Fifteen-year-old me – ever the well clued-up gaming aficionado – sneered when my friends were talking about the upcoming Sony PlayStation in 1995. “Ha! You don’t know anything!” said my teenage self, “everyone who knows anything about games wants a Sega Saturn”, before I likely following up with something along the lines of “this Sony thing won’t last at all”. And so off I went, bought a Sega Saturn with my paper round money, and lived happily ever after.
While I might have been a little iffy on some of the details – I suppose Sony have proved to be OK at this console malarkey – I still stand by my decision. Sega Rally, Nights into Dreams, Guardian Heroes, Virtua Fighter 2; these are games that have defined the hobby for my entire life.
Amongst those era-defining games on the Saturn, the Panzer Dragoon series remains an esoteric wonder. Both the original game and its sequel are on-rails shooters, its dragon-borne combat wrapped in one of the most compelling worlds ever committed to code. While the Saturn ultimately faltered in the PlayStation’s wake, Panzer Dragoon’s setting, tone and gunplay remain an incomparable highlight.
So, when it was announced that the first two games were to be remade for the Nintendo Switch, you can imagine my elation. “Now” I said, somewhat manically, “everyone will see that they backed the wrong console, and they will weep tears of joy into their Nintendo handheld!” There may even have been an evil laugh or two at the end.
Except, now the first one of these is here, I’ve remembered that along with all of the amazing memories I have of the first Panzer Dragoon game, it had one or two problems. It’s a shame that they’ve been compounded by developer Mega Pixel Studio introducing a few new ones of their own.
Panzer Dragoon sees you taking on the role of Keil Fluge, a man unintentionally caught up in an epic battle between two dragons, and who finds himself the rider of one. It becomes his mission to take down the Dark Dragon before it reactivates an ancient artefact, by riding the blue Solo Wing and tackling a range of Imperial enemies and Ancient tech along the way.
The world of Panzer Dragoon remains an absolute delight, and with vastly improved HD graphics, it very much looks how my mind’s eye imagined it. There’s still evidence that this is all based on a game from twenty-five years ago, but it’s a pleasing jump in fidelity that does justice to the original art and concepts. The shame of it is that the first game in the series was slightly too brown, and it wasn’t until Panzer Dragoon Zwei that everything truly came to life. Still, it bodes very well for the sequel’s forthcoming remake.
The iconic original soundtrack sounds fantastic here, and it’s a delight to hear the tracks again. Interestingly there’s also a secondary, reworked soundtrack by Panzer Dragoon alumni Saori Kobayashi which wasn’t available at launch, but now it’s available in the remake and it’s glorious; nuanced and evocative, you’re definitely getting the best of both worlds. The fact that you can select between the two is only icing on the cake, though it would have been nice to switch between them mid-level.
One thing that I really don’t remember about the original release, and something that doesn’t seem at home in the here and now, is the overly long loading times. I can’t imagine that fifteen-year-old me was a particularly patient sort, but now a tender thirty-nine, I can feel my life ebbing away like sands in an hourglass as I wait between levels and after every death. If you’re unprepared for it, Panzer Dragoon can be quite unforgiving at times, and the slow restarts really kill the mood.
With seven levels, Panzer Dragoon was, and is, ultimately quite short. You can probably blast your way through them in under two hours if you’re a fan of the genre or remember the original. Replay value is added by different difficulty levels and the fact you’re ranked on your shot down accuracy for each stage, but it would have been nice to see more modes or additions beyond a photo mode. The reworked soundtrack demands you play through the whole thing at least twice, mind you.
The game is probably not helped by the game having been saddled with the Remake tag, when this feels more like a straight up remaster. Did that raise expectations? Almost certainly, and while this is a big jump over the original, it is still very much Panzer Dragoon.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved returning to the game, and some of the improvements like the fully analogue aiming and reworked control scheme make it much more enjoyable to play, but in the grand scheme of the series, this is very much a prototype for what came afterwards. In some ways, it had to happen for the remakes to make sense, and I can’t wait for Panzer Dragoon Zwei to follow it.