I’ll be perfectly blunt: Panzer Dragoon Saga was the reason I bought a Saturn. I still remember reading my issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly where one or two of the reviewers had bestowed upon it a perfect ’10,’ which was an incredible rarity for the publication. It was a score reserved almost solely for the Zeldas and Metal Gears of the time. That review and many others for the game made some big ripples in the RPG world: a game was suddenly earning higher review scores than any other RPG that came before it. Crazier still, it was from a franchise that most of us had never heard of, for a system that most of us would never own.
Worst of all, it came out right at the end of the Saturn’s life cycle and there was a limited supply. There wasn’t anything bankable about reproducing Saturn games that late into the console’s lifespan, which was already unceremoniously short – a three-year effort from Sega.
Also looking too long into the creepy eyes of the back cover was said to cause madness. I mean, just look at it! Or.. Or don’t?
Here’s the thing about being an RPG fan in the mid-to-late nineties: You had to play every single one. There’s a reason that chumps like me would fight through insufferable trash like Beyond the Beyond, Quest 64 and the like. The cult of RPG-dom was so inexplicably strong at the time that you’d find yourself tracking down just about every damn one, new or old. Those really into the fandom often bought new systems for the pleasure of playing a single RPG title. I’ve heard of a few people purchasing Saturns to play Panzer Dragoon Saga, which was a pretty brave move at the time. The system was all but dead and still selling for the same price of the red-hot Playstation.
In a way, it made it that much more special. It was the crown jewel of a very select society of Saturn owners and a secret masterpiece that they could call their own. Nintendo had Ocarina of Time, Sony had Metal Gear Solid, and Sega had Panzer Dragoon Saga for those people lucky enough to find it. There are varying accounts of availability, seemingly based on region. I know that where I lived, in Vancouver, the game was hard to come by and always in demand. If it popped up on a store shelf, it wouldn’t stay there for long. Conversely, others have claimed to see multiple copies floating in bargain bins for five bucks a pop.
Holding a sealed copy aloft in the open will elicit unholy screeches from collectors around the world.
Along with a slew of other critically acclaimed Saturn titles, it would go on to fetch top dollar in the eBay world. For the sake of my sanity, I’m actually really glad I never had the opportunity to pass on a five dollar sale at the time. Hell, with my unwavering love of RPGs at the time, I’d probably have bought it at full price. I didn’t even have a Saturn then, I just would have looked at the instructions and imagined playing it. RPGs really had me by the balls that way. It was remarkably common for someone to devote themselves to RPGs after Final Fantasy VII hit. It explains why so many of us played as many off-kilter RPGs from the early Playstation era as we did – Wild Arms, Vandal Hearts, even Saga Frontier for some reason. The gaps between the bigger Final Fantasies left a lot of room for backtracking into 16-bit territory for me. In the process, I learned that Sega was no slouch when it came to terrific RPG design.
There were plenty that don’t stand the test of time as well as others; Phantasy Star II and Landstalker didn’t fare as well as Phantasy Star IV and Shining Force, for example. Sega clearly had a knack for publishing RPGs that walked to the beat of their own drum, not caring to emulate the likes of the Super Nintendo’s offerings. Sega reveled in doing their own thing and it worked. Some of those games are still a lot of fun to play today. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise that Panzer Dragoon Saga garnered the accolades that it did at the time. The reviews, the availability, and the fact that few of us owned or knew anyone with a Saturn made it the stuff of legends. It was some kind of mythical super-game that we’d never have the pleasure of playing.
Assuming you don’t have spare organs to sell and can’t find a copy. Though sometimes you find two and Virtua Fighter tags along as well!
The funny thing is, the game’s not really all that great. At least, not as great as it was made out to be all those years ago. When you consider the signature classics from systems of the time, most people would put their finest hours into a particular order. Sony’s Metal Gear Solid was followed by Final Fantasy VII; Nintendo’s Ocarina of Time was followed by Super Mario 64, and; Sega’s Panzer Dragoon Saga was followed by Nights Into Dreams. There’s a chance most will probably have to think extra hard about that last one, however, since there’s a very high chance that they’d never touched either one.
They likely just remembered Panzer Dragoon Saga’s 10’s or looked at the prices on eBay. Maybe they saw its name in a feature that talked about the greatest RPGs ever made, where it frequently pops up. I was that guy too, so my expectations were high. The battles were exclusively airborne and employed a turn-based RPG system that combined active time (like Final Fantasy) and field position. Edge, the player character, could fly his dragon around the enemy to one of four set positions that would impact what attacks the enemy could throw at you. That’s where the game gets most of its acclaim since it was a real departure from the simple attack-magic-item-defend structure that had been so infrequently toyed with.
It’s certainly.. different.
The game also featured a remarkable number of FMV cutscenes. Those were basically like crack-cocaine for the lot of us that lived for fare like FFVII, where the unofficial goal of any game was often to get to the next cutscene. Saga opened with a long, LONG series of cutscenes (we’re talking 20-30 minutes here), a feat almost unheard of in the 32-bit era, and there would be many more to follow. The game lasted about 12 hours but managed to span four discs due to the frequency of these scenes.
I can’t think of anything more dated from that era of gaming than those grainy cutscenes and a game that uses them so prominently will immediately show its age. Furthermore, the player part of the game is also part of a 3D era where polygonal shapes would come together to only somewhat resemble actual characters and settings. This is compounded in its abstractness even further by the Saturn’s noticeable limitations when it came to churning out 3D games. Saga looks muddy and gross in its playable form, especially when it comes to exploring the game’s one and only town. That’s also only if you can manage to brave the game’s impossibly strange control scheme while on foot instead of flying.
It’s a… bird? Fly? Dragon?
Saga has a great excuse for all of this and, in a lot of ways, is granted a pass because of it – it’s all so very post-apocalypse. Those muddy, desolate and foggy backgrounds? That’s just what the world looks like after its destruction. Those flying clusters of nonsensical shapes? Zombie monsters. The fact that there’s only one town in the entire game? Last bastion. Post-Apocalypse is the best possible cop-out for skimping on world design. Of course, the series has always been in this kind of environment, so it all fits in quite well within the Panzer Dragoon universe, as far as I understand it. You know. Excuses and stuff.
The story and characters are actually quite good and the game seems damn proud to show off a different kind of RPG story. One that toys with the very bounds of the narrative right down to its incredibly meta-theatrical ending. Considering that you have to spend 12 hours with just the young male hero and his dragon, it helps that they’re both personable enough to carry the story along. With a good story and a battle system which is still fun to play with, the game gets a good review from me. Not great, not almost great, but good.
Throw him back it back into the re-master cages, it can try again in a few years.
However, I had to really stretch my expectations in order to understand and appreciate its reverence. Having recently replayed Metal Gear Solid and Ocarina of Time, I’ve noticed that there is a timeless quality to these titles. It’s the essence which keeps retro gamers like myself so hooked in the past. Ocarina is still gorgeous in scope and artistry, and Metal Gear is still just sheer, unbridled fun, despite its muddy graphics, which have somehow become endearing over the last sixteen years. But Panzer Dragoon Saga still looks undeniably ‘1998 with a bullet.’ Without the nostalgia of growing up with it, it’s a hell of a claim to call this thing a masterpiece by today’s standards.
I can return to classics like Shining Force because the simple graphics lend themselves well to the ingenious, strategic battle system that still feels fun and fresh to this day. I can go back to Phantasy Star IV and its cell-panel story presentation, which remains unique and crisp, its story driving me to play through the somewhat bland gameplay. It’s a different question as to whether I can return to the 32-bit RPG classics of my time with the same objective outlook. I can return to Final Fantasy VII and I know that I’m actually looking at a blocky, indecipherable mess with some occasional pretty backgrounds and a severe lack of graphical continuity. What I see, however, is a gorgeous classic that puts me right back into my 12-year-old shoes.
It’s a… bird? Fly? Dragon?
3D RPG worlds got better during the 32-bit era, but it took a while. The more expertly designed graphics didn’t emerge until 2000 and 2001 with Square’s final Playstation entries, and that leaves 1998 in a pretty muddy place. As good-looking as Panzer Dragoon Saga wants to be, it’s just not in its genetic code. It was part of an ugly time with ugly games that we all thought were just swell. Saturn pundits want so badly to have an Ocarina of their own, but this just isn’t it. I’d wager that the Saturn never produced such a timeless masterwork. It’s a system that produced a shocking number of surprise dark horses, like Panzer Dragoon Saga, that shape a broader spectrum within the console.
Hell, with enough of these, the Saturn could be a better system than even the Playstation. I mean, I have a lot of games here, and I haven’t heard of half of them. With that kind of variety, who needs a genuine masterpiece?