The Japanese cover of Panzer Dragoon drawn by Jean Giraud, depicting Keil and the Blue Dragon
Land Ho (PS2 remake)
Panzer Dragoon (パンツァードラグーン Pantsā Doragūn ) is a rail shooter video game developed by Team Andromeda and released on the Sega Saturn in 1995; and later released on PC, PlayStation 2, and as a bonus in its sequel Panzer Dragoon Orta for Xbox. The game follows the journey of Keil Fluge (unnamed in localized versions), a member of a hunting party who becomes the rider of a powerful blue dragon and joins it on its mission to stop a rival dragon from wreaking havoc on his world.
Panzer Dragoon was one of the few games available at the Sega Saturn's accelerated, surprise launch. It is the first game in the Panzer Dragoon series, and introduced the series' gameplay elements and, above all, its original art direction and post-apocalyptic science fantasy universe which gained critical acclaim. It was followed by Panzer Dragoon II Zwei, Panzer Dragoon Saga, and Panzer Dragoon Orta.
The player controls a flying dragon and his rider, and must face a variety of enemies (ranging from machines to monsters) in a 3D post-apocalyptic fantasy environment of barren landscapes and the mysterious ruins of a fallen civilization. The player is set along a rail of gameplay with the game moving forward at a predetermined pace. The only time the game pauses is during boss battles. The player has a small degree of control over the field of vision by moving the aiming reticle on the x and y-axis, but the overall direction of travel is predetermined. The dragon follows the reticle movements, allowing the player to avoid enemy projectiles and obstacles.
The player has a full, 360-degree field of view, and can quickly look left, right, forward, and behind the dragon. Enemies come from all directions, varying in size and health, and appear on an on-screen radar that monitors the dragon's surroundings in 360 degrees.
The player has two weapons: the hand gun held by the rider, which can be fired with a single button press when an enemy enters the aiming reticle, and the homing laser fired by the dragon, which can lock on up to eight enemies by moving the reticle over them while holding down the fire button. Some situations with a lot of enemies on screen require the use of the lock-on laser, while in some others, quick gunshots to weak spots will prove more efficient.
The game spans six levels, each lasting about five minutes, with a final boss battle. Bosses are encountered at the end of each level, with the exception of the sixth. Cut scenes illustrating plot details are placed between some of the levels.
The game universe is set in the distant future, thousands of years after a great war between humans and their biologically engineered weapons. By the time of the game, humans have regained some level of organization, forming everything from small tribes to large nations. One nation, the Empire, has discovered a black tower in the middle of a lake nearby their capital, that gave them access to large amounts of ancient weapons which they used to beat back and control the ever-present monsters in the world. The Imperials were corrupted by their power and became conquerors of other people as opposed to liberators from a violent world.
The game opens with the protagonist, Keil Fluge (un-named in the American version), hunting in a canyon. After seeing an Imperial flying battleship in the sky, he is attacked by two creatures and chases one of them to a large, ancient complex built directly into the rock. He explores the ruin, and sees relics of old technology still hang from the ceilings. Another gigantic creature suddenly attacks him. His weapon is useless against the armored creature, but a rumbling triggers a cave in, crushing the monster and saving Keil. From the newly-created hole, an armored, blue dragon flies down the cavern with a rider across its shoulders, being chased by an even bigger black dragon. The cavern is destroyed in an explosion. Regaining consciousness outside, Keil sees the two dragons locked in combat in the air before him. Dodging a blast from the black dragon, the blue dragon's rider is then hit by single shot to the chest. The black dragon then flies away. The blue dragon flies towards Keil. A psychic connection is made between the rider and Keil, who is told not to let the black dragon reach the black tower. The rider then dies. Keil picks up the rider's fallen gun, climbs atop the dragon and flies away, determined to finish the rider's quest.
During the first level of the game, Keil and his dragon fly through a drowned city, where they encounter a small, Imperial patrol ship, which sends a report to a large fleet of ships flying above the clouds. It is revealed that the Imperial forces are specifically searching for the blue dragon. The second level is a desert, where Keil and the dragon encounter gigantic worm-like creatures. At the stormy edge of the desert, they are confronted by the Black Dragon, which is defeated and speeds away. The third level is a mountainous landscape at night-time where Keil and the dragon get reacquainted with the Imperial forces, which were exploring ancient ruins. Through these encounters, the ongoing conflict between the Imperial forces and the ancient machines and creatures is illustrated. The fourth level is an ancient facility in which Keil and the dragon are pursued by both Imperial airships and cybernetic sentinels left behind by the ancient civilization. During the fifth level, they defeat a large armada of the most powerful Imperial ships over a forested area. A cutscene then shows a fleet of dragon-esque creatures coming out of the tower to attack the Imperial forces. The sixth level features the black dragon and Keil racing through the battle-scarred Imperial capital. During this, they are both waylaid by the creatures and machines seen attacking the Imperial fleet around the tower while also being fired on by Imperial defenses. Completing the chase at the tower, the black dragon succeeds in entering the Tower and is mutated into a gigantic super-dragon and begins a climactic battle with Keil and the blue dragon. The black dragon is defeated and falls into the ocean.
Keil and the dragon then enter the tower. While traveling down a long corridor, the dragon surrounds Keil in a force field, lifting him from the saddle and suspending him in the hallway. Keil watches as the dragon continues on to the core of the tower. A blinding light is seen, the tower explodes. Keil wakes up some time later in a desert area abutting the ocean. Looking down, he sees the foot prints of the blue dragon around him, indicating that after the explosion, the dragon carried him to safety and flew away.
The game was created as Sega was getting ready to release its Saturn console. At the time, the Saturn lacked third-party games, and had to internally develop games in every genre, including shoot 'em up. The project that was to become Panzer Dragoon was given in early 1994 to a team assembled for the occasion, Team Andromeda, lead by Yukio Futatsugi and Manabu Kusunoki, who were then named respectively creative director and art designer on the project. The project was designed as arcade-style from the start, as core members of the team like Kusunoki came from Sega's arcade department, and they wanted to create a fully 3D arcade game (since games they had previously worked on like Outrun were only 3D games with 2D sprites). With influences like Space Harrier, Starblade, Star Fox, and RayForce, the project became a 3D rail shooter. Usually, in 3D shooters, the player rides a 3D object like a jet fighter or a tank. Futatsugi and Kusunoki decided it would be more original for the player to ride an armored dragon, a living creature which would also allow for richer animations. The game's name originates from its original concept, referred to as "armored dragon" (kiko-ryu in japanese). Futatsugi, feeling that this was too bland, decided to translate it to German.
With this basic concept in mind, the creators then had 3 months to define a visual identity and a setting for their game, prior to development. The game would be set in a post-apocalyptic science fantasy world, featuring ruins and relics of a fallen civilisation and mankind struggling for survival, something typical in anime at that time. Futatsugi was particularly influenced by one of his childhood readings, The Long Afternoon of Earth, a science-fiction novel by Brian Aldiss, in which one side of the earth became perpetually hot, the other perpetually cold.
The first presentation video featured a green dragon, in line with traditional european/medieval depictions, however the team quickly decided to change it and make it "more sci-fi". In order for the dragon to be more original, it was made blue and covered in a white, bone-like armor. The dragon was supposed to come from the ancient times, so ruins and ancient flying technology also featured this white, shell-like material. The overall fantasy look of the game's world, which mixed natural and technological elements, was also chosen in order to set it appart from classic science-fiction 3D games of the time. This world, as well as dragon and character designs, was mainly the work of Manabu Kusunoki, who took inspiration from various sources, including anime and manga, and who pushed the art direction toward a more Turkish/Ottoman style to avoid the european aesthetics of the early presentation video. Critics have noted similarities with the works of French artist Moebius (notably his comic book Arzach), of whom Kusunoki was a fan, as well as with Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and David Lynch's Dune movie. However, Kusunoki was adamant not to include big robots from popular Gundam-like anime, and unrealistic designs like the spiky and colorful-haired characters wielding impossibly large swords from the Final Fantasy series. Kentaro Yoshida, texturing and modelling artist, described the creation process as similar in style to Star Wars, in that it "made an unearthly world appear so real". Takashi Iwade, in charge of the opening cutscene and character models, designed the enemies using a lot of various influences: "I got inspiration from antique clocks and various industrial products from the era of the industrial revolution for mechanics, and myriapods, marine mollusks, ammonite, and a rusty fishing boat for creatures when I started thinking of the original battleship".
The Saturn's hardware was new to the team, and it was their first attempt at creating an original environment. It was also Futatsugi's first year working at Sega, so he was only able to do simple things while having a clear vision of what he wanted, which helped him to keep the overall style pure, with stark and minimalist cutscenes. Similarly, Iwade kept the ennemies easy to understand visually, with simple shapes, and this overall simple style fitted well with the Saturn's hardware.
Then, Team Andromeda set to work on elaborating an extensive back story, and Futatsugi, to be original and to avoid using Japanese or English, went so far as to create a new language for the game, a mix of Ancient Greek, Latin and Russian. This was apparently inspired by the anime The Wings of Honneamise, of which team members were fans and which also features an invented language.
After the story and art were settled, it was time to work on the graphics. Working on new hardware proved difficult for the young team, and the game ended up missing by a few months the initial deadline given by Sega, which was the Saturn Japanese launch on November 1994. One of the problems was that the Saturn hardware was only finalized in mid-1994, and without actual Saturn prototype to test their progress, the programmers initially had to work with hypothetical hardware performance. Team Andromeda created its own graphics library and mapping tools instead of using Sega's, in order to make the most of their first game on the new system. The game's graphics and cutscenes were done with Softimage, and the 3D elements were programmed on SGI workstations using OpenGL. The programmers were eventually able to transition to the debug Saturn they had received, but the process was difficult and the game had a very low frame rate at first, before it could be settled at 20 FPS. The six levels of Panzer Dragoon are barren landscapes with ancient ruins, which is consistent with the "simple" style appropriate for the Saturn. The first two levels that the team programmed, a desert (level 2) and a forest (level 5), didn't have any objects or anything besides sand and forest effects, again because the team was unsure how far the hardware could be pushed. Keeping CPU limitations in mind, simple tornado effects were added to level 2, so that it didn't look too bland.
Work on the soundtrack began after completion of the game, similar to the way movie soundtracks are made. The idea was to create musics that would specifically reflect each level art-style and events. As the game had an "on rail" progression system, the developers knew exactly where the player would be at any given time, so they showed videos to the composer and asked him to write specifically timed pieces that would match the player's progression in each level. The soundtrack was outsourced to Yoshitaka Azuma, who was composing musics for NHK TV programs at that time. The music of Panzer Dragoon is a mix between orchestral and synthesizer tracks.
The team wanted a famous artist to make the game's cover art. Manabu Kusunoki suggested Moebius, as he was a great fan of the French artist's work. Moebius accepted, and the team sent him designs that he was to interpret. The resulting illustration, which perfectly matched the atmosphere envisioned by the team, was used as the cover art for the Japanese release of the game.
Overall, development lasted almost a year, and 15 people worked on the game.
The game was first released in Japan in March 1995, then in North America in May 1995 and in Europe in August 1995, on the Sega Saturn console.
In 1996, Panzer Dragoon was ported on PC. The game is identical to its Saturn version except that it runs at a higher resolution. In 2002, this PC port was included as an unlockable bonus in the Xbox game Panzer Dragoon Orta.
In 2006, the game was released on the PlayStation 2 console, only in Japan, as part of the Sega Ages 2500 collection. This release features the original Saturn game, and an "arrange" version with anti-aliasing filter, better texturing and improved 3D models for the dragon and some enemies, though the frame rate remains the same. The arrange version also includes new unlockable extras such as level selection and artworks, in the form of a "Pandora Box" option menu (similar to Panzer Dragoon II Zwei).
|Famitsu||30 / 40 (Saturn)|
Panzer Dragoon received positive reviews, both in 1995 and in recent retrospective coverage.
Most 1995 reviews praised the game for its high-quality graphics and musics, and its innovative gameplay. There was some criticism over the game's lack of diversity in weapons, it's predetermined progression and its overall difficulty, however most publications presented it as one of the Saturn's system sellers. In April 1995, Famitsu magazine's Reader Cross Review gave the game a 9 out of 10, and it was named "Best Saturn Game of 1995" by Electronic Gaming Monthly. The game's universe itself was deemed "coolly surreal" by Entertainment Weekly reviewer Albert Kim, who thought the game's seven-minute "movie-quality" introduction was "gorgeous" and "nearly overshadowed the game itself". Kim argued that Panzer Dragoon could be seen as a "lyrical and exhilarating epic", a "story, not just a game" which could pave the way for a "transformation" of the videogame industry. Film director Steven Spielberg approached Team Andromeda to say he was impressed by the game's presentation at the 1995 E3 show.
Though sales were not as high as Sega expected (which could be explained by the success of Sony's PlayStation console over the Saturn), they were substancial enough for Sega to allow the series to continue with the 1996 sequel Panzer Dragoon II Zwei.
In 2007, online game magazine 1UP.com gave Panzer Dragoon a retroactive review of 8/10. They gave it a modern score of 6/10, highlighting the music as "one of the finest game soundtracks ever produced," but saying that the game itself "staggers a bit under the glaring light of a critical rereview[sic]", arguing it is "little more than Space Harrier with a 3D camera and cut-scenes." By contrast, IGN gave the game a retrospective score of 9/10, opining that "the fact that Panzer Dragoon holds up as well in 2008 as it did in 1995 is a just testament to the staying power of good art and tight gameplay." A Gamasutra retrospective also praised its art and universe, but said the actual game looked "a bit cut and dried" compared to its sequels.
- Sleeve of Japanese release
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