Lost Classic: Sega’s Panzer Dragoon Saga

As we come to the conclusion of the longest hardware generation in console history, no doubt some great games will get lost in the shuffle. At this point in the cycle developers have mastered the technology of current platforms. Some of the greatest games of a generation will be released only to be overlooked for a set of shiny new launch titles on the next boxes. It’s a tragedy.

One such game is Sega’s lost masterpiece, Panzer Dragoon Saga for the Saturn. Released in 1998–mere months away from the Japanese launch of the ill-fated Dreamcast–PDS is an excellent RPG most Saturn owners never played. Very few copies of this highly rated game were produced in the West–driving up eBay prices beyond $400 in some cases.

Panzer Dragoon Saga’s combat system

A few years back I was able to callously take advantage of a friend in need when he had to sell his game collection during a move. I picked up his set of rare Saturn games (including Burning Rangers and Shining Force III) for a steal. For years these games sat in a box on my shelf until in a fit of total boredom I decided to play through Panzer Dragoon Saga.

For those who don’t know, Panzer Dragoon was a launch title for the Saturn in 1995. It was the last great original fantasy universe in games, featuring a hybrid of modern technology and fantastic monsters exquisitely detailed by famed French artist, Moebius. It’s really amazing how his awesome concept art comes through in the low-res textures and primitive rendering technology of the time.

A total of five Panzer Dragoon games were produced, with the third one being Panzer Dragoon Saga. PDS was a diversion from the original games, mixing the world exploration and character development of a JRPG with the series’ signature rail shooting action.

Plenty of blogs and reviews have waxed nostalgic about this game, so I’ll keep it short. The overworld exploration elements are very basic with simplistic puzzles and low-detail landscapes. The storyline is derivative and delivered with pixelated full motion video–remember, this is back when Cinepak was hot. Where the game really shines is in the combat system.

Combat in PDS consists of a flying shooter sequence similar to the original Panzer Dragoon. Your dragon is engaged in an endless flying combat encounter for the duration of the sequence. You can wait while charging your meter (leaving you vulnerable) to unleash powerful attacks or strategically choose to strike, using a combination of guns, lasers, and special skills. Positioning is important, as some monsters have weak spots only visible from certain perspectives.

Another interesting wrinkle is how your dragon evolves through the course of the game depending on how you treat it. This evolution provides you with new combat skills and lets you decide which form to use before encounters. If you get wiped out in battle, try it again with a different form and set of skills. Granted, this is rarely used as the game is kind of easy.

It’s kind of amusing to read about the “massive” development of PDS. At the time, the game’s 2 year development cycle and 40 member team seemed immense. Today, AAA games can sometimes have staff numbering in the thousands, development times of well over 5 years, and pre-marketing budgets of over $100m. Sadly, PDS ended up being Team Andromeda‘s swan song. They were later folded into Sega Sports Japan which currently makes forgettable sports games featuring Mario and Sonic. A true atrocity.

Although some parts of the game would have to be fleshed out to keep up with modern JRPG standards, Sega would be doing this generation of gamers a favor by producing a 3DS remake. Until this unlikely event, you owe it to yourself as a true nerd to play through Panzer Dragoon Saga–If you can find a copy at a reasonable price.

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