One of the most beloved Sega Saturn games is given a full remake on Nintendo Switch but is the magic still there 25 years on?
Between the success of the Sonic the Hedgehog movie and their unusually nostalgic 60th anniversary celebrations, you’d almost believe the Sega of old still exists. They certainly do seem more interested in their legacy franchises than they have for a long time, but as great as it is to see the likes of Shenmue, Streets Of Rage, and The House Of The Dead get remakes or sequels, Sega themselves have had almost nothing to do with any of them. Even Sonic Mania was left up to fans to develop, and frankly we wish they’d been involved in this remake as well.
The Sega Saturn console put the company firmly on the road to crashing out of the hardware business, but it holds a peculiar position in gaming history. Almost completely ignored in the West, in favour of the first PlayStation and Nintendo 64, it was surprisingly successful in Japan (despite, equally surprisingly, the Mega Drive not being very big there). As a result, there are a lot of well-regarded Saturn games that never got released outside of Japan and a much small number of exclusives that were a) released in the West and b) considered to be any good.
Panzer Dragoon is one of the few games that fits both criteria and if you did happen to own a Saturn back in the mid-90s then you almost certainly also played Panzer Dragoon. A brand new IP at the time, the Saturn also hosted a direct sequel and highly-regarded role-playing spin-off Panzer Dragoon Saga. A third mainline game, the well-received but commercially unsuccessful Panzer Dragoon Orta, appeared on the original Xbox, but that was the end of the franchise… until now.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Panzer Dragoon is an on-the-rails shooter, similar to the original Star Fox and Sega stablemate Rez. Essentially a 3D extrapolation of 2D shooters like R-Type, all these games are incredibly simple but also hugely enjoyable if they get the roller-coaster like orchestration of enemies and scenery right, which the Panzer Dragoon games did.
As Panzer Dragoon Saga proved, there’s quite a complex lore behind the game’s story (that isn’t Japanese the characters are talking, but an invented language) but most of it will pass you by on your first playthrough – although you may pick up that it involves using technology from an ancient civilisation, of which bio-mechanical dragons are one of the most powerful examples.
The story isn’t important but what does help give the game its unique identity is the art style, inspired by European comic book artists such as Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, who provided the Japanese box art for the game. But this is one of the first problems the remake faces, as given how basic the Saturn’s 3D capabilities were the visuals have had to be completely redone and that’s changed the look and feel of the game quite considerably.
Unfortunately, the first stage has fared the worst, as instead of an ethereal lake filled with mysterious ruins, there’s a lot more extraneous detail that ruins the mood and makes the fantasy world seem a lot more generic. The lived-in look of the technology is gone, replaced with visuals that look too clean and oversaturated compared to what was implied by the Saturn original.
The remake does have its moments though, as some areas, such as Episode 3’s night-time raid in a desert canyon, look generally very good. Although the initial claim that it would run at 60fps is clearly not true. Also, bizarrely, the much-vaunted new arrangement of the original soundtrack, by Panzer Dragoon Saga and Orta composer Saori Kobayashi, isn’t included at launch and will, along with motion controls, be added later as a patch.
Why there’d be any need to rush the release of a 25-year-old Saturn game we don’t know, but unfortunately far too much of the game feels underdeveloped and heavily constrained by its low budget. Beyond concerns about how the game looks and sounds, it just doesn’t feel right to control. At heart, Panzer Dragoon is a very simple game and all you have to do is point with your reticule (which is now awkwardly superimposed over the top of the dragon, instead of seeming to be a 3D object projecting out from it) and shoot the various enemies that assail you.
You can also, at any time, rotate the camera round in 90° steps, as you follow larger enemies and keep track of smaller ones via an onscreen radar. You can either fire rapidly on your own or hold the attack button to target multiple enemies at once, shooting them down en masse with homing lasers.
That never gets old, even in this remake, but by default the controls feel sluggish and awkward, and although this can be corrected to a degree by fiddling with the options you now have to be much more precise with locking onto targets, which is frustrating with smaller enemies and not how it worked in the original.
Controlling the dragon is even worse as it now bounces up and down as it flies, and the wings get in the way a lot more when trying to aim. Avoid incoming projectiles is also much harder, as your dragon bobbles around the screen and it becomes almost impossible to predict whether something will hit you or not.
For fans of the original this is not the labour of love that they will have been hoping for, but we shouldn’t imply it’s a disaster either. We’ve never heard of developer Megapixel before but it’s clear effort has gone into updating the original game, it’s just they don’t seem that au fait with the game and have clearly been severely limited by time and money. That’s not their fault, but given the game is barely two hours long it does all seem a wasted opportunity.
From Sega’s point of view the problem is presumably that Panzer Dragoon doesn’t warrant any additional money or effort being spent on it, as it’s not that well known even compared to something like Streets Of Rage. But if that’s going to be the attitude we’d rather they just didn’t bother, or try and sort out, after all these years, a proper remaster collection of the original Saturn games (all Saturn games, not just Panzer Dragoon).
Somehow we can’t see that happening though and so all you’re left with is a very old game that, while it looks better than it ever has, is not improved enough to appeal to anyone but existing fans – who will be the least accepting of the control and visual changes. The superior sequel is supposedly being remade next, with a VR game by a separate team also underway, so Panzer Dragoon’s story has not ended yet. But it’s still got a long way to go before it’s regarded as anything more than a retro curio.
Panzer Dragoon: Remake review summary
In Short: A flawed remake of one of the Sega Saturn’s most recognisable classics, that fumbles the controls and visual upgrade and yet remains a relatively enjoyable homage.
Pros: Panzer Dragoon is a great on-rails shooter and that’s still evident in the remake. Excellent soundtrack, even if the arranged version is missing at launch.
Cons: The controls do not feel right, from either a modern or historical perspective. Visual upgrade is inconsistent in terms of retaining the original art style. Long load times.
Formats: Nintendo Switch*
Publisher: Forever Entertainment SA
Developer: Megapixel Studio SA
Release Date: 26th March 2020
Age Rating: 16
*Panzer Dragoon: Remake is a timed exclusive on Switch, but a version for Stadia is the only other confirmed format – and that has no release date yet.
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