Panzer Dragoon (1995, Team Andromeda for Sega Saturn)

When I think of Panzer Dragoon, one word comes to mind: atmosphere. It presents a world that is vast, teeming with lost civilizations and buried histories and countless life forms that struggle for survival. Its visual and art design owes much to French comics artist Moebius as well as Frank Herbert’s Dune sagas and endlessly hints at boundless tales and adventures that lie just beyond the next horizon, cave or forest. You feel as though you are experiencing an epic adventure and only wish to see more, more, more.

Sega’s Team Andromeda created a masterwork of production design, an extremely ambitious and expensive undertaking for 1995. I always believed that the five-minute CG movie that opens the game is Oscar-worthy and comparable to any movie studio in the world (only Pixar’s Toy Story, released that same year, was more sophisticated advanced). When I first saw the opening at a Toys ‘R Us, I was overwhelmed and immediately scrambled the money to purchase a Sega Saturn. This movie describes a post-apocalyptic world where humans struggle to survive in a world populated by mutated creatures of tissue and bone. Feuding empires unearth lost ancient technologies in their quest for greater power, culminating in gigantic engineered flying beings, dragons.

You are introduced to the main character, a tribal nomad who becomes separated from his hunting party, attacked by a giant stoney insect, then rescued by a blue dragon. This dragon is then pursued by a larger and more powerful dragon. The two continue their fight in the air, where the first dragon’s pilot is fatally wounded. Landing on the surface of a cliff, the pilot communicates to you telepathically, imploring you to complete his quest to reach a mysterious tower before his rival. You take your place on the back of the blue dragon and take pursuit.

Panzer Dragoon is an adventure imbued with startling alien beauty, gorgeous architectures, surreal landscapes, and some of the greatest orchestral music ever to grace a videogame. In the opening stage, you fly your dragon across rolling ocean waves, stone arches and flooded city ruins, navigating past giant teethed lilipads and flying monsters of all shapes and sizes. The violins are melodic and soothing as you soar across the water, and you feel a sense of calm as you explore this strange world. Then the strings swell to a climax as you enter an abandoned castle, its walls and ceilings crumbling into the waves. When you experience this the first time, you are quite moved. That sense of wonder only grows in the following stages, which take you to vast deserts, underground cavern mazes, dense tropical forests and coastal cities.

At its core, this is an arcade shoot-em-up, a direct descendant of Sega’s classic Space Harrier. The innovation is that you can view a full 360 degrees while riding your dragon, and enemies attack from all directions and angles, sometimes quite suddenly. You will rely upon your radar screen for guidance, and use the shoulder buttons on your controller to change viewing angles quickly. You are equipped with a pulse rifle, while your dragon is equipped with homing lasers that can lock on multiple targets at once, unleashing a torrent of destruction at once. Skilled players will learn to use both weapons and move very quickly to neutralize threats before you become overwhelmed from all sides.

You begin by repelling native creatures, but also must battle the armored forces of the empire, who come in small planes and large airships that look like giant stone dirigibles. There are also larger threats such as giant sand worms (whose outer shells can be blown apart) and the stone insects seen in the opening movie. And the greatest enemy of all is the rival dragon, of whom you know nothing beyond the killing of the dragon’s pilot. All are on a quest to reach the ancient tower, which will bestow great powers upon its master. In a later cut-scene, the insect army attacks the imperial forces, in tandem with the dark dragon. All is not as it seems here; there are rival factions and betrayals afoot, a theme that would be greatly expanded in Panzer Dragoon Saga.

Panzer Dragoon includes eight stages (including a hidden bonus level) but is extremely challenging. The bosses are especially tenacious and difficult, hurling countless projectiles at you while darting about at all directions. The Saturn joypad is very comfortable and responsive, but the ideal controller is the Sega Mission Stick, a large analog joystick that is compatible with a large number of racing and flying games.

The visual and art design is absolutely magnificent, unique and innovative and unlike anything ever seen before. The new age of 3D graphics promised nothing less than the reinvention of videogames, and Panzer Dragoon delivers. The rolling ocean waves are as amazing today as they were in ’95, as well as the vast landscapes of desert and forest. There’s a remarkable sense of variety, imagination, scale. This world feels lived in, and you wish that you could jump off the rails and explore in any direction. Again, this is a promise that Team Andromeda delivers miraculously in Panzer Dragoon Saga.

The direct sequel, Panzer Dragoon Zwei, is even more visually accomplished and ambitious, offering new innovations in visuals and gameplay. Its music, however, is much more conventional synth-based music, lacking the wonderful orchestrated score of the original. And Saga is the trilogy’s undisputed masterpiece, arguably Sega Saturn’s finest hour and the last videogame RPG that truly mattered. The entire series is magnificent. But there’s no denying the power and impact of the original. Here is a glorious example of what makes the Saturn so unique and so great.

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