Graphically updating old games must feel a lot like being asked to nail custard to a wall: It’s a lot of messy effort for all involved and by the end of it nobody’s really happy with the way things turned out. Even the best-intentioned daub of next-gen polygonal polish can turn out badly – old games are often charming because of, rather than in spite of, the way they look, and by trying to give everything more detail for detail’s sake much of the charm and feel of the original can be lost to the unforgiving glare of a 4K image so intricately detailed you can pick out individual 3D eyelashes where once you were grateful if you could tell someone had a face at all. Imagine gazing upon any of Monet’s water lily paintings and thinking “Yeah it’s alright, but you can’t make out the veins on the leaves and the water reflections aren’t accurate” and you have many a publisher’s attitude to older titles; a remake has to look “modern”, whether that benefits the tone or artistry of the original work or not.
So it was with some trepidation I fired up the remake of the forever beautiful Panzer Dragoon – a series that has always been beautiful as much for what it doesn’t show as what it does, for introducing us to a world of ancient organic technology and sentient dragons – and wondered how on earth anyone could bring fidelity to this while still retaining the almost dreamlike qualities of the Saturn game. The PlayStation 2 Sega Ages 2500 release solved this problem in the most straightforward way possible: The “remake” there made a few extremely minor adjustments (the easiest one to spot is the dragon’s plating – it’s now modelled, rather than painted on) and included the Saturn version as well, just to be sure. You can’t accuse anyone of being unfaithful to the original if they haven’t changed anything, can you? But there comes a point in time where even I, tedious Saturn flag-waver that I am, have to admit that 1995’s graphics just wouldn’t sell well in today’s market (not if the developers were big fans of being able to pay their bills, anyway), and so something more drastic was in order for this old series’ reintroduction on today’s hardware.
[A brief note before we go any further: The screenshots below are taken from the Japanese Saturn game (first shots) and the PC remake (second shots), and intended to serve as a general illustration of comparable imagery, rather than direct equivalents of one specific moment]
If there’s one thing that has to be absolutely perfect, it’s Kyle and the “Solo Wing” dragon he rides on. The soft fabrics and earthy tones of the person sitting on top are designed to contrast beautifully with the almost unreal blue with bone-like armour below, an unlikely pairing that stand out in every scene yet still feel as connected to the world around them as anything else. Happily their updated silhouette remains instantly recognisable from any angle, the most drastic change being the addition of more obvious musculature on the dragon’s chest to power those bright orange wings. Kyle’s face is still largely obscured by the cloth designed to keep the harsh desert sand and sun at bay, the introduction still shows him way out of his depth and collapsing at the extraordinary sight of two impossible creatures firing laser-breath at each other, and this simple hunter off on a life-changing adventure is given no more focus or dialogue than he had before (if anything, the remake has slightly reduced the focus on Kyle). Both of them are clearly updated, and still very much in appearance and behaviour exactly the same as they’ve always been.
The same can be said for many of the environments too, most of them finding that perfect balance between improved detail and the slightly unreal stylings of Team Andromeda’s Saturn shooter. Episode 4’s tunnels are an especially great example of this: Part of the reason why the original Panzer Dragoon’s environmental detail (or lack of it) worked so well was because the game either only showed us things it actually pull off (such as an endless expanse of dusty desert), or otherwise presented us with things that had no real-world equivalent – like these unnatural passageways left behind by an ancient civilisation. We never had any reason to believe these hexagonal shafts of forgotten technology should be perfectly round, so their sharp lines and sudden turns obscuring the limited draw distance ahead never felt like a designer trying to find an acceptable compromise with 32-bit hardware, they were simply how this location looked. The remake team recognised this (and many other “blocky” forms) were a conscious choice and carefully preserved this otherworldly design, the upgrades coming in the form of glowing laser fire lighting up the dark and more detail on perpetually unnamed architecture, teasing out more questions than the increased polygon count answers.
And what about the environments that don’t find that perfect balance mentioned above? They change things – because they have to. A fine technical achievement on one machine may be five minutes unexceptional work on another, an older hardware’s clever trick a newer machine’s lazy shortcut. And so Episode 5 keeps the old enemy formations and verdant forest theme but understandably ditches the vast expanse of largely flat forest canopy in favour of visually varied rivers, tree-speckled rocky hillsides, and a stunning natural archway covered in green moss and even more trees. As everything else up to this point had been so instantly recognisable this new look threw me for a loop the first time I played it through, but as different as the scenery is there’s enough to connect the two to make this replacement feel true to the original and in practical terms nothing has been changed: your movement is still as unhindered as it always was, the enemies you face along the way are all very familiar, and the you’ll find the same boss waiting at the end, and they’ll go down in exactly the same way.
Appropriately enough the final standard “episode” finds a visual compromise between the two extremes of careful updating and complete renewal: The leaves (lily pads?) floating on the water’s surface may be an invented touch not seen in the original but they suit the scene perfectly and ultimately change nothing. The mad dash through imperial washing lines are missing… which means you no wonder if the buildings lining the narrow waterways are really small homes for gigantic people, and the dramatic colour shift only makes the “city in the storm” feel almost unbearably electric, the activation of the Tower and the outpouring of organic monsters from it a threat so terrible even the skies above have darkened under the Tower’s influence.
I did wonder if I’d come out of this with a laundry list of issues: Plasticky dragon armour where bone-like plates should be. Detail obscuring gameplay. Things changed to be “better”, regardless of how they originally looked in-game or how they were imagined to look in concept art. Kyle thrust front and centre, because people “need” a human face to relate to. Honestly? The worst I can say – as a long-time fan and someone who adores the “crunchy” look of this and Saturn games in general – is that the dragon’s screech is different and their tail doesn’t seem to be quite as swooshy as it used to. Other than those minor points there’s no question this is as pretty as it is authentically Panzer Dragoon – and it’s very pretty.
What more could anyone hope for?