Back in the spring of 1995 I had finally gotten the internet at home and had begun to search out video game message boards for the latest gaming news. Pretty much immediately it became clear that I couldn’t trust everyone online because for some strange reason anonymity breeds false information. So around 3 in the afternoon on May 11, 1995 I had my doubts when I read that Sega had surprise released its new console, the Saturn. It was set to debut later that September, so I cautiously called up my local Software Etc. and asked if by chance the Saturn had indeed come out that day. Much to my delight and surprise they answered yes, but that if I wanted one I might want to hurry in as they didn’t receive more than a handful. I hopped in my car and drove there as quickly as possible. I was a huge fan of Daytona USA in the arcades and couldn’t wait to try it out at home. The system came packaged with a copy of Virtua Fighter and really the only other game that looked mildly appealing was Panzer Dragoon – a title I literally knew nothing about. I rolled the dice and picked it up with my shiny new system and went home with a big smile on my face and an empty wallet.
Perhaps because I knew what to expect with Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA, but I was absolutely floored when I booted up Panzer Dragoon. The title screen music alone captivated me and I just sat there letting it play out. Beginning a new game I was treated to a very lengthy cinematic that was far beyond anything capable on any other home console at the time. It was truly ahead of its time and even my parents (non-gamers) were impressed by the visuals. Then the game started and stage one’s music kicked in and I had an absolute blast. The strange world combined with a sparse but equally entertaining narrative had me hooked from beginning to end. It’s one of my favorite gaming experiences because the game really blew my teenage mind at the time. Others, like Super Mario 64, Final Fantasy VII, and Zelda: Ocarina of Time would soon have similar effects, but Panzer Dragoon truly holds a special place in my gaming collection.
That’s why when Panzer Dragon: Remake was announced as coming to the Switch I was immediately excited and maybe a little worried. I looked forward to seeing the game modernized with a new coat of paint, but was concerned that maybe it wouldn’t hold up to today’s game design principles. As if by tradition now, the game shadow dropped on the Switch via the unannounced Nintendo Direct Mini last Thursday (March 26, 2020) – almost 25 years later to the day. Kind of crazy! Despite being completely enthralled with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I simply had to make some time for one of my favorite 32-bit classics.
If you’re not familiar with the franchise (and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case for many Switch owners), Panzer Dragoon: Remake plays very similar to the original Star Fox on the Super Nintendo. The game is a 3D shooter that’s on rails. You ride on the back of a dragon and can move around the screen at will. Holding down your fire button will allow you to home in and target multiple targets at the same time. Letting go will unleash your laser attacks. When you have smaller, faster moving projectiles flying your way you might just want to quickly tap the fire button for short bursts to take them out even faster. Where the game really gets a bit crazy and unique is that you have a full 360-degree attack zone. By pressing either of the shoulder buttons you can shift your view 90 degrees to the left, right, or behind to take out enemies as they attempt to surround you and attack from all angles. You have a small radar HUD that will indicate the enemies’ locations via red dots, so you’ll need to pay attention or risk getting shot down.
Back when the Saturn launched analog sticks didn’t exist for console yet, and it would be a few more years down the line before Sony would standardize the two-stick layout that controllers still use to this day. With this version of the game you have some control options that you can choose from to try and find the right fit. Purists who want to experience the game as it was back in 1995 will find solace in the classic control scheme where the second stick really isn’t used. The modern setup will use the right analog stick to aim the reticule, much like most gamers are used to with current day third person and first person shooters. I wasn’t immediately comfortable with either control scheme, but I found the dual stick setup to be a bit more accommodating. You have the option of inverting your flying and aiming, which is what I normally do in my games. For some reason my brain didn’t like that so I had to switch back to normal. Then my brain didn’t like that either so I went back on inverted. I never really came to grips with a style that worked well for me. You’ll want to experiment to see what works best for you.
After getting the controls sorted out the game flowed very well and I made it to stage five on normal difficulty on my first try without dying. I was pretty proud of myself and was impressed that I remembered as much from the original while playing this “remake” I’m putting that in quotes because I feel like this game is more of a remaster. For the most part the levels seem very similar in layout and the enemies have similar patterns and the bosses are pretty much the same as well (at least to my recollection). Usually if a game is remade there’s a lot more differences to make note of than what’s found here. In the end it’s just semantics – just know that if you’ve played the original you’re getting a very close approximation here – from story to cinemas to stages. Really the only complaint I have with the gameplay is that the reticule seems a little off. It’s hard to describe what’s wrong with it, but sometimes it seems like it’s difficult to tell where my shots are going to land, thus missing some enemies that I swear I had lined up. Also the game is rather picky on where you “paint” the enemies with your cursor to lock on. I feel like the zone should be increased to make it feel more fun. Most players probably won’t notice this, but it definitely has a different feel from the original.
Obviously the biggest upgrade comes in the graphics department, and I have to say I’m pretty pleased. The developers seem to have respected the original game’s art style and simply layered more detailed environments on top of them. The result is some really great looking stages that often fly by too quickly to fully appreciate the work done. Although I should mention that there is a photo mode that you can access at any time that will pause the action and you can rotate the camera around to any angle you want to take in the views.
The world still looks and feels like the original, but updated for more powerful systems and running at a steady framerate. Some of the enemies still look a bit dated, but I think the boss designs and airships look a lot like the ones in the original and I appreciate they didn’t try and change their appearances too much. In some areas there might be a tad bit too much going on, which can obscure some of the enemies from view, but honestly I didn’t have too difficult of a time. That’s probably because I played the original into the ground back in the day, probably beating it more than 30 times. The game might pose more challenge for newcomers.
As I mentioned earlier, I absolutely adore the original game’s soundtrack and I’m pleased to report that the developers have left it intact for this release. The audio still holds up today and there are some truly stunning pieces of music here. Some stages will have a more atmospheric and eerie sound to them and other will feature grandiose orchestrated pieces that really pump up the excitement.
Right before this review went live the developers issued a patch to the game, which includes a brand new orchestrated soundtrack. It’s on by default and I quickly listened to some of it and came away impressed as well. It has a different feel to it, but it sounds great in its own right. Due to nostalgia reasons I probably prefer to play with the original music, but I do appreciate the work that went into the new version, which includes more exotic instruments. You can change the sound on the fly to compare them whenever you like.
In addition to the aforementioned control issues and the reticule sometimes feeling a little off, there are a few other nitpicks. First up, the load times between levels are quite extensive. I didn’t time them, but it easily feels like they’re almost a minute long. Also, the game is rather short, especially for those who have played it before. Expert players could probably blast through it in under an hour, maybe two at the most. Newcomers will no doubt die a bit more and have to learn the enemy placements and whatnot, so they’ll probably take more time to conquer the game. Some may find the price point ($24.99) to be a bit steep for the length of time it takes to beat, and that’s a fair criticism.
Panzer Dragoon: Remake is a tough game to score because I have such an affinity for the original, so this one definitely tickles that nostalgia bone. Given that it’s somewhat difficult to enjoy playing the Saturn classic these days, I’m grateful there’s a new and current way to check it out. I really do like the graphical upgrade it has received, but there probably could have been even more improvements to the game’s controls and for the price I think an extra level or two would have really been beneficial. This type of shooter is extremely niche these days, so the appeal won’t be there for everyone. I can recommend picking it up if you loved the original and want to relive that experience. Likewise, if you enjoy on rails shooters this one is a good choice. For everyone else, you might want to wait for a sale before picking it up.
Panzer Dragoon: Remake Review
- Graphics - 7.5/107.5/10
- Sound - 10/1010/10
- Gameplay - 5.5/105.5/10
- Lasting Appeal - 4/104/10
Final Thoughts: WORTH CONSIDERING
Panzer Dragoon: Remake will certainly appeal to fans of the original Saturn game and to those of you I say absolutely pick this one up. I had a fun time blasting my way through the game and really enjoyed the updated visuals. The new soundtrack lacks the punch of the original, but sounds more sophisticated. Luckily the original can be toggled from the options so you get the best of both worlds. A high price combined with a short campaign and a niche genre makes this one difficult to recommend to anyone except devoted fans.