The opening to Panzer Dragoon Remake feels like finding an undiscovered cult classic movie of the eighties/nineties. For nearly ten minutes, a story plays out before the player’s eyes. This details how a young man, unnamed in the game (but named Erik according to wikis, which are actually one of the best sources of info for such things), is fighting against an evil empire, because of course he is. He encounters a dragon flying overhead, who he and his companions suspect of fighting on their side, what with it and its rider shooting and dodging Empire forces.
The distracted Erik ends up losing his friends, but winds up on a plateau where he meets the dragon and its rider. The rider gives Erik instructions not to let an evil looking dragon get back to the Empire stronghold, gives Erik a gun, and tells him to trust the rider’s dragon. The rider then disappears in a glimmer of magic, because of course he does. Erik gets on the dragon.
This is the entire story of the game.
Okay, I’m being slightly unfair there. Each mission that follows does start with a brief cinematic, no more than a minute or two, outlining things, and there is a slight story that leads us along. But this game is not focused on story: it’s focused on the arcade experience.
Panzer Dragoon was originally a minor hit on the Sega Saturn. Minor due mostly to the fact that it was on the Sega Saturn, a system that wasn’t as much of a joke back then as it is now, but never really succeeded due to marketing and price. The game itself, however, clearly withstood the test of time, at least enough to be remade for the Switch with enhanced graphics that still somehow look a little bit like a game from the nineties.
The game itself is an on rails, scrolling shoot-em-up or schmup game. It reminded me most of Star Fox, of which I’ve only played the N64 version (I know, shame on me). You fly in the middle of the screen toward the enemy at the far end of the screen in auto-scrolling fashion. In this case, the dragon’s wings flaps and it carries you steadily onward.
The cool twist is that you’re attacked from all sides. No, really, this is cool, because your rider realizes he can, y’know, turn in his seat. This gives him 360 degrees of shooting, and there’s something kinda fun about following an enemy as it attempts to flee from you.
The controls are dirt simple, so much so that I kept mashing buttons expecting more to happen. The B and A buttons shoot. You can hold either and trail the cursor along the screen to lock on and fire a stronger blast. That’s it. There’s supposedly special moves that you can unlock (I got at least one in my relatively brief time with the game), but I didn’t see much use for them, and I beat the game on normal.
Each stage presents some fairly uniquely designed enemies, ranging from a lot of flying airships to strange creatures of alien make and origin. You’re rewarded at the end of the stage for the number of enemies you shoot down, which means you want to blast as many as possible. They also, y’know, shoot you. And you’ve got the one life bar to complete the mission. It’s ridiculously long, but it never recovers.
The bosses feel pretty cinematic. Some are harder than others, as is the case with shooters (I beat the one boss completely in his “first stage” location). They often crawl around the stage, and are introduced with something like the image above. It feels pretty epic, and you’re almost always excited for them, due to your life bar and having gotten through the stage.
The game does feel a little incomplete though. The lack of anything like a powerup or different attack or anything rings hollow. The game takes probably 45 minutes to a little over an hour, depending mostly on load times (which are quite long, a frequent issue on the Switch). It feels like anything longer and I may have gotten bored: there’s just not quite enough variety, even with the cool features they have built in.
This is an old game remade, yes, but remakes do sometimes add things to it. I suspect some of this is the artwork and alternative modes, which have never really appealed that much to me as a gamer but are kind of neat to look at. But even taking the age into account, some of the earliest shooters had extra fun stuff to engage with. Galaga, one of the first schmups from the eighties, had fun tricks where you could get a second ship on the screen fighting alongside you.
The story is also awkwardly delivered, but honestly that’s expected of a game replicating the old arcade experience. I did find myself with questions, but also a little in awe of its presentation. It really does feel like an epic film from that time period.
All in all, this is still a pretty good remake, assuming you know precisely what you’re getting into from the start. I definitely don’t think it’s worth the full $19 it’s regularly priced for, not a game that feels this incomplete and frankly dated, but it’s certainly worth scooping up on sale, particularly if you’re interested in classics or this type of game.
7 or so for the sheer scope and enjoyment I got out of this little gem, though it obviously needs more polish