Panzer Dragoon: Remake Review — Railing into the Past

The beautiful and atmospheric rail-shooter of olden times returns stronger than ever.

Sega’s Panzer Dragoon has a fairly short but storied place in the annals of video game history. One of the few launch titles for Sega’s ill-fated Saturn system, it was a stunning look at the power of 3D graphics on a home console.

The Saturn is beloved by many gamers because it so expertly bridged the gap between the arcade and home. Rail-shooters (usually light-gun-based) were a mainstay in arcades, but here was one intentionally made to show off the power of the Saturn.

In 1995, limited hardware meant limited scope. The trick was to create the illusion of a large world without really rendering one. Panzer Dragoon, thanks to Sega’s internal studio, Team Andromeda, was technical wizardry. While most rail shooters moved from wave-to-wave and usually focused on being a human-sized character in close range combat where all you controlled was the gun, Panzer gave players control of a giant dragon and its rider.

Admittedly, it was limited control. The game still scrolled onward automatically, but at least you could move around to avoid obstacles and enemy fire while shooting. Panzer Dragoon felt like a radical evolution of Sega’s classic coin-op shooter, Space Harrier. Of course, 1995 was a while ago and the gaming landscape has changed as systems evolved. Rail shooters, including Panzer Dragoon: Remake, are a curiosity more than anything else now.  

Panzer Dragoon: Remake Review — Railing into the Past

Reliving Panzer Dragoon through the HD remake on the Switch is a curious trip in the way-back machine. The game is still very much in the unforgiving coin-op design mold. The new version still uses “credits” to continue when your dragon fails, which starts you back at the very beginning of the level. Run out of continue credits and you have to start the game over entirely.

There are no mid-points, no advanced save options, and only six levels to memorize and beat in classic arcade-style. There aren’t even weapon upgrades or power-ups. It’s just you, a health bar, and a gun with two distinct abilities. Rapidly pressing the fire button lets you send out normal weapon blasts, useful for destroying incoming enemy fire.

More importantly, holding the fire button down and passing your sights over enemies results in a missile lock-on. If you’re quick and steady enough, you can lock on to a score of weaker enemies and destroy them at once. Every level ends in a boss battle against larger, tougher opponents ranging from flying galleons and strange battleships to giant creatures.

The dragon is equipped with a radar sense as well, displayed in the upper right corner to let you know from what directions the enemies are coming. This is vital thanks to the game’s unique (at the time) ability to let you pivot your view in four directions (forward, left side, right side, and behind you).

Tapping the left and right shoulder buttons, flicks the view on the fly, although in the heat of battle, it’s extremely easy to accidentally over tap. In today’s dual-stick world, this method might seem a bit antiquated, but it works well enough.

The Remake does modernize the control scheme somewhat. The original had players moving the aiming reticle and the dragon followed. Now, you can opt for a dual-stick set-up where the right stick handles aiming and the left moves the dragon. It feels more natural now and makes the game easier to manage, but never feels like a radical change. Of course, purists can opt for the classic Saturn control scheme.

Panzer Dragoon’s gameplay isn’t especially deep or complex, but the real draw of the game was the presentation. The original Saturn version gave gamers a gorgeous fantasy world to fly through, full of amazing creatures and sights to behold. The soundtrack is stunning, with a frequently beautiful musical score to accompany the action and impressive ambient effects.

The HD remake is a surprising reminder just how beautiful the game remains. While the original couldn’t do smooth textures or particularly high poly counts, seeing those same levels re-rendered with modern visual flair is impressive. Panzer Dragoon might still be a glorified shooting gallery, but seldom has one been done with such style.

A remake of the sequel, Panzer Dragoon 2 Zwei, is already in development, but it’s likely that nostalgic gamers are hoping these do well enough for a port of the now-legendarily rare Panzer Dragoon Saga — an amazing, open-world-style J-RPG that barely managed to hit U.S. shores in 1998 before the Saturn finally fell into obscurity.

For a retro revamp, I would have liked more extras. There’s a new photo mode and beating the game on the hard difficulty unlocks a secret cheats menu and concept art, but that’s unlikely to be seen by most gamers. There’s no option to switch to the original graphics or extra levels. This isn’t a major caveat except, at release time, the $25 list price is just a bit high for a 25-year-old game

Either way, Panzer Dragoon: Remake is a lovely, challenging journey into the past. Rail shooters are a largely obsolete genre for good reason, but we’ll make an exception for Dragoon. If you’re up to the challenge, it’s a worthwhile though brief return to the 90s.

Panzer Dragoon: Remake Review — the Bottom Line

Pros

  • Revamped graphics and audio look great
  • Modern controls improve the targeting gameplay noticeably
  • A good fix for fans of old school arcade action
  • Excellent photo mode

Cons

  • Very short
  • Not much in the way of extras
  • A little pricey

A nostalgic trip into video gaming history, this Sega Saturn classic has been revamped to look more beautiful than ever without changing the fundamental rail-shooting gameplay. Panzer Dragoon remains firmly rooted in the arcade sensibilities of its era.

It’s short and intentionally unforgiving, but the superb presentation and dragon-focused gameplay give it surprising wings in the modern age. Sega’s intriguing and distinctive series has deserved another chance for years and we hope this is the start of a trend.

[Note: A copy of Panzer Dragoon Remake was provided by Forever Entertainment S.A. for the purpose of this review.]

Our Rating
7
The beautiful and atmospheric rail-shooter of olden times returns stronger than ever.
Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch

Contributor

Jason D'Aprile has been writing about games and technology for a very long time. His bylines have appeared on and in countless sites and magazines over the years, including Paste Magazine, Playboy, G4TV, Indie Game Website, UploadVR, Techhive, Lifewire, the Brick Moon Fiction podcast, United Front Gaming, and others he's mostly forgotten about. Jason lives in a house in the woods and does not twit.

Published Apr. 3rd 2020

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