Posted on

Panzer Dragoon Zwei

The beginning of the 32-bit generation was interesting to watch.  Most developers had never worked with 3d so it was interesting to see the experimental games that were created.  Sega had a huge advantage in that they had extensive experience with 3d due to their many arcade games, so when Panzer Dragoon sprang from one of their numerous development teams it wasn’t a surprise.  Sequels are always expected to expound on what made the first game great while offering more.  Even bearing this in mind the leap in quality between Panzer Dragoon and its sequel is astonishing.  To this day it remains one of the greatest rail shooters of all time.

In a rural village the superstitious townsfolk kill any mutant cooliats born with a green glow.  Lundi discovers a cooliat with wings and forgoing village tradition hides and raises it in secret.  Years later while teaching his dragon Lagi how to fly the Empire destroys Lundi’s village in an attempt to eradicate Lagi.  The chase begins to catch the Empire’s flying fortress Sestren and enact revenge.  Better than its predecessor in every way Panzer Dragoon Zwei is one of the best titles in the Saturn library with excellent graphics and deep gameplay to match.  There is literally no reason anyone with even a passing interesting in shooters should pass this up.

Unlike the original you start out on the ground.  That’s right, as cool as your dragon is he does not have the capability to fly immediately.  These ground levels serve as a welcome introduction to the game’s play mechanics without holding your hand every step of the way.  You still move along a fixed track and have free reign to position the camera in all 4 cardinal directions.  The lone addition to your arsenal is a berserk meter that slowly fills up as you wreak damage on enemies.  At any time you can cause your dragon to go ape shit and release a continuous stream of lasers at everything under the sun until it runs out.  It’s highly effective against bosses or those oh shit moments when you’ve ignored your radar.  Between your standard blaster, lock on lasers and berserk meter you are more than equipped to deal with the forces of the empire.

The action is even more intense this go round; it’s assumed that you’re at least somewhat familiar with the series but not to the point where it’s overwhelming.  Whereas the first game was a bit reserved with its enemy waves no such qualms exist this time out.  You’ll need to watch the radar like a hawk because a group of indigenous life can spawn behind you at a moment’s notice.  The level designs also show less restraint; the majority of the time the road to the end level bosses is full of many twists and turns which are also part of the game’s added depth.

Nearly every level has one or two alternate routes which not only affect the enemies you’ll face but the evolution of your dragon.  At the end of every level you are graded on a number of factors and awarded evolution points.  The number of points amassed as well as the paths taken through each level affects how your dragon will evolve in terms of size and strength.  Not only does it encourage you to do your best on at all times it adds to the replay value as well.  The only black mark I guess would be the brevity of the adventure; at 7 levels it doesn’t last too long but with separate paths as well as the Pandora’s Box that is unlocked you’ll revisit this classic many times.

By 1996 developers were settling into working with 3d and so the technical leaps in quality were a sight to behold.  Even taking that into consideration Panzer Dragoon Zwei is a generational leap in quality. The bio-mechanical enemy designs have increased in size and scale while the sharper texture detail caused no hit to the frame rate.   The Saturn’s 2-d capabilities are used in conjunction with the 3d to great effect, most notably the forest of level 3 and the snowy plains of level 5.  There are some weak effects here and there; the Saturn’s lack of hardware transparency rears its ugly head at different points such as light shafts or what is supposed to be transparent water.  But compared to the flawless art direction it’s not worth mentioning.  The atmospheric soundtrack matches the action perfectly, and fades out at select moments when necessary to emphasize crucial moments.  I would say it matches Panzer Dragoon Saga artistically but not in scale.

This is hands down one of the best games released for the Sega Saturn.  It shouldn’t run you more than a few bucks so there’s no reason to skip one of Sega’s finest endeavors.  If more rail shooters were released and of this quality I would be a happy man.

[nggallery id=190]

Posted on

Panzer Dragoon

Of the Saturn’s early lineup one game garnered more attention than everything else; no not Virtua Fighter, I’m talking about Panzer Dragoon.  With its distinctive art style and world it dazzled gamers on both sides of the Pacific.  Luckily it also had the gameplay to back up its pretty graphics and was one of the system’s few bright stars in the console’s early life.

Set many years in the future after an unnamed war has ravaged the planet, Panzer Dragoon tells the tale of an unnamed youth who through circumstance becomes the rider of a blue dragon. This dragon and its previous rider were on a quest to stop the ruling Imperial government from accessing a Black Tower and unleashing a power that could destroy the world.  The world and back story of Panzer Dragoon is incredibly detailed, unnaturally so for a shooter.  But that attention to detail pays off since you’ll become immersed in the lore which provides impetus and context for your actions.

Released in America in 1995 Panzer Dragoon was the strongest title available at the Saturn’s surprise launch and as such gave gamers a reason to consider taking the plunge in spite of the system’s high price due to its gameplay and graphics.  If anyone seriously considered buying a 32X to experience what 32-bit hardware was capable of I’m sure they changed their mind once they caught a glimpse of Panzer Dragoon.  The game was that good.

A rail shooter like Star Fox except on steroids, the forced scrolling allows you to focus on the many enemies that want you dead.  Although you have no control of your forward movement you can move freely within your viewing area as well as switch the camera to look to the left, right and behind you.  The bio mechanical creatures come from all sides and taking quick action to see where the hits are coming from will save your life.  To prevent death from cheap hits your radar will show which direction the enemies are coming from.  The boss battles really ratchet the intensity with mechanical behemoths that will bombard you from all sides and attempt to catch you unaware by switching sides.

Your primary form of attack is your blaster but you can also use the targeting reticule to mark up to 8 enemies to kill with the dragon’s homing lasers.  There are no power-ups, just the careful balance of power between your two weapons.  Firing shots individually is extremely effective since you can shoot rapidly.  Manual targeting is reserved for groups of weaker enemies or hitting specific weak spots effectively.  There are very few enemies that stay stationery for long periods of time so alternating between the two is mandatory for survival.

It’s a testament to Sega’s designers that the game is so compelling considering how simplistic it is at first glance.  But between the way the game effortlessly weaves in packs of smaller fodder to distract you from the large warships and beasts and the rhythm you develop to control the chaos it is most of all fun.  At 6 levels it is a bit short but you will almost certainly work to get to the end.

The beautiful graphics that were the game’s selling point haven’t aged well unfortunately.  The inconsistent frame rate takes some getting used to as well as the overall heavily pixelated look.  What does stand the test of time is the art direction.  Sega hired French artist Moebius (R.I.P)to provide artwork for the game and also drew inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausica of the Valley of Wind, creating a dystopian future different from most interpretations of the past.  The mix of science and fantasy in the game’s universe is still unique in this day and age.  The levels range from ancient temples submerged in the ocean to sweeping desert expanses full of prehistoric beasts waiting to make you their next meal.

And I can’t forget the atmospheric soundtrack and the made up language all of Panzer’s natives speak.  They really went all out in terms of production values and seeing as how 3 sequels were eventually released the world building paid off.

It isn’t easy to play this classic of the past these days.  There’s always the original Saturn version its just a matter of finding a working system.  It was released for the PC around 97 or so but that version is hard to come by and can be a bitch to get working on modern versions of Windows.  The PS2 port was only released in Japan but that remains an option.   Panzer Dragoon Orta for Xbox includes a port of the PC game but you have to finish the game first to access it.  However you come across Panzer Dragoon it is more than worth your time.


Posted on

Star Fox 64

The early months of the Nintendo 64’s life were dark day’s man.  As someone who lived through it, I can tell you the anemic release schedule up until the end of its first year was enough to send most gamers back to their Playstations.  So why did so many of us put up with for so long?  Because the games,when they did come out, were phenomenal, unlike anything else available and generally ground breaking.  One of the brightest stars in the first half of 1997 would be Star Fox 64, heavily delayed but more than worth the wait.

Star Fox 64 was released In June 1997 for the US and Japan.  After the cancellation of Star Fox 2 for SNES many of the concepts and ideas were incorporated into Star Fox 64.  With the added power of the N64 Nintendo were able to take the game even further than what they would have achieved on the aging 16-bit console. Plus by 1995 Star Fox 2 would not have looked so impressive next to Panzer Dragoon.

Evil scientist Andross has attacked the Lylat system, and lacking the resources to stop him on their own, General Pepper has hired the Star Fox team to fight back.  Star Fox 64 aside from being the best game in the series would also introduce Rumble technology to the gaming world, a feature that every console since then has incorporated.  Regardless of the impact the rumble pack had on gaming, Star Fox 64 remains one of the greatest rail shooters ever released.

The name of the game is evolution rather than revolution.  All of the gameplay elements established in Star Fox return but have been given a spit of polish.  There are many more advanced maneuvers to perform in your Arwing aside from barrel rolls, such as somersaults to get behind enemies.  Your shots can lock onto enemies and destroy them in clusters, earning hit bonuses that bring you closer to receiving medals for each stage. The increased focus on the number of enemies shot down goes in hand in hand with other elements of the game I’ll go into shortly.

Your wing men now provide secondary gameplay functions besides getting on your nerves; Slippy will display the boss’s life bar, Peppy will provide gameplay advice and boss strategy, and Falco will open secondary routes through some of the levels.  If they are shot down they are unavailable for one level.  The land master tank and a submarine join the roster of vehicles you can pilot for a nice change of pace.  All-Range mode allows total freedom of movement within a closed environment, with these levels containing the most action packed scenarios, such as an all out brawl against your rivals the Star Wolf team.  This was a feature almost everyone wanted in the first game and it delivers.

There are over 15 levels on the map and unlike the original you don’t choose one of 3 routes to Venom.  Accessing the different planets is achieved in numerous ways: following Falco through a second route through a level, with unique bosses and challenges, reaching a particular hit count on each level or destroy a set number of objects such as gates.  The large amount of levels increases the replay value tremendously since every level has different objectives.  You might be tasked with protecting a base from an alien invasion (in a not so subtle nod to Independence Day) to shooting down missiles before they reach the Great Fox.  The percentage based performance of Star Fox has been replaced with a hit counter that awards silver and gold medals that unlock bonuses in the multiplayer mode.

What could easily have been a throwaway addition to the game actually adds longevity to the title.  Imagine those entire awesome dog fighting scenes from your favorite movies; that’s what you get here.  Available for up to 4 players the arenas are large enough that you can give chase and try to outmaneuver your opponents but at the same time small enough to force confrontation regularly.  The 3 modes, point match, battle royal, and time trial are insanely fun.  By winning medals in single player you will eventually gain access to the Land master and the option to fight on foot.  I freely admit, I wasn’t expecting much from the multiplayer. Initially; we gave it a shot because there wasn’t any other games releasing in the near future that were interesting.  What we didn’t count on was becoming addicted to it for the majority of that summer.

For its time Star Fox 64 was one of the best looking games on the market.  The scale of the levels were simply unmatched back in the day.  With less technical limitations EAD increased the scope of the levels tremendously.  The homage to Independence Day is pulled off beautifully and is only one of a number of levels that are truly memorable.  It isn’t perfect however.  The frame rate nosedives whenever the action becomes too hectic, and some levels are more blurred and dithered than others (Aquas especially), which is a bit disappointing.

What doesn’t disappoint is the ridiculous amount of speech in the game.  For an 8 Megabyte cart this is insane: all dialogue is spoken, and competently too!   There are some nutty bastards out there who will say the mumbles and gurgles of the original Star Fox are better; those people need to be shot.  The music suffers somewhat because of this but that isn’t to say it’s terrible, just that it isn’t on the same level as the graphics and voice acting.

You have branching paths, a robust multiplayer mode, and a truckload of secrets all wrapped up in a single package to create one of the best rail shooters ever made.  Why this genre seems to have died out I don’t know but don’t make the mistake of missing out on this fine shooter.  Star Fox 64 is available on the Wii’s virtual console and a remake for the 3DS is available with improved graphics.  This was one of my most anticipated releases and I’m happy to say it lived up to the hype.

[nggallery id=115]

Join the Retro Game Age facebook group today

Posted on

Star Fox

We live in an era right now where, through the wonders of modern gaming technology, we can create any possible game world you can imagine in 3d.  From fantasy to hard sci-fi if you can picture it you can create it, and quite beautifully I might add.  But things weren’t always like this.  There was a time when the concept of making actual video games with real 3d was a foreign concept.  Some companies had dabbled with it, mostly on the PC side and especially in the arcade.  So it came as quite a surprise when Star Fox was announced for the SNES.

Star Fox was not even on my radar back in 1993 although the marketing for it was everywhere.  The commercials for the game were pretty awesome; in a rare move Nintendo took direct pot shots at Sega.  Even if you didn’t like the game you would still remember that advertisement.  I completely wrote it off and even arrogantly chalked up all the praise the game received as everyone falling over something new just for the sake of it.  It also didn’t help that whenever I would go to a store with a demo unit the controller was broken.    All of these factors contributed to my not giving a damn.  My epiphany came when a friend’s older brother bragged that I had probably beaten the game already, not knowing that I had never even given the game a chance to that point.  With my reputation on the line I gave it a shot.

Star Fox was created as a collaboration between UK based Argonaut and Nintendo with the latter creating the characters and gameplay while Argonaut assisted with programming.  The Super-FX chip used in the game to power the 3d visuals was revolutionary for the time.  It’s crude to look at now but for its time this was ground breaking.  You control Fox McCloud, leader of the Star Fox team as you travel through various planets with your crew to defeat Andross on his home planet of Venom.  Gameplay takes the form of a rail shooter switches between first and third person view.

Right away the game impresses.  The intro still manages to bring a smile to my face.  In fact all of the “cut scenes” in the game are very well done, making excellent use of different camera angles for dramatic effect.  You are presented with a map at the start with a choice of 3 different paths to Venom.  It’s not stated outright but each one represents another difficulty level.  What’s even more awesome about this is each has their own unique levels and is a huge replay value incentive.   Although you are on a straight path through the levels you can obviously move in any direction and on the space levels even pan the camera up and down, which does come in handy to locate enemies that are hitting you off screen.  It never dawned on me as odd back then but the addition of a life bar was huge.   Most shooters at the time and even now are 1 shot and you’re dead.  That model would not have worked here as the game would be impossible.

At the end of every level you are graded on the percentage of enemies shot down and while I generally don’t give care about scoring something compelled me to get 100% on every stage.  You contend with just as many stage hazards as enemies such as sliding doors, pillars that spawn from behind, above and even from the sides,and asteroids to switch things up.  The scenarios read like a sci-fi greatest hits and are awesome.  Flying through an asteroid belt?  Check.  Attacking a space armada?  Hell yeah.  Hell if you’re good enough you can even explore a black hole.

Your crew members are with you throughout the entire game unless you let them get killed; if this happens they’ll be absent for 1 level before returning.  I liked having them with me even though they are off screen for the most part.  Your primary interactions with them come from them asking for help when in trouble.  These moments will keep you on your toes as they can come at any given moment, usually when you’re dealing with enemy fire of your own.  It does start to get annoying when they occur 2 or 3 times in a row.  It’s weird, you don’t even see them 90% of the time but it still feels like a team effort.  Part of this comes from their personalities.  You’ll hear their radio chatter constantly, some of it relating to the current situation, some of it just for fun.  Falco is arrogant and will never directly ask for your help, even going as far as chiding you for “butting into his business.  Peppy is a font of knowledge, being the senior member of the crew and will be the one to give you helpful hints when needed.  Slippy is……………………a useless nutsack.   The majority of the time someone needs help?  F*cking Slippy.  But you know what?  You still can’t help but love the little bastard regardless.

F*cking Slippy.

The 3d visuals haven’t aged so gracefully but you can still see how they worked within the limitations they had to execute their vision.  Everything is made up of simple flat shaded polygons but I love the way they use varying shades of color to add detail.  It’s a simple detail but in a way that sums up the graphic style.  The design of the Arwings are the graphical highlight of the game.  They work perfectly with the simplified style and cut scenes in between levels show off many angles of the ships.  The biggest detriment to the graphics would be the frame rate which by today’s standards is atrocious.  This will sound strange after that last comment but it doesn’t really matter in the end.  I feel the low frame rate was taken into account and it doesn’t detract from the gameplay too much.  The draw distance as well is not very far, with large objects appearing seconds in front of you.

The varying camera angles to a degree are self indulgent and show the designers going nuts and playing around with a new toy.  I mean that in a good way.  They create these awesome cinematic moments that will remind you of great sci-fi films from the past.  The quality and amount of speech in the game was and still is impressive.  I think only Joe Montana Sports Talk Football had more at the time, unless you want to count Awesome Possum.  But you shouldn’t.  Because Awesome Possum can eat my ass for all I care.  And it’s the good kind of speech, not that phlegm in the throat stuff prevalent during that era (alright mostly in Genesis games).  Especially the ending.

This was mindblowing back in 1993 and still is today.

Does it still hold up?  Definitely.  The frame rate puts a little dirt on its sheen but the gameplay is what truly matters, and it doesn’t hamper that.  You’ll wonder why more games like this aren’t made.  I wonder why Nintendo doesn’t just make a real god damn sequel instead of all the experimental shit they’ve done since .  But that’s a discussion for another time.

[nggallery id=20]

Buy Star Fox