When Panzer Dragoon made its one and only appearance in RPG form, it instantly became one of the most sought-after titles for the Saturn. Daniel Driver recalls his own saga around owning the full game: one filled with love, loss and redemption.
Is it really better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously said?
Conversely, Ra’s Al Ghul, lamenting his wife’s murder in Batman Begins, said “you find yourself wishing the person you loved had never existed, so you would be spared your pain” which is probably a phrase to which I’m sure we can all relate, to some degree.
Whether it’s a loved one, a special something or even if it’s a sporting occasion (I’ve seen Tottenham Hotspur snatch defeat from the jaws of victory enough times to crush my soul), it’s the loss that sometimes feels more painful than the lack of having.
Of course, this piece concerns a game rather than a person, though this loss on one fateful day in 1998 was as heart-breaking as watching Optimus Prime bite the big one in the cinema back in 1986, aged three.
The game in question is Panzer Dragoon Saga, the third entry of Sega’s seminal Panzer Dragoon series. My first exposure to the Panzer Dragoon series came via Sega Flash vol. 1 demo disc which featured the third stage of Panzer Dragoon Zwei. Entranced by its lush visuals, beautiful soundtrack and exemplary gameplay, I saved my paper round money for it specifically.
Four weeks later Panzer Dragoon Zwei, along with Nights into Dreams, Sega Rally, Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter 2 were all I needed.
Fast forward to 1998 and Sega’s console was in its death throes, with Sega itself already gearing up to release the consoles successor that same year. However, with the Saturn’s hope all but lost in the in the battle with the PS1 and N64, Sega went out in a blaze of glory, firing a triple salvo of games which could be considered among the generations very best; Radiant Silvergun (which I’m also very fond of…), Shining Force 3 and, of course, Panzer Dragoon Saga.
At the time I was a subscriber to the official Sega Saturn Magazine (commonly known as SSM) and a blue-blooded fan boy. By then I’d swapped my paper round for a part-time warehouse job. The bump in income to £2.30 an hour meant that my 15-year-old self could buy Saturn games more often, so when SSM spoke of a Sega led tent-pole release, I took notice. I still played Zwei regularly and I lapped up every detail whenever SSM ran an article on Panzer Dragoon Saga.
This is but a taste
Then Richard Leadbetter pulled off a tremendous coup; he convinced Sega to allow the first disc of Panzer Dragoon Saga in its entirety to be included with the May 1998 issue of SSM. My excitement reached fever pitch in anticipation of actually playing the game. As soon as the magazine landed on my lap – with Azel posing cross-legged on the cover – I fervently tore the disc from the mag, cast SSM aside and lovingly placed the first disc of Panzer Dragoon Saga into my Saturn.
To say I was blown away would be an understatement. Panzer Dragoon Zwei, its prequel, was a beautiful game to look at, but it was a linear rail shooter. Meanwhile, the impact Final Fantasy VII had on me was profound and, having borrowed a PlayStation to play it in 1997, I was desperate for something similar on the Saturn. Panzer Dragoon Saga took the best of both games! It was even more visually stunning than Zwei but with the narrative and cinematic scope of FFVII.
From the start, I was immediately enthralled by the cut-scenes which, impressively, featured spoken (albeit subtitled) dialogue. The Panzer Dragoon universe was already fascinating, but now there were fleshed-out characters such as our hero Edge, the scheming Craymen and a malevolent Emperor that seemed to enjoy watching his own capital city get nuked from the seat of his bouncy chair.
It was only after the opening cinematic that we could enter our name. The game was clever about this, asking for the name of the ‘one who controls Edge’, sidestepping the issue of spoken dialogue. After a short on-foot section, I mounted my newly found dragon companion and the game kicked into gear.
The first moment that Panzer Dragoon Saga allowed me to control Edge and his dragon was exhilarating. For a series that had originated as a rail shooter, it was a revelation to be able to move around an open, fully 3D space. In 1998 there wasn’t anything like it, the closest being Lylat Wars’ ‘All Range Mode’ sections. Edge even quipped “How do I get this dragon to listen to me?” just before the game relinquished control to me, which was a nice touch and reflected how this new-found freedom was a little overwhelming. However, the intuitive controls quickly assuaged any fears and soon I was soaring about in all directions within the opening valley.
It was clear that inspiration for the battle sequences had been taken from Final Fantasy’s ATB system, with three gauges filling until you could attack. You could use one for a standard gun or homing laser shot, or wait to charge two or three gauges and unleash powerful ‘Berserk’ attacks. On top of this, you could move around your foes, evading and probing for weak points, while enemies would also jostle for position to place our heroes firmly in their crosshairs/jaws/projectile-spewing behinds.
This all added up to tactical, fast-paced system that kept you on your toes where you were never short of things to contemplate. After each battle you were graded from ‘Close Call’ to ‘Excellent’, adding yet another dimension to the proceedings. A better grade meant more loot and experience, but the perfectionist also would aim to get that ‘Excellent’ ranking in every battle.
There was so much more: sections that took place on foot, villages, dragon morphing, a wonderful score and some of the best visuals the Saturn ever produced.
The worst thing about that first disc is that it eventually ended. I played through it over and over, explored every inch of it and achieved an ‘Excellent’ ranking in every battle. I got more time out of the demo alone than many other full games I’ve bought over the years.
I simply had to have the complete game. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough money to buy it on release, which happened to be just before I got paid. Meanwhile, a friend of mine – who for the purposes of this tale I’ll affectionately refer to as Beagle – was extremely excited for Shining Force 3.
So we hatched plan: Beagle would buy Panzer Dragoon Saga on launch and I would buy Shining Force 3 two weeks later, after which we would trade. It was perfect; we’d each get to play both games, but would own the one we were most interested in.
On launch day we took the bus to Watford to run into GAME and grab Panzer Dragoon Saga. I remember there were very few copies of the game in the Saturn’s tiny little corner in the shadowy rear of the store. Beagle paid for a copy and I went back to his to watch him play it, more than happy just to spectate and help as he went through the first disc and then onto the second.
It was magnificent; the graphics seemed to improve on the second disc and the story had us hooked. When he started disc three, though, I had to go home for dinner. As I reluctantly got up to leave, Beagle gave me a parting gift.
The great calamity
Within the games’ cardboard game package were two standard Saturn CD cases that held two discs each. Beagle gave me the first of these, meaning I could finally play disc two myself!
Excited as a dog chasing a car, I jumped on my bike, clutching the game as tightly as I could, and headed home as I’d done many times before, taking it slow and steady. Within a few minutes I was almost there – home was literally around the corner, and I could see my garden shed as I passed the rear of my house.
BANG! Something from out of nowhere flashed in front of me and hit my front wheel with enough force to knock me off course.
CRASH! I hit a fence, with my right handlebar – and the hand holding the game – smashed the wood and went through. I pulled my hand back from the hole and dropped my bike.
Blood was oozing from my knuckles, but I was numb as I looked at the game case I was still clutching. The bottom had been completely obliterated and the second disc had been smashed from two thirds down. The tears came, then the rage.
It was a football. Some kids during a kick-about had punted the leathery missile at my bike. I went so ballistic that one of their dads came out to see what was going on. I vented at him and demanded that he gave me the money for a replacement. But it was no use – they were apologetic, sympathetic even, but not enough to give me the £40 needed to replace my broken game.
I went home despondent and emotionally exhausted. I showed my mum the broken disc, but we didn’t have the money to just rebuy the game on a whim.
Desperate to replace it, I wrote letters to Sega to try and find a solution. I worked additional shifts in the evenings to try and bump up my pay to buy another copy.
Two weeks went by. I hadn’t heard from Sega, but I had been paid. I raced back to GAME in Watford to fulfil my end of the bargain by buying Shining Force 3, and also to try and buy another copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga. But it was in vain; to my dismay, the latter was completely sold out.
I did manage to get Shining Force 3, at least, which was an outstanding game in its own right, but relinquishing it hurt a little seeing as the game I really wanted was unplayable. Upon handing Shining Force 3 over to Beagle, he gave me discs three and four of Panzer Dragoon Saga, and copied his save file to my memory cartridge. This let me explore all the locations in the game and see the ending, but while it was nice to play it in that sense, I’d missed the entire journey.
Still desperate for that second disc, I phoned Sega, which hadn’t responded to my previous letter. Its answer: the game was out of print. It was the biggest Saturn release of the year – arguably of the entire console – and Sega weren’t making any more copies, it was maddening.
The last place I turned to was the letters page in Sega Saturn Magazine and, indeed, my letter made its hallowed pages. Lee Nutter – true to his name – responded suggesting that I “chin the little git who bust your game and nick his dinner money”. It raised few laughs from my mates when I read the response out to them, but it wasn’t a solution.
And so my copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga sat in my drawer, broken. I’d never get to play through the whole thing. I could play first disc, and I could play disc four from Beagle’s save, but that would be it. I was Ra’s al Gamer and Panzer Dragoon Saga was the great love whom I’d wished never played so I could be spared the pain of losing it.
Years went by and while other systems made their way into my life, my Saturn remained hooked up. I always kept an eye out for Panzer Dragoon Saga whenever I was game shopping, but no one ever seemed to sell it, and I was about to find out why.
The legend returns
We’d had the internet for a few years in our house, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that I discovered eBay. Naturally, the first thing I did was look for Panzer Dragoon Saga, but I was quickly taken aback by listings close to £200 – it was insane. My then-current summer job meant I did have some cash and I was close to ponying up the asking price to secure a copy, but there was something perverse about shelling out that much for a game, especially one that I’d already paid full price for on release.
Undeterred, I decided to just try to track down a replacement disc two since in theory, it would be cheaper. Disappointingly, it would remain a theory, since there were absolutely no listings for disc two anywhere. It seemed that most people kept their copies in good condition, refraining from crashing their bikes into fences while holding them.
Years later, after a night out, I stumbled in at some ungodly hour and turned on the PC. I couldn’t tell you where I’d been or why, but what I can tell you is that I found a listing for the first two discs on eBay. The current bid was £30, so I did some drunken arithmetic, concluded I had about £60 in the bank, bid it all and went to bed.
That was Saturday, and the listing ended Monday night. It’s hard to imagine this today, where everyone has access to their bids and listings at their fingertips that are all decided by bid sniping, but the price was pretty much stable after it went north of £50. Completely unaware of its progress most of Monday, I logged onto eBay when I got home to see how I’d done.
To my astonishment, I’d won! The £60 bid being just enough. It seemed fair, more than the original RRP but less than half the going cost of the full game. By then the money didn’t concern me; I didn’t care that I had no petrol money and would need to walk to work, as Panzer Dragoon Saga in all its glory was mine – finally mine!
When the package finally hit my doormat, I was ecstatic. The case was complete, both discs in marvellous condition. I don’t know what had happened to discs three and four; I vaguely remember seeing a listing for them too, so the seller may have thought it would be more profitable to sell the game piecemeal. In any case, it worked out well for me and I jumped straight into the game, starting from the very beginning.
You haven’t aged a day
What followed was the feeling I had five years prior. Despite the quantum leaps in terms of graphical fidelity with the advent of the PlayStation 2 generation, the game still looked beautiful. There was charm about the art style that shone through, and for what was an ageing system not renowned for its 3D prowess, the results were amazing. The town of Zoah went through several changes as the game progressed, with lighting effects evolving to levels previously thought impossible on the humble Saturn.
The game managed to constantly surprise. In addition to how the locations varied in splendid ways and how the map grew, the game challenged me in new and inventive ways. Not only were there flying, battle and on-foot sections, but every map was essentially its own dungeon. I found myself rescuing giant monster babies, navigating swirling sea storms, evading searchlights and exploring ancient subterranean ruins.
And the music! Oh, the music. The title theme, Behold the Precious Wings, set the standard, with a raw tribal sound that resonated through the game, coupled with beautiful vocal harmonies which added to the sense of wonder, mystique and grandeur. The use of percussion instruments was profound throughout and maintained the atmosphere of a broken world. Regardless of how much as the music would complement that sense of awe in even the most resplendent locales, there was almost always that thumping tribal undercurrent.
The music was woven expertly into every aspect of the game. From the more relaxed tracks such as Chaos Amongst the Silence, through the busy and folk sounding Zoah theme, to the up-tempo, imposing Atolm theme, the soundtrack never skipped a beat. It still is, in my humble opinion, an absolute masterpiece.
Most importantly, the story was so different and engaging, the characters were well fleshed-out and the gameplay was impeccable. Despite how far Panzer Dragoon Saga pushed the Saturn, there wasn’t a hint of slowdown, while the battle system still put more contemporary efforts of the time, such as Final Fantasy X, to shame. The game was a sheer joy from start to finish.
And just like all those years ago, the worst thing about the game was that it ended all too soon. Even with four discs, the orchestral score, voice acting and abundance of FMV meant the game wasn’t as long as it’s peers. Even looking for every secret and going about achieving ‘Excellent’ ranks in every battle, the game only offered around 30 hours of play time.
Yet with the gift of hindsight, that was still enough. Panzer Dragoon Saga is an experience, and one to be savoured for its relatively short runtime. When I booted it up once again in order to capture shots for this retrospective, all of those feelings came rushing back. It is magic, conjured with love and wonder, distilled into digital form by masters of the craft and pressed onto four glorious CDs.
So perhaps it is better to have loved and lost, because it makes the desire to regain that “special something” even greater. Those moments of redemption are much more poignant, and irrespective of all that – and even if you have just a taste of something wonderful – you’ll eventually cherish that memory, whether you lament its loss or not.
So never stop looking for your soul mate, seek out those lost treasures, keep the faith in your team even when they’re collapsing, and for goodness sake, play Panzer Dragoon Saga! Whether it’s via the demo, emulator or the full, obscenely priced and magnificent original copy, it’s a game that should be cherished and celebrated as much as the industry’s very best.
- Absolutely stunning art direction and graphics that push the Saturn to its limits
- One of the best battle systems ever conceived
- Fantastic plot and characters
- Gorgeous and varied locales filled with unique challenges
- Masterful soundtrack and impeccable sound design
- Accessible controls and mechanics make it ideal for even non-fans of the genre
- Short by RPG standards at around 30 hours maximum
- Emulation is far from perfect
- An original copy of the game is notoriously expensive
Was the pain worth it? The answer is, unquestionably, yes! Panzer Dragoon Saga absolutely lives up to its legendary billing as one of the greatest games to not only grace the Saturn, but the world of gaming in general. Its impeccable design in every area produces an experience to be savoured and that rivals any game from that era.
Regardless of whether you are a fan of the RPG genre or not, you owe it to yourself to at least sample the delights that Panzer Dragoon Saga has to offer.