Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be gracefully floating ever-forward through the history of Panzer Dragoon. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.
While specific references will be cited throughout the article, the following two sources broadly informed my text:
- Kurt Kalata for Gamasutra – The History of Panzer Dragoon
- Ricardo Torres for Gamespot – The History of Panzer Dragoon
- James Mielke for Polygon – Panzer Dragoon Saga: An oral history
- Ludodrome – A Brief History of… Panzer Dragoon (YouTube)
While it kept one foot in the arcade market, Sega had definitively established itself as a home console developer with the Mega Drive/Genesis during the early 1990s. Popular franchises like Sonic the Hedgehog and Phantasy Star could only be experienced on its household hardware. As the 16-bit era came to an end, though, Sega seemed uncertain about its next steps.
The studio hedged its bets while producing its new home console from 1992 to 1993, creating a finicky Frankenstein’s monster of internal parts. Sega’s Hideki Sano, in collaboration with Japanese electronics manufacturer Hitachi, idiosyncratically designed the Saturn to make use of two discrete graphics processors to respectively render 2D sprites and 3D polygons. This made the platform notoriously challenging to design for and opened up an opportunity for competitor Sony to advertise its PlayStation as the more programmer-friendly device.
The Sega Saturn’s relatively successful 1994 debut in Japan was then followed by a breathtakingly disastrous North American launch in May 1995, as Sega of Japan mandated its release four months ahead of Sega of America’s planned schedule in an effort to undercut Sony’s upcoming PlayStation. This alienated brick-and-mortar retailers that had not been informed of the early release, leading some to drop Sega products entirely. What few sales might have been gained by the ill-advised stunt were rendered moot when Sony announced that its PlayStation would retail for a full $100 less than the Saturn. Sega was entering the 32-bit era as a hobbled shadow of what it had been only four years earlier. Even so, the studio would reward fans who picked up a Saturn on its North American release with one of the most beguiling titles of the decade.
Panzer Dragoon (1995)
Team Andromeda was founded in early 1994 as a division of Sega’s AM6 group. In spite of its parent organization’s focus on sports software and medal games, a type of arcade machine in which the user attempts to either engage in rudimentary gambling experiences or use mechanical brooms to push medals into a slot from which they can be collected, Team Andromeda was tasked with developing a new intellectual property (IP) that would show off the Sega Saturn’s capacity for impressive 3D graphics. The division included “a mix of veterans who came from arcade development, newer staff who’d been at Sega for a year or two, and fresh recruits” comprising a 15-person team. Art director and project lead Manabu Kusoniki’s experience working on Sega’s Rail Chase (1991) led management to recommend that Team Andromeda focus on rail shooter mechanics.
Early plans to release the resulting game as a launch title for the platform would be scuppered by a one year development process that began on an incomplete Saturn prototype. Team Andromeda strove to create something which resembled nothing else available to contemporary game enthusiasts, eschewing Sega’s preexisting graphics library and mapping tools in favor of developing all assets and an engine from the ground up. Kusoniki’s influences were strikingly esoteric: in addition to the works of French artist Mœbius and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind (1984), Kusoniki derived visual inspiration from antique clocks, mollusks, and Ottoman architecture. According to creative director Yukio Futatsugi, the game’s sand worms and desert stage were pulled from David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1984).
Team Andromeda next worked to shape a mysterious world which was true to its unique art design. Brian Aldiss’ dystopian science-fiction novel The Long Afternoon of Earth would heavily influence the game’s distant post-apocalyptic setting. Pre-rendered cutscenes were designed to offer just enough context for the player’s actions even as they hinted at an extensive backstory, while an artificial in-game language by Futatsugi (“Panzerese”) adopted elements of Greek, Latin, and Russian. The project’s original name, “Kiko-ryu”/”Armored Dragon”, was likewise translated into German to add an air of exoticism. The on-rails nature of the game ensured that composer Yoshitaka Azuma could craft a cinematic soundtrack that directly matched on-screen events. Though the entire team worked to ensure that the final product was as avant-garde as possible, at least one particularly surprising concept was abandoned during development: the game world was originally planned to exist within the imagination of a Japanese businessman going about his daily routine.
Panzer Dragoon launched in Japan in March 1995 and was respectively localized for North American and European players in May and August of the same year. Players take on the role of an unnamed boy who inherits a dragon from a dying man during an introductory cutscene. The boy is tasked with reaching an imposing black tower before the man’s killer, a mysterious rival dragon, while dodging an antagonistic fleet of ships fielded by the bloodthirsty Imperial military. Much of the plot is relayed through an accompanying instructional booklet, as cutscenes are voiced in Panzerese and feature few subtitles.
In contrast to its highly evocative art and world design, Panzer Dragoon’s rail shooter gameplay is fairly conservative. The game’s six short stages see the player primarily controlling his or her avatar by moving a targeting reticle as the stage scrolls automatically forward. A button can be tapped to fire off shots at foes or held to highlight multiple enemies and then released to launch a volley of homing blasts. Its key distinction from 2D and 3D forerunners like Space Harrier (1985) and Star Fox (1993) – as well as its surprising main influence, Taito’s top-down bullet-hell shooter RayForce (1994) – is the ability to rotate the player’s third-person perspective in increments of 90 degrees to view enemies approaching from the sides or rear. A radar warns the player of attackers outside of their field of view, though the speed and aggression of these units virtually necessitates the memorization of attack patterns through repeated failed runs of the campaign.
In the style of earlier rail shooters, each stage culminates in an oversized boss battle. These tend to require the player focusing their fire on a weak point while occasionally dodging oncoming attacks or shooting down smaller enemies. The environment, which constitutes an additional threat during earlier portions of stages, becomes comparatively simplistic during these climactic encounters. An end-of-stage score screen informs the player of how well they performed while a variety of codes can be entered at the title screen to unlock alternate modes and difficulty levels.
Sega immediately greenlit two sequels and produced a 1996 PC port in spite of disappointing sales. The game would become difficult to purchase in its original format over the following decade, due to a limited production cycle, but an enhanced edition for the PlayStation 2 as part of the Sega Ages 2500 line in 2006 made the game more accessible to a new generation of players. Though a full Nintendo Switch remake by MegaPixel Studio brought the game back to the public eye in 2020 after even the PlayStation 2 version had become quite rare, its visual overhaul would prove controversial to long-time fans. The highly impressionistic low-resolution original still remains the best way to encounter the utterly unique world of Panzer Dragoon.
Panzer Dragoon II Zwei (1996)
Team Andromeda was split down the middle in 1995, with Kusonoki and Futatsugi taking over development on a planned role-playing game (RPG) set in the Panzer Dragoon universe while Panzer Dragoon character model and effects producer Kentaro Yoshida took on the role of main designer for the franchise’s second title; Kusunoki still contributed concept art and pre-rendered cutscenes to Yoshisa’s project. The game’s director, Tomohiro Kondo, proposed the implementation of alternate routes through stages in the manner of other rail shooters. A new artist named Ryota Ueda would help realize Yoshida’s darker approach to the series’ already-iconic aesthetic. Reuse and refinement of Panzer Dragoon’s engine by an experienced team allowed the developers to tweak its performance to run at 30 frames per second, rather than its predecessor’s 20 frames per second, and finish development in less than one year.
Panzer Dragoon II Zwei launched in Japan on the Saturn in March 1996 and simultaneously in Europe and North America two months later. Players take on the role of a young man named Jean-Luc Lundi in an adventure set twelve years before the events of Panzer Dragoon. During the game’s introduction, it is revealed that Lundi has secretly raised a mutated pack animal named Lagi rather than slaughtering it in conformity with his village’s tradition. When his hometown is destroyed by an airship, Lundi discovers that Lagi is actually a young dragon capable of firing energy blasts from its mouth. The boy and his companion set off on a quest for revenge against the airship, eventually coming into conflict with both Imperial forces and an antagonistic dragon.
Gameplay fundamentals are broadly similar to Panzer Dragoon, insofar as Lundi rides Lagi as the dragon constantly moves forward through seven polygonal stages. Numerous mechanical flourishes distinguish it from the preceding title, however, enhancing the game’s replayability and deepening the player’s toolset. In its most significant update, stages now branch off into separate routes based on Lagi’s position at key forks in the path; these represent varying levels of difficulty and reward the player with points for choosing the more challenging route.
Lagi also evolves as the game progresses, growing from a land-based form to one that uses even more complex offensive techniques than the mount in Panzer Dragoon. Some evolutions are based on predetermined moments in the game’s plot while others are impacted by the player’s performance. Lagi eventually gains access to the berserk attack, which grants temporary invincibility while blasting all on-screen enemies. This technique is powered up by successfully defeating enemies using the standard roster of aimed or homing shots.
Panzer Dragoon II Zwei is in nearly every respect superior to its predecessor. It runs better, features more complex gameplay, has a more emotionally resonant plot, and offers enhanced opportunities for replay. The integration of a so-called Pandora’s Box menu, added by a single programmer late in the development process and unlocked upon the player’s first completion of the game, even offers more alternate modes of play than a similar function hidden behind button inputs in Panzer Dragoon. Its one drawback is a soundtrack that fails to capture the epic sweep of the prior game, though this is an inevitable result of less-scripted level design. In spite of strong critical reception, and a PC port for Turner Broadcasting System’s GameTap digital rental network that failed to materialize following its 2007 announcement, Panzer Dragoon II Zwei has never been re-released following its initial Saturn production run. At the time of writing in June 2020, fans are eagerly awaiting a planned remake by MegaPixel Studio.
Azel Panzer Dragoon RPG / Panzer Dragoon Saga (1998)
In contrast with the smooth iteration of Panzer Dragoon II Zwei, interviews with Panzer Dragoon Saga’s team reveal its development to be alternately exciting and intensely challenging. The portion of Team Andromeda which had been assigned to the project was quickly buoyed by dozens of new staff members, reaching a peak of roughly 50 employees during its three year production cycle, though few knew one another well. A self-confessed lack of management experience by director Kusoniki prevented these disparate staff members from rallying to a unified vision of Panzer Dragoon Saga for much of the early development process. Among the only aspects that remained steady from beginning to end was Team Andromeda’s goal to broaden the franchise’s horizons by producing its first RPG.
The greatest hurdle to overcome during development was a driving ambition that threatened at all times to outstrip the employees’ reach. The plan to include voice acting for every main character in the game dramatically reduced script-writing flexibility, as altering dialogue later during development would necessitate re-recording sessions. While other contemporary RPGs tended to rely on either sprite-based characters or pre-rendered backgrounds to limit costs and time investments, Team Andromeda opted to feature a fully explorable 3D world populated by polygonal character models on a console primarily designed for 2D graphics. In addition to these audio/visual challenges, Panzer Dragoon’s designers had no experience creating RPG battle systems; the new employees who were brought in to engineer these dense turn-based mechanics struggled to communicate their plans with a group of veterans oriented towards the comparatively twitchy gameplay of arcade shooters.
Happily, battle planner Akihiko Mukaiyama revealed himself to be up to the task when he replaced Tomohiro Kondo midway through production. Much of the prototype battle system was abandoned and replaced piece by piece with one that would please shooter and long-time RPG fans alike. Combat now incorporated turn-based and real-time elements, as the player character could rotate around a central target in order to simulate earlier Panzer Dragoon titles’ acrobatic sense of flight while using a tiered laser mechanic that rewarded engagement with increasingly flashy attacks. Early plans to feature temporary dragon morphing inspired by Panzer Dragoon II Zwei was replaced with access to multiple types of dragons during this crucial mid-project refinement, and an active-time battle (ATB) gauge drawn directly from Final Fantasy was similarly excised.
In a story set decades after the events of Panzer Dragoon, protagonist Edge works as a mercenary for the Empire. When he discovers a mysterious woman named Azel, designed to be “cute and lovable” without looking too human by Katsumi Yoshida, Edge is badly wounded by a group of sky bandits called the Black Fleet and then sets off on a mission to save Azel from Black Fleet leader Craymen with the aid of a flying dragon. Though this suggests a relatively straightforward quest, the loyalties and goals of its central figures shift and deepen during the game’s lengthy narrative. In contrast to its predecessors, Panzer Dragoon Saga also finally delves into the history of the series’ evocative post-apocalyptic setting.
Gameplay represents a radical departure from both prior franchise entries. Exploration resembles other 32-bit RPGs, in which the player character can explore a combination of a seemingly open overworld and linear interior locations. Exploration alternates between foot travel in towns and flight on the back of Edge’s dragon companion across the overworld and dungeons. While the dragon was locked to constant forward movement in earlier titles, it can now rotate in place to freely explore environments.
Combat, as noted above, features a combination of turn-based and real-time mechanics. Random encounters occur as the player explores dungeons and the overworld, plunging Edge into battle on a screen featuring enemies and an abstraction of the surrounding exploration environment. In a compromise between the arcade shooter elements of earlier Panzer Dragoon games and the turn-based combat of contemporary console RPGs, players have the option of attacking with real-time button taps or through the use of a menu. Special moves drain Edge’s berserk points (BP) but allow him to heal or execute stronger attacks on opponents. After a point early in the game’s story, the player can swap between dragon types with distinctive abilities that map to classes in more traditional RPGs; these include Attack Class, Spiritual Class, Defense Class and Agility Class in addition to the standard Normal Class.
Experience points are awarded in combat based on the player’s performance and the overall strength of enemies. As Edge levels up, his stats increase and he gains new abilities. More significantly, though, the dragon’s Model is upgraded at predetermined intervals in the game’s narrative. New Models enhance the dragon’s abilities and also improve a ‘break’ command used on obstacles in the overworld, opening up new areas to explore. This introduces a Metroidvania-esque twist that rewards backtracking to earlier locations as the game progresses. Finally, Edge can interact with his dragon when making camp in order to improve their relationship and eventually grant access to a powerful bonus skill through the accumulation of Spiritual Closeness points.
Kusoniki successfully guided the sprawling project to completion in late 1997. It was released for the aging Saturn in Japan on January 29, 1998, in North America on April 30, 1998, and in Europe on June 5, 1998. In spite of its development struggles, critical reviews were nearly uniformly positive. Unfortunately, the platform’s rapidly declining commercial fortunes resulted in Sega of Japan sending only ten copies to the Sega of America public relations (PR) office ahead of release; these were quickly distributed to press outlets, leaving none in the office from which the PR staff could produce a comprehensive ad campaign. Sales were poor in Japan and an extremely limited North American print run sold out almost instantly. The game has since gone on to become one of the rarest cult classics of the medium, as its complexity and the apparent loss of its source code have made a remake increasingly unlikely.
Panzer Dragoon Orta (2002/2003)
Yukio Futatsugi left Sega during the localization process for Panzer Dragoon Saga. Team Andromeda was broken up and Sega assigned its former members – including Kusoniki and Yokota – to other divisions as the studio shored up its dismal commercial projections in advance of the Dreamcast’s November 1998 Japanese launch. Other series veterans, like Panzer Dragoon II Zwei director Kentaro Yoshida and Panzer Dragoon Saga city designer Jina Ishiwatari Tsukahara, saw the writing on the wall and left Sega following this corporate shakeup.
The Dreamcast’s prospects, which initially seemed more promising than those of the Saturn, quickly dimmed. Sega shifted its attention to having its divisions create content for other hardware manufacturers following the discontinuation of Dreamcast production in 2001. One such subsidiary, Smilebit, had been founded in 1999 as Sega Software R&D #6 before being renamed in 2000 and included former Team Andromeda members Ryota Ueda and Akihiko Mukaiyama. Its work on the cel-shaded cult classic Jet Set Radio (2000) earned it a reputation as one of Sega’s most exciting teams at the turn of the century.
In the early 2000s, Smilebit assistant president Takayuki Kawagoe approached Mukaiyama with a request to produce a new Panzer Dragoon title for Microsoft’s Xbox platform. Mukaiyama was assigned the role of director and pitched two alternate concepts: the first was “a simulation game in the Panzer Dragoon universe that would combine strategy elements, and online elements, maybe even have some online battle” while the second was a traditional rail shooter in the style of the series’ first two entries. Since the Xbox was already associated with shooters, Kawagoe greenlit the latter. Development on the first Panzer Dragoon game that lacked input from series creator Manabu Kusoniki was soon underway.
Panzer Dragoon Orta launched on the Xbox in Japan on December 12, 2002 and in North America and Europe in early 2003. The gameplay is nearly identical to the franchise’s debut entry, as the player character rides a dragon that moves constantly forward through a linear stage and can rotate the perspective in increments of 90 degrees to target enemies to their side or rear. Even combat is oriented around a combination of rapid-fire lasers activated with a button tap or homing blasts targeted by holding down the fire command. The most noteworhty update to the dragon’s basic moveset is the ability to slow down or speed up.
These actions depend on the level of energy remaining in a Glide Gauge, which restores itself over time when not in use. The player can morph their dragon between three forms – Base Wing, Heavy Wing, or Glide Wing – which feature different stats and maximum Glide Gauge capacity. The Base Wing form is balanced between mobility and combat, while the Heavy Wing and Glide Wing respectively prioritize attack strength and evasion. Each form can be leveled up by defeating enemies and collecting gene bases throughout the adventure’s ten stages.
The plot, set some years after the conclusion of Panzer Dragoon Saga, sees players controlling the eponymous heroine Orta as she breaks free from imprisonment by a group of nomads called the Seekers. Orta is joined by a dragon companion and learns about her own past as she evades pursuit by the resurgent Empire. While the main characters initially seem unrelated to the events of earlier titles, momentous mid-game twists reveal the protagonist’s deep connection to Panzer Dragoon Saga’s story.
In addition to a single-player campaign, which is longer than Panzer Dragoon and Panzer Dragoon II Zwei but still relatively short, the Pandora’s Box menu returns to offer alternate modes of play. While its previous appearance already featured an impressive variety of options, Panzer Dragoon Orta’s implementation of the menu includes archival development material and a lengthy side story focusing on a young Imperial boy named Iva. Dedicated players can even unlock a port of the original Panzer Dragoon.
Panzer Dragoon Orta was received well by the press in Japan and North America, though criticism was directed towards its brevity and high level of challenge. The game’s lasting reputation is reflected in its inclusion on retrospectives of the best titles released for the Xbox fifteen years after its initial release. Due to backwards compatibility on the Xbox 360 and software-enhanced emulation on the Xbox One, it remains the franchise’s most accessible entry at the time of writing.
Given the difficulty finding extant copies of the series’ core titles, it is unsurprising that Panzer Dragoon’s lone spinoff is equally rare. Panzer Dragoon Mini, developed by an unknown team at Sega and published for the Game Gear on November 22, 1996, boldly attempts to scale the franchise down from a 32-bit 3D rail shooter to an 8-bit 2D version in the style of Space Harrier (1985). Much of Panzer Dragoon’s identity is sadly lost in translation.
There are four stages – ocean, plains, desert, and forest – that are distinguished only by their static backgrounds and enemy attack patterns. Forward-facing rapid-fire blasts are the only offensive technique, as homing lasers and perspective shifts to the sides or rear are omitted. The player character is a riderless dragon and there are no in-game cutscenes or storytelling elements to offer context. Each stage’s oversized boss is fought from a quasi-sidescrolling perspective, though it occupies a background plane and the battle mechanics are more or less identical to standard z-axis sequences.
Panzer Dragoon Mini was part of Sega’s Kids Gear collection, a brand exclusively released in Japan during the last year of active production for the Game Gear. Poor critical reception and its platform’s obsolescence precluded a contemporary North American or European localization. The game remains unreleased in the West at the time of writing, though negative reviews by enthusiasts who have imported it in recent years suggest that English-language fans are better off avoiding it.
Panzer Dragoon remains one of the most fascinating artifacts of Sega’s golden age. At the peak of its home console dominance, the studio allowed Team Andromeda nearly total creative freedom to produce one of the era’s most wildly experimental rail shooters as a flagship product for its 32-bit home console. Unfortunately, even the wild ambitions of Sega’s greatest craftsmen were unable to save the device from corporate mismanagement and vicious competition from Sony. The series’ reputation would only grow in stature as its sales declined. While a revival on the Xbox seemed to herald a new era for Panzer Dragoon, indicating that it could effectively survive the absence of its creator, no follow-ups have yet been produced. Perhaps 2020’s Panzer Dragoon Remake and forthcoming Panzer Dragoon II Zwei Remake will finally allow the series to achieve long-overdue commercial success.
What do you think about Panzer Dragoon? Which is your favorite series entry? What other genres – like RPG – might this series evolve to include? Do you prefer aiming forward, to the left, to the right, or to the rear? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
Here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #94: Animal Crossing – July 3
- #95: Dragon Quest – July 17
- Includes an interview with USGamer‘s Nadia Oxford
- #96: Steamworld – July 31
- #97: Heroes of Might and Magic – August 14
- #98: The Sims – August 28
Note that, from today, Franchise Festival is shifting to a biweekly schedule.
Please also note the following upcoming episodes of the Franchise Festival podcast, which is covering The Legend of Zelda throughout Season One:
- Season 1 Episode 10 – The Minish Cap – July 1
- Season 1 Episode 11 – Multiplayer Spinoffs of the Early 2000s – July 15
The podcast is available at its online homepage or on your preferred podcast app.