Panzer Dragoon: Looking Back at the Original, 25 Years Later
By Jeremy Parish
This spring marks the 25th anniversary of the Sega Saturn's U.S. launch, along with the anniversary of one of the most memorable rail shooters of all time: Panzer Dragoon. To mark the occasion, MegaPixel Studio has recreated Panzer Dragoon with high definition visuals, offering long-time fans a new way to experience a classic favorite while introducing a new generation of gamers to one of Sega's most memorable franchises of all time (which is saying a lot, given Sega's legacy).
MegaPixel has largely focused on bringing clarity and detail to Panzer Dragoon while remaining faithful to the basic design and mechanics of the source material. It's a high-fidelity tribute to one of the 32-bit generation's first great works, and the deluxe packaging of the Limited Run Classic Edition release will reflect that heritage by shipping in a proper, Saturn-style "longbox" CD case. Admittedly, no remake can fully capture what it was truly like to play Panzer Dragoon in 1995 at the Saturn's launch; much of its appeal has to do with its place in the technological revolution that reshaped gaming in the mid-’90s. In the words of Yukio Futatsugi, who directed the Saturn game, Panzer Dragoon's impact owed much to its being a pioneering work on what he refers to as "a cutting-edge (and challenging) piece of hardware.
Pictured: Panzer Dragoon Remake
"Looking back to when PlayStation and Saturn were coming out, that was the first time we had 3D games at home," he says. The generational change from Genesis to Saturn inspired his team to create what would prove to be a breathtakingly original project. "The question was, with games changing from 2D to 3D, what things are possible? There were a lot of new things you can do but also a lot of difficulties—there were a lot of hardships involved!"
In some ways, Futatsugi says, Panzer Dragoon didn't play to the platform's core strengths. It was an immersive, fully 3D shooter, yet Futatsugi notes that "the Saturn was made to be the ultimate 2D hardware." Nevertheless, he says the Panzer team found a way to harness the Saturn's quirks to the benefit of the game. "We were able to use [its smooth scrolling] to our advantage when we made things like backgrounds. Unlike on PlayStation, it gave a really expansive feeling to the world."
Kentarou Yoshida, who designed character models and effects for the original, agrees that the trick to Panzer's success was to build the entire aesthetic of the game around the Saturn’s strengths and shortcomings, which resulted in the game's unique mix of low-tech science fiction and earthy fantasy. "The PlayStation had superior 3D hardware," Yoshida says, "so if you look at some of the effects like explosions and lasers, [PS1 games] could make them super shiny and cause them to stand out. The Saturn was poor in that department, so we made a point of not doing the things the Saturn couldn't handle well. The result was that the Panzer world has a very dried-out sort of feel to it."
Rather than feel like the product of compromise, though, Panzer's world instead comes across as organic and distinct. It mashes together flying battleships and dragon-mounted combat through dusty valleys and imposing fortress cities, unifying all these disparate elements into a cohesive whole. Futatsugi credits designer Manabu Kusunoki for defining Panzer's setting, explaining how it evolved in layers through the creative back-and-forth between the designers and the corporation.
“One thing we really wanted to push through with this game was a lot of content that didn't seem 'normal'," Futatsugi says. "When we got the design doc through the higher-ups at Sega, it was based on a traditional fantasy setting, but that's simply because that kind of thing was easier to get approved. Afterwards, we started to explore what kind of world would make sense for a dragon to exist in. So we branched out from there and got rid of all the stuff that we thought was too run-of-the-mill."
Although dragon-based fantasy tends to factor heavily in western media, such as works like Ann McCaffrey's Pern novels, Futatsugi looked closer to home for the core of his game's story. "One sort of thing we had in mind was something that's popular in Japan: The 'grammar' or rules of robot anime. You have this regular boy who suddenly finds a robot and gets pulled into different situations. We thought we would take that, but instead of it being a robot, we'd use a dragon." In other words, he says, there's more Gundam than Game of Thrones in Panzer Dragoon.
Despite these decidedly eastern influences, the Panzer team reached out to a legendary western illustrator to help sell the game: French comics artist Jean Girard, aka Moebius. In Japan, Panzer Dragoon sported an evocative cover with art provided by Moebius, though Sega of America scrapped those illustrations in favor of CG renders. "Moebius didn't have any role in the creative direction of the game," Futatsugi notes, but adds: "Kusunoki-san is a huge fan of Moebius, and you know, I'm sure he was influenced by Moebius in some ways. When he heard that [Moebius would be involved in the game's marketing], he was absolutely over the moon!"
Pictured: Panzer Dragoon Remake
Futatsugi admits that Moebius's entire involvement in the game was in itself a case of the team shooting for the moon. "Toward the end of development, Sega marketing came to us and asked, 'If you could have any artist create illustrations for the cover and promotional game, who would it be?' We said Moebius, and Sega said, 'Well, it doesn't cost anything to ask.' And Moebius went ahead and did it for us. No one was more surprised by that than us!"
Although fans have long expressed disappointment with the chunky pre-rendered artwork of the U.S. game, Sega's choice isn't hard to understand. After all, as Futatsugi notes, the entire concept of playing a great-looking 3D game on consoles was wholly novel in 1995, and Panzer was the work of a team probing the absolute leading edge of home console design. "At the time, the arcade was the cutting edge," he says, "but with Saturn you could finally play 3D games at home. A big part of making Panzer was us trying to catch up to other amazing 3D games in the market, like Virtua Fighter. We figured since we were working on this new hardware we could do these amazing things... but we also had no experience to draw on, so we had to figure things out as we went, which was quite the challenge."
Rather than undermine the integrity of the game, Futatsugi says the complications of moving into 3D space ultimately enriched both Panzer Dragoon and its sequels.
"We started making Panzer Dragoon right after joining Sega, about two years after we joined the company," he says. "We didn't even have the hardware to work on at first! We were making plans for 3D games on workstations. Development kits weren't coming along well, early on. We had this long period where we couldn't start development on the actual game. It was in this period where we put a lot of work into developing the world and the background. That's when we developed the [in-game] language. As a result, it ended up being to our advantage that development came along so slowly!
Futatsugi says the Panzer team didn't have a particular mandate from Sega beyond creating a shooter, and that carte blanche gave them the freedom to create a work like nothing before it. It also gave them the freedom to draw inspiration from other genres altogether. "When the Saturn first launched, we had plans to put out something from every single genre," he says. "At the time, there was nothing to fill that shooting gap.
Pictured: Panzer Dragoon Remake
"When it first came up that we were going to make a 3D game, we went to visit the Virtua Fighter team to see how 3D development was going along. We saw the characters moving with these limber, fluid motions and thought, 'Wow, this is the kind of thing it's possible to do with 3D?'
"Once we decided to create a shooter, we started asking ourselves, what sort of thing would be fun to ride? One thing everyone could agree on was that riding a dragon would be awesome, so that's how we landed on that. And dragons have tails that can move around in very limber ways, so we thought that would be an interesting approach to take."
Despite Sega's impressive legacy of rail shooters in the decade preceding Saturn’s launch, including After Burner and Galaxy Force II, Futatsugi says there was never any question of building on those franchises. "Those other games were all created by the arcade team, and we were on the consumer [console] side," he says. "There wasn't a lot of interchange going on between these two teams. We'd go visit them sometimes, but I don't think there was ever an idea that we'd take one of their properties and use it for one of the consumer games. And it's a different medium, too—in an arcade, you're putting a quarter in for one play, while our game you'd be buying and taking home. So it made more sense to create an entirely new thing for Saturn.
Yoshida agrees: "The Saturn team had some people from [Sega arcade division] AM1, because we wanted to use that arcade tech. But while there were some employees and tech being traded back and forth, that wasn't the case for intellectual properties. We were making brand new games for the Saturn, and we wanted them to be new properties as well."
Even if Panzer Dragoon stands apart from Sega properties that preceded it, Futatsugi happily acknowledges the impact of those games. "[Our team was] super hardcore gamers, even before we joined Sega—I was totally crazy about games like Thunder Blade. I'd gone to arcades and played it so much that its essence is carved into my soul! So I'm very aware of its good and bad parts, and there were definitely Sega games I would look to for inspiration. Not just shooting games, or Sega games, either. I drew on all those games for inspiration.
Pictured: Panzer Dragoon Remake
"At the time, we also had Star Fox, and we could look to that for inspiration, to see how we would handle progression. And other games... they're not 3D, but shooters like Ray Force and Layer Section—we saw the lasers the ships were firing and wanted to create something that looked like that and work it into our game as well. I'd also like to mention Star Blade, a shooter where you can really get a sense of the narrative that's in the game. I really wanted to find a way to reproduce that sense of atmosphere—I played that game so much I could clear it on a single coin!"
Special thanks to 8-4 Ltd. for coordinating this interview.