beyond the military might of anything else and definitely best left well alone. The information that’s been deliberately withheld is as much part of Panzer Dragoon as what you are told, the Ancient Age a devastating calamity better left lying in the dust than revealed in all its destructive glory.
This fuzzy detail makes the strength and consistency of its ties to Zwei and Saga all the more remarkable – we may never learn all their is to know about Kyle’s flight but there is no doubt his journey is as much a part of the dragon’s story as the more fleshed out travels of Lundi or Edge, one more real adventure through an unreal world.
And what an unforgettable world that is: The first episode alone is stuffed with exactly the sort of wow an early next-gen title like this needed to have (it’s still a little strange to think to we went directly from the Mega Drive to this… 32X, you say? Sorry, what’s that?) – rippled water stretching out to the horizon in all directions, partially submerged decorated arches to fly under, and vividly coloured giant dragon-eating flowers floating on the water’s surface, snapping shut if you fly too close. Being able to fly around in a videogame is nothing that hasn’t been done many times before but very few really communicate that sense of moving through the air as effectively as Panzer Dragoon does, each location causing the dragon to react differently – sometimes barrelling down a tunnel at high speed, sometimes hovering with caution as monsters crawl out of the sand – every episode a stunning combination of danger and delight.
It’s not superficially pretty for hardware-selling’s sake either: Missile firing aircraft will visibly expend their loads and depending on the ship in question will either no longer be able to use that attack or have to reload before resuming fire, sneaky enemies can be spotted by their wakes long before they burst out of the water, and gigantic worms arc out of the desert sands, screaming as your attacks cause their outer shell to fall away and reveal their vulnerable pink flesh. These relatively extreme levels of detail work because for all Panzer Dragoon’s stylistic ambition the game never tries to convey anything a team creating a launch-window Saturn title couldn’t capably represent: The forest canopy you fly over in the fifth episode has just enough treetop sprites poking out the top of its detailed flat texture for your mind to believe you’re staring out across an infinite sea of trees. The water reflections in the opening stage are as artistically spectacular as they are fake. The organic-plate motif found on ancient architecture and weaponry helps to remove it from any easy real world comparison: when presented with a sharp-angled hexagonal tunnel to fly down while fighting episode four’s boss there’s not a single thing in there other than Kyle that has a clear anchor in reality and that means there’s no reason why this artificial tunnel should be more round, or that the boss with its detachable arm-shields should be more curved or more intricately marked than it already is. In fact as far as graphical cohesiveness goes the biggest problems are the washing lines found in one brief portion of episode six. No really – even ignoring the fact that Kyle at least should be quite literally clotheslined by them as the dragon darts through the narrow passageways the scale of the clothing on them seems way off, the size of the shirts hanging out to dry giving the impression the empire is a city of giants living in tiny houses. Even so for most people (the sort of person most likely to enjoy and appreciate the moment for what it is) the effect is still one of flying through a tightly packed residential area, the rivalry between these dragons being taken from forgotten ruins and desert plains to right outside the homes of ordinary – and completely defenseless – civilians.
And of course that fight comes from all angles thanks to Panzer Dragoon’s thrilling 360° view system. Twenty-five years later having three dimensional enemies assault you from the sides has lost… OK, it’s lost just about all of its novelty, but at the time the concept was about as “Welcome to the future” as gaming could get – so it’s surprising that Team Andromeda’s first attempt turned out to be so competent and considered, using two subtly different modes to keep the all-area action manageable.
It only takes a quick flip (or unfold, if looking at the Japanese version) through the manual to see the game’s camera-shifting shooting allows you to move the dragon around the screen when facing the front (“Drive mode”) but restricts your input to just the targeting reticle when looking to the sides or behind (“Shooting mode”). There’s a very good reason for this – looking ahead is the only time pushing up to make both the cursor and the dragon move in that direction makes sense – but the real reason why this difference is so invisible is because every single enemy formation and boss attack is designed around it. If something sticks to the sides or suddenly darts behind then they’re definitely going to launch a “shoot the thing down before it reaches you” attack, whereas if they’re flying ahead you’re more than likely dealing with a “Dodge the missiles” kind of assault. Either way you’re never put in a position where you can target something but don’t have the ability to deal with whatever it’s about to send your way.
It’s absolutely astonishing Team Andromeda were able to release a game of this quality in 1995 – an era where people weren’t really sure what to do with 3D outside of premium-experience arcade games, when everyone was learning as they created, when a new full-price release from a major developer having textures at all was considered a sure sign of graphical prowess. To think Panzer Dragoon emerged fully formed like this on brand new hardware that many famously struggled to create 3D games with and that decades later it would still feel as fresh and well-crafted as the day is was released is phenomenal. I do feel the series only got better as it went on – Zwei, for me, is superior in every regard and few games of any generation could hope to match Orta‘s beauty (we’ll continue to ignore Mini‘s existence) – but being the “worst” Panzer Dragoon still leaves this breathtaking and imaginative shooter leagues ahead of almost everything else.