Sunday 29 March 2020

The Panzer Dragoon Remake: Flying Blind Through Familiar Skies

I’ve always been sympathetic to, and even charmed by Sega’s mid-‘90s transitional struggles. For a time, the company was caught perpetually off guard as the industry conventions it had relied on (and indeed, helped define) crumbled amidst a swift generational shift. Sega adapted, more or less. It eventually forged its own creative renaissance that continues to endear the company to many of us today, even if it was ultimately a victim of that sea change.

In my mind, no game exemplified that precarious phase more than the original Panzer Dragoon. As something of a killer app in the Sega Saturn’s early days, the original title stands as a cult classic, particularly by association with its offspring. Fans maintain an enduring fondness for the original Panzer Dragoon, of course, but it remains even better known for kicking off a remarkable and criminally underappreciated gaming franchise.

For its part, the original Panzer Dragoon was a timid first step in a bold new direction. It navigated a generational chasm between a familiar arcade-action framework and the unbound possibilities of 3D gaming. Between them, Panzer Dragoon took a contorted middle path. It utilized the third dimension to great artistic and mechanical effect, hoisting players atop a majestic dragon and immersing them in a 360˚ perspective as they locked lasers with fantastical beasts in a mysterious, post-apocalyptic setting. Those concepts contributed to a distinct vision and tone that felt entirely new. However, several of the game's structural aspects – like its rigidly linear pathways, finite life/continue counts, and lack of upgrades or progression systems – did not.

The game is about dragons, after all, so in those terms the original Panzer Dragoon was like a young fledgling: confined to well-trodden ground despite its loftier ambitions for flight. With later installments, the series would grow its wings, evolve with more modern conventions, and soar with a swagger to match its ambition.

But now, 25 years later, developer MegaPixel Studio and publisher Forever Entertainment return us to that young fledgling via the Nintendo Switch (for now, with PC and other platforms eventually).

At face value, the Panzer Dragoon remake basically does what it promises. It lets me hop back into the dragon’s saddle and guides me through the linear pathways and familiar locales from the original game. Homing lasers in tow, I again blast the waves of monsters surrounding me. The remake largely succeeds in replicating the basic structure of Panzer Dragoon, no doubt, but it overlooks many of the things which defined its novel vision in the first place. At no point does the Panzer Dragoon remake ever make a compelling case for why it really needed to exist.

Shit. OK. That sounded harsh.

Before I go on, I want to clarify that this is not a review. If you’re already interested in the Panzer Dragoon remake – either as a long-time fan or a prospective newcomer – buy it if you can. Support the developers. The remake certainly isn’t bad. It’s an enjoyable game in a similar way the original Panzer Dragoon was an enjoyable game. From a value standpoint, the remake includes the same six stages as the original. It takes about an hour to play through – which is also on par with the original – and contains no additional material beyond that (at least as of this writing). 25 bucks may be a steep asking price for what’s included but your mileage will vary depending on how much you want to replay it. Anyway, whatever. It’s fine. I had fun.

With that out of the way, I’m more interested in discussing the broader purpose of video game remakes and assess the ways the Panzer Dragoon remake succeeds and fails in upholding the original’s legacy as it also charts its own path through modern skies.
Taking a step back…

Whether it’s a video game, film, or a property of another medium, a good remake is an art form. It requires an intentional and cohesive direction that commits to a thoughtful interpretation of the original work. A good remake preserves its most critical themes and presents them in ways that underscore their meaning and enduring importance. It can expand or recontextualize its original source material for renewed relevance, and even critique it. But at its core, a good remake should illustrate how the original work remains relevant today.

In that sense, the Panzer Dragoon remake fundamentally fails to capture the spirit of Team Andromeda’s original vision and does little to evolve it in any interesting or meaningful way.

Like most retro game remakes, Panzer Dragoon attempts to make text of subtext by relying on high fidelity visuals to more explicitly articulate its setting. The Panzer Dragoon remake’s most noticeable accomplishments – namely its reimagined environments, creatures, and assets – are indeed impressive. The sheer work and talent that went into creating them is obvious. Among the most striking examples is the game’s opening setting – the flooded ancient ruined city – which sports a paradoxically modern facelift, even if the accompanying fog and pop-in are constant reminders of the game’s ‘90s lineage.
Unfortunately, the remake’s decidedly more vibrant and cluttered art direction routinely undermines the original’s lonely atmosphere and calm, yet menacing tone, without offering a rich or coherent enough substitute. In this remake, the original’s subtlety and desolation have been slathered over by a vivid, pastel-like coat of paint, which now imbues its world with a saccharine, almost plastic-like sheen.

In theory, the Panzer Dragoon remake’s more saturated appearance could have reflected a legitimate departure from the original’s vision if other aspects of the game were also committed to that same direction. Unfortunately, the remake fails to utilize its broader presentation and gameplay toolsets to support its brighter, more optimistic aesthetic. For instance, the environments are now dense with varied features and topography but have few memorable landmarks, set pieces, or cursory wildlife to establish a distinct sense of place. The original soundtrack’s synth and orchestral arrangements* – while obviously brilliant – have been reused verbatim and feel awkwardly out of step with the updated visuals. The remake also closely mimics the flow of the original game, both mechanically, like in its pacing of enemy waves, and in its shot-for-shot recreations of cinematic cuts. Through this approach, it misses an opportunity to establish a more deliberate and dynamic rhythm of its own.

There’s an overarching sense that, rather than working toward a shared artistic vision, the Panzer Dragoon remake’s revamped visuals look pretty for pretty’s sake. It makes the aspects that have not evolved in tandem feel stagnant and jarring.

* Launch note: The much-anticipated soundtrack arrangement from Orta and Saga composer, Saori Kobayashi, did not accompany the remake at the time I’m writing this. I remain optimistic that this, and other future updates, will continue to improve the experience significantly.
Then there’s our blue-scaled companion. In the Panzer Dragoon games, the dragons you ride are far more than simple avatars. They are the windows through which players are drawn into the action, the world, and the narrative. The connection we build with our dragon raises the stakes for the rest of the experience. Crucially, I believe MegaPixel Studio understands this and largely gets it right. Although the dragon has received a similar new candy coating as everything else, great care has been taken in its fittingly exaggerated, yet natural animation. Your dragon maintains momentum by flapping its wings and undulating its body before gliding intermittently. It’s a nice touch that suits the new bubbly aesthetic surprisingly well, even if its wide range of motion makes gauging your dragon’s hit box a bit of a crap shoot at times.

Otherwise, the Panzer Dragoon remake seems uninterested in modernizing the original game’s feel, which may be a feature or a bug depending on your outlook. To be fair, some quality of life improvements are baked into the remake’s analog stick compatibility and relatively smooth aiming (thank the deity of your preference for those). You can also adjust the aiming reticule’s sensitivity to your liking. However, the homing laser targeting is more finicky than I remember it, demanding more patience to hit smaller targets at a distance. It’s manageable – it just takes a little getting used to – but it can add an unnecessary layer of frustration while trying to stay ahead of incoming enemy waves during the game’s more frantic segments.

The Panzer Dragoon remake also stumbles through a variety of quirks which inject the experience with an underlying cheapness. Among them: explosion animations that dissolve a bit too abruptly; hasty post-boss battle transitions which undermine their sense of resolution and impact (ditto for player/dragon death animations), a lack of kinetic punchiness or weight behind its attacks (both to enemies and the player/dragon), and an uneven sound mixing that fails to support all of the above. These are each small, subtle blemishes which compound to further muddy whatever vision the remake is working towards.

This comes back to a few fundamental questions: What is the purpose of this remake? What aspects of Panzer Dragoon is it celebrating? And what vision is it laying out for itself? After three playthroughs, the answers to these questions still aren’t clear to me.

At the end of the day, the most valuable benefit of the Panzer Dragoon remake is that it renews the series’ presence and prolongs its existence in the gaming lexicon. That’s a simple thing, but it is crucial. Despite all of the criticisms I’ve laid out above, I am grateful this remake exists. I’m happy to have returned to its world and I want to support Forever Entertainment and MegaPixel Studio for taking on this project, especially as they continue work on Panzer Dragoon Zwei (my favorite Saturn game).

As a remake – and at least for now – Panzer Dragoon fails to mount a compelling argument for its timid interpretation of Team Andromeda’s original vision. But looking forward, it’s important to hold out hope. Panzer Dragoon was a young fledgling and the same can be true of its remake. When learning to fly, struggling and learning are vital parts of the process…but eventually, that fledgling will fly. Whether it’s the upcoming Zwei remake, any future updates to this game, or something else entirely, I’m still more than eager to see where Forever Entertainment and MegaPixel Studio take us from here.


Thanks a lot for reading! Have you been playing the Panzer Dragoon remake? Let us know your thoughts.

- Brian (@VirtuaSchlub on Twitter)


fatherkrishna said...


fatherkrishna said...

A fantastic write up!

Nbond said...

Agreed. I also welcome this remake and support it so that this world can flourish once again

Blondejon said...

I dont owen a switch and its not the sort of thing id use a pc for, however, i thank you for a great write up which puts me in mind of one thing..the 1987 remake of Star Wars A New Hope. Yes its prettier than the original but not only did that miss the entire point, it was something that ended up being what no one wanted.