Yukio Futatsugi had only been working at Sega for two years when he was put in charge of making Panzer Dragoon. It started out only as one of several proposals for showing off what the upcoming Saturn could deliver, and to his surprise, Sega gave the green light to his idea. An undergraduate who accepted a job at the storied developer in 1991, two years later, he and his “Team Andromeda” probably didn’t think the game they would be working on would kindle the kind of long lasting fandom that would far outlast the system it was made for.
Panzer Dragoon became a launch title for Sega’s ill-fated 32-bit console, the Sega Saturn, but it’s often regarded by many gamers as a fantastic example of what the console could do. Though it would miss the Japanese launch in late ’94, it would make a belated debut there and be ready to go for the North American launch a few months later in ’95.
This was a game that Futatsugi felt would show off the Saturn. As he tells Eurogamer in a 2013 interview, the game was going to be a 3D shooter but he picked a dragon instead of something traditional like a ship because:
“A dragon seemed like it would be fun, and it would show off the 3D capabilities of the Saturn to maximum effect, because while a spaceship is made of solid metal, a dragon has moving body parts and it looks different from every angle.”
Beyond the choice of a dragon, the world that Team Andromeda built was a post-apocalyptic waste populated by surviving humans living under the shadow of the mutant cyber-beasts that ruled what was left. As the game and the manual explain, thousands of years before, a hyper-civilization had destroyed itself leaving behind a blasted landscape filled with mysterious ruins teeming with dangerous monsters.
Then there was the Empire, a new and powerful nation-state that rose up from the ashes cannibalizing the bones of the Old World, reviving strange inventions and taking to the skies to reassert humankind’s mastery of the land once again. They had also discovered a “Tower’, an ruin said to possess a terrifying weapon from the Ancients.
The player is a young hunter (apparently unnamed in the Western release of the game, but has a name in the Japanese version — Keil Fluge) who stumbles across a battle between two dragons and their riders. The Blue Dragon’s rider is critically injured and the Dark Dragon flies off. But the Blue Dragon with its wounded rider approaches the hunter and its rider shares his mission through a transfer of memories. He must take up his gun, ride the Blue Dragon, and stop the Dark Dragon before it reaches the Tower. And of course, in true hero fashion, our hunter takes to the skies to do the impossible.
A lavish introduction trailer explaining all of this was presented in CG before switching over to the Saturn’s 3D capabilities as the camera swooped over a desert landscape before tilting up and over the title of the game embedded there.
Immediately it was clear that the game was not your usual rail-shooter. In the trailer, the characters spoke a distinct language (it would later be dubbed “Panzerese” by fans as it continued to be an integral component in the series’ storytelling aesthetics). The dragon didn’t look like a traditional dragon. In distancing the game from other sci-fi and Western depictions of dragons, the team went for a more futuristic look envisioning their dragon as a product of science and ancient technology. Other sources of inspiration for the look of the game which was, according to Sega Retro’s entry, was largely designed by Manabu Kusunoki, included French artist Jean Giraud (aka, Moebius who contributed to the creative process with artwork). Other inspiration included Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa (which was also a post-apocalyptic work taking place far in a future where the wonders of humanity ultimately led to its destruction with what was left rising from the ashes).
But it might be the music that holds an exceptionally remarkable place in not just the series, but in gaming as a whole. This wasn’t an arrangement of pulse pounding, heavy action riffs fueling adrenaline. Almost at odds with being an action game, many of the tracks were somber, soaring, orchestrated pieces punctuating the ruined splendor of Panzer Dragoon’s world thanks to Yoshitaka Azuma (1948-2012) and his fellow composers. It’d be great listening music to serenely watch the scenery roll by if you also didn’t have to pay attention to the monsters coming by.
At the same time, not everything was there to kill you outfight. The first few monsters in the first stage, for example, are simply flying around minding their business, but you’re free to blast them from the skies anyway — you kind of have to. Panzer Dragoon was a tough game.
Bits and pieces of Sega’s arcade sensibilities made their way into this game in the form of a score percentage that rated your performance at the end. Do well, and you earned an extra continue. At Easy difficulty, you have unlimited continues but can only play up to Episode Four (each level in the game is called an Episode). On Normal, you have access to all Episodes, but only start out with three credits. And on Hard, enemies hit harder and you get ZERO credits to start with.
Fortunately, your dragon has a life gauge allowing it to survive multiple hits, but Panzer Dragoon is also a game of minimalist tendencies. There are no floating power-ups, quick heals, or temporary invincibility pods. Just you, your dragon, and your aim.
The controls were kept simple. The viewpoint was in third-person behind the dragon, but you could swivel this view in horizontal, 90° increments, towards the nearest of any one of four quadrants (front, left flank, right flank, and rear) using the Saturn controller’s two shoulder buttons to turn left or right. The d-pad adjusted your aim (indicated by a series of glowing squares) and, in the forward third-person view, moved the dragon around obstacles and projectiles.
In the other views, you could only aim the gun at enemies in first-person view (looking behind you, for example, you’d see the dragon’s tail coming up from the bottom of the screen). Holding down the fire button (any of the A, B, or C buttons) activated the “lock on” feature and releasing the button unleashed the dragon’s beam breath lasers at the targets doing damage or destroying weaker enemies. The smaller X, Y, and Z buttons adjusted how close the camera would be to the dragon — X being fairly close and on the other end, Z going long distance.
The game covered six major episodes, each with a challenging boss battle against villains such as giant, flying warships to the Dark Dragon itself. The last “episode” was the boss battle against the Dark Dragon, now empowered by the Tower. Defeating it, the Dark Dragon plummets to the sea and in the ending, it reveals that you and your dragon fly into the Tower where a mysterious power separates you from the Blue Dragon which flies on ahead into the heart of the structure, destroying it. You awaken on a beach surrounded by dragon footprints, alone, apparently having succeeded in its mission.
The end credits displayed a number of amazing illustrations (by Moebius) as the staff names flashed by, again with another of Yoshitaka Azuma’s amazing tracks playing at the end. Following that, it tallied your performance percentages and gave you a rank based on your performance.
Panzer Dragoon would later come out for the PC in 1997 and that version would be an unlockable in the Xbox title, Panzer Dragoon Orta, which came out in 2002 for the Xbox in Japan (2003 for the West). It would also come out for the PS2 as part of the Japan-only Sega Ages 2500 series. However, because Panzer Dragoon was a Saturn title, it proved to be something of a brutal port as Futatsugi mentions in an interview on 1UP while reminiscing about Panzer Dragoon Saga.
Panzer Dragoon was an incredible game that encapsulated the message Sega wanted to deliver to the masses for the Saturn — this is the 3D system you were waiting for. Unfortunately, it was also only one of five titles initially available for the accelerated launch of the console in North America as releases trickled slowly out in the months afterwards. Despite the Saturn’s rocky beginnings and ending, Panzer Dragoon proved to be only the first chapter in a series of games that would resonate with players becoming iconic pieces of the system’s history, culminating in the awe-inspiring Panzer Dragoon Saga three years later in 1998 and continuing later on in another generation with Panzer Dragoon Orta on Microsoft’s Xbox.
Even today, fans still hold vigil over the series digging through its history, articles, and interviews with those responsible. Sites like The Will of the Ancients contain an encyclopedic overview of the series from the first game onwards, guaranteeing that anyone curious about the world would be able to explore.
This was a game that its developers flexed their imaginations over, taking sci-fi and fantasy and meshing them together into an exotic mix of wide open spaces, mysterious ruins, and unexpected heroism against an eerily beautiful post-apocalyptic backdrop. Everyone already knows how the Saturn’s story ended. But at the time, games like Panzer Dragoon seemed to offer possibilities restrained only by its 3D horizons.