a review of Panzer Dragoon Zwei
a videogame developed by sega team andromeda
and published by sega (et al)
for personal computers and the sega saturn
text by tim rogers
The earliest videogames were proofs of concepts, aspiring to be competent computer programs; eventually, they aspired to be fun. Time passed, and games aspired to be interesting and fun — interesting enough (with regard to character, graphic design) to get a player to plunk in a quarter, and fun enough to get them to plunk in another quarter after they lost. Twenty-some years later, games aspire to be bigger than Hollywood blockbusters — multi-ten-million-dollar-earning focus-test-crafted chunks of meticulous, pointed man-labor. Back in 1996, games had just passed out of the golden 16-bit era and were lost, floating over a big stone ocean. Twisted Metal — allegedly pitched as Super Mario Kart For Adults, a game in which mental patients in bizarre automobiles kill each other for sport beneath a magenta-black sky in desolate environs — took Electronic Gaming Monthly‘s game of the year, back then, because it was “sophisticated”; hindsight reveals that it was indeed sophisticated — when compared to typical bumper cars. Back in 1996, games aspired to be either carnival rides or interactive cinema. Panzer Dragoon Zwei is a videogame that tried to be a good videogame, accomplished its goal, and just so happened to also simultaneously become an excellent carnival ride and interactive cinema in the process.
Panzer Dragoon Zwei has a story, if you want it. The story encourages the player to sympathize with one Jean-Luc Lundi, a man from a simple village in a scorched-earth age where farmer-like people fear dragon-like beings known as “coolia”. The coolia are slaughtered wherever they crop up, though one day Lundi discovers a baby coolia with wings. He pities the pup and hides it away. Over several years, the pup grows into a fantastic dragon. One day, a fearsome and beautiful airship appears in the skies above the village, pouring down gunfire. They’ve come to kill the dragon. Lundi, wishing to save both himself and his dragon — Lagi — hops on the beast’s back and spurs it to run. Magnificently, the dragon sprays frightening streams of lasers out of his throat, downing several enemy vessels. Lundi explains to us, in voice-over, in a linquigstic hybrid of English, German, and Japanese crafted specially for this game (and later used in three other games, including Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter and Shadow of the Colossus), that the laser breath is a weapon of infinite strength, hinted at in legends told again and again since the ancient times. So, subtext tells us, this evil empire of massive strength (the massive strength is evidenced in the size of their airship) lords over tiny villages, subtly filling in their superstitions, pushing them to kill the innocent dragon beings before they grow strong, squashing them like the freemasons squash the electric car.
We don’t necessarily ponder good and evil on more than superficial levels. The evil empire is “evil” because they are trying to kill us. the longer Lundi and Lagi survive, the more desperate the empire grows, the more forces they throw. Eventually, whether we understand what’s happening or not, it becomes preconsciously clear that the only solution to our hero’s dilemma is to make like stage 5 of Gunstar Heroes and Destroy Them All. And so the story fulfills itself: the empire wants you dead because the infinite laser-breath of a legendary dragon might just be enough to destroy their entire armada, and you prove them right by doing just that. What a neat little air-tight seal.
Panzer Dragoon Zwei was released for the Sega Saturn, a videogame console so far ahead of its time that the nickel-cadmium batteries of the day just weren’t enough to contain the power of its internal data-saving memory. Back then, the only people who would actually buy a Sega Saturn were the blockheads who didn’t realize that if you weren’t playing Daytona USA with three friends on giant deluxe cabinets at Block Party, you were missing the point. Panzer Dragoon Zwei was hardly the game that people buying the Saturn wanted to play, though many of them ended up loving it anyway. Meanwhile, there was the Sony PlayStation, and Resident Evil, which was fascinating for entirely different reasons. It was fascinating enough to kill the notion of “interactive cinema” born in Night Trap and Sewer Shark (and, to a certain extent, Dragon’s Lair), by insinuating that a game could be movie-like and a play like a videogame all at the same time. Panzer Dragoon Zwei and Resident Evil are seldom deemed rivals, though it goes without saying that they are both games of similar aspirations: tell a story, play like a game. Resident Evil, however, was a vision too big for even its creators to understand. This turned out to work as an advantage, because it left them plenty of things to make “better” in the sequels. Eventually, when the game designers realized that they should probably work on making an excellent videogame take on an action movie before they started to worry about horror, we got Resident Evil 4, which may very well be the end of the line. Panzer Dragoon Zwei‘s tragedy is that it did absolutely everything right the first time, leaving literally no room for improvement of any kind.
In short: it’s a shooting game in the tradition of Space Harrier with “cinematic” story-telling, flowing backgrounds in the tradition of, uhh, the original Panzer Dragoon. You control a reasonably large on-screen avatar. You encounter enemies. You dodge their projectiles. Sometimes, you slap a trigger button to rotate the position of the rider of the dragon. This is key — fusion of game mechanics and story telling, et cetera: the player controls the rider, not the dragon. When you aim, you’re aiming a pistol held in the hand of the rider. When you rotate to look backward, the dragon keeps going forward. Panzer Dragoon was the game that coined the genre title “rail shooter”: the game moves forward as though on rails. Only, in games like Star Fox 64, where you’re pilot of a machine, or Rez, where you’re swimming in an ocean of “computer data”, it doesn’t make as much sense that you’re “on rails” as it does in Panzer Dragoon: the dragon generally knows where he is going (forward, upward, through that massive stone ruin), though he is of course open to suggestions (dive quick! bank right! pull up!) when you see dangerous projectiles that he doesn’t.
Panzer Dragoon‘s big shooting gimmick is straight out of Afterburner: hold the fire button, paint several targets with your crosshair, and let go to shoot all of them at once with your dragon’s legendary laser breath. Some larger targets can be painted multiple times by holding the cursor over them. This is where the punch-like spear-thrust of the game is best felt: each laser-breath shot is exponentially stronger than one blast of your pistol. Seven of them at once is massive. Hold steady, charge your laser, let it go, snap the pool cue into the butt of a spear, sending it careening through space, right into the enemy’s voice-box. You can’t not love the little white-yellow cycling flash, the Cap’n-Crunch-bit-rate “pop” sound, and the tumbling apart of the monster’s polygons. This was gaming of the post-golden 90s: we knew 3D was the future. We just didn’t know what to do with it. Funny that this resulted in it being used perfectly. With no physics-simulation middleware to rely on, everything was coded the hard way: with love, and by hand.
Seeing as how we here at Action Button Dot Net are calling this game the thirteenth-best of all-time, it’d be a sick disservice to not emphasize the ocean-deep debts it owes to Sega greats Afterburner 2 and Space Harrier. Like Godhand, Afterburner 2 — especially in its sparkling Sega ageS re-release — is easily one of the five games we’d take to a desert island. You will not, however, find it on this list, because this list is written with a specific goal. (We can’t exactly elaborate on that goal at the moment, though if you’ll call the toll-free number at the bottom of this review, we can connect you to our PR manager.)
The original Panzer Dragoon stuck close to its Afterburner inspirations, being straightforward and shooty, with gradually complexificationing enemy formations. That it possessed an incredible, inspired, imaginative visual style was enough to convince the team to graft a story onto the sequel. Thus Zwei introduced a cathartic story and artistic conscience into the mix, miraculously not sacrificing a milliliter of its existence as an actual videogame — of its pumping, sticky crunch.
(We will not lie: even more than we love pushing buttons, we love holding buttons down and then letting go.)
You can sum up the perfect fusion of Panzer Dragon Zwei‘s story and game flow quite easily. The opening movie tells us that the dragon was born with wings, and kept holed up in a shed for several years so as to avoid death at the hands of cruel bastards. When the stuff hits the air-conditioner and the evil imperials show up to bomb the place, our hero takes a chance in jumping on the dragon’s back. The dragon runs like a freaked-out chicken, giant wings dragging uselessly on the scorched earth. We play the entire first two stages this way, constantly aiming our gun skyward as the enemies rain down upon us from their heavenly bases. This is perhaps the slyest tutorial ever conceived for a game: it doesn’t “teach” us how to shoot the gun so much as it gives us ten minutes during which we don’t have to worry about moving up and down. The hero and his dragon run for what the game portrays as an entire night, beneath a Roman-purple and blue and black sky. Day breaks, and the sky turns a wondrous shade of Sega. Lundi and Lagi run on along a brown rocky plateau, angry wildlife giving chase. Lagi runs right off the edge of a sheer cliff, plumetting toward a perfectly pixelly ocean. And just like that, the wings flap once, twice, thrice, and we’re flying. No voiceover juts in mid-fall, with Lundi screaming “Come on, Lagi, fly!” It just happens. We supply the emotion ourselves, or we don’t, as the music swells and turns into something different, and the proper game begins.
The journey to escape doom will take us through skies of many colors, over mountains, through forests, under waterfalls, through caves, and straight into the faces of monolithic enemy fortresses. Eventually, we must fight another man riding a dragon; we’ll fight him again, at the very end. The end is as elegant as the beginning.
In Panzer Dragoon Zwei, the elegance is just about everything. The scenery hundreds of feet beneath our dragon is alien and beautiful: every flowing instant of graphics tells a two-thousand-word story. Enemies of clearly foreign origin materialize and cooperate with one another in their mysterious efforts to bring us down. They jet out vaguely beautiful ballistics. Dodging up, down, left and right while charging our lasers feels simultaneously like work (we are keeping this man and his dragon alive), like fun (it is a game, after all, with visual rewards), and like destiny. The game has plunged us into a world where things are happening, and above even this, it has plunged us into a world where the world is happening.
The future of the Panzer Dragoon “namesake” wouldn’t be too bright. Since Zwei had a story in it, and since no one hated the game, really, they decided to make the story a key component in the next one. There’s nothing terribly wrong with Panzer Dragoon Saga. It remains one of the more forward-thinking role-playing games ever made — how novel, an RPG, with town-wandering and talking NPCs and everything, with Panzer Dragoon dragon-flying lock-on-laser-breathing action combat in place of point a finger-cursor at the word “fight” and pressing the “OK” button over and over again. The problem is, Panzer Dragoon Zwei was a light game set in a heavy world. The world sucked you in because you were holding a controller, and pressing buttons. Saga thinks too much: it’s a heavy game, set in a heavy world. It’s thick as maple syrup. It’s actually — hilariously — too good. It’s too many good ideas. The thing about ideas — and this is why you’ll see IGN.com putting Super Mario Bros. at the top of their top 100 games ever list — is that people kind of need to be spoon-fed the good ones in order for them to have really any impact at all. Saga was too many great ideas, and now that time has caught up with the game, all of the little things it pioneered have been done better in other games. (It hurts us to break this to you. We too love the game, anyway.) It’s kind of the story of Sega, in a way: the Dreamcast shipped with a modem on board. However, the modem was 56k and slow as stuff, so no one cared. The Xbox shipped with LAN support. Et cetera.
Eventually, Sega was given a ton of money and told to revisit the Panzer Dragoon series. “For the fans”. This was back when Microsoft was employing videogame fan-site-editors-in-chief to tell them what to do to make a big dent in the games industry. The large, soft, ovular white man hired to recommend Japanese game studios for the GETSing must have had a deep-down private-part-like love for Panzer Dragoon Zwei, and we vigorously salute him for that. It’s a shame that the end result, born of a Sega woozy from no longer owning their own hardware (bonus fact: “still getting used to riding the bus to work” was the original state of this sentence, though we thought maybe that wouldn’t be clear enough), turned out so misshapen and weirdly wrong-headed.
Panzer Dragoon Orta was a game about a girl named “Orta”, though some people on the internet were quick to clarify that “Orta” is actually German for “four”. It is not. Orta is something like what Panzer Dragoon Zwei would be like if it had been made by Treasure, after a six-year-old boy had trained a laser-pointer in the right eyes of each member of the programming staff for ten straight minutes.
In Orta, your dragon can transform at the touch of a button. Your dragon’s forms are Big Wing, Medium Wing, and Speed Wing (warning: not the actual names: this is a website, not a hecking instruction manual). Normal Wing lets you fire normal shots — pistol or laser-breath. Speed Wing is tiny, and fires fast, though can’t lock-on. Big Wing is gigantic, a huge bullseye for enemy missiles, though can fire super-powerful armor-piercing lock-on shots.
In Orta, sometimes, there are more enemies on-screen than either lock-on-capable dragon form can lock on to. Sometimes there are enemies with armor plates that only Big Wing’s shots can break off. Sometimes, there are gaps that are too small for Normal Wing to get through.
In other words, Orta requires you to be changing shape constantly, either because some poor schmuck animator spent a lot of time working on that morphing animation or because the game designers were deadly afraid that the enemy patterns and boss attack sequences weren’t interesting enough at their cores to just be played straight through. More than this, we can theorize that Orta features such a pseudo-complicated lock-and-key game mechanic because the developers earnestly believed that without something resembling busywork, it would be impossible for anyone to consider the game better than its predecessors merely due to more imaginative art design, flow, and escalation of challenge. In short, Orta was not game-designed: it was conspired. And the story is a train-wreck of “characters” with “motivation”, talking about things that don’t make any sense. Eventually, we’re flying inside a computer and shooting at microchips which might be a metaphor for the will of God, or some stuff.
This next paragraph will address the Orta problem from a completely different angle:
Treasure’s blasterpiece Sin and Punishment, released in 1999, is an on-rail shooter that opens with a direct homage to Space Harrier and ends with a nod to Missile Command. In between, it’s better than both of those games by many powers of ten. It’s about aiming, shooting, and jumping. It is Panzer Dragoon Zwei where the dragon doesn’t fly. You’re rooted to the ground. You must jump. If it were a major motion picture, “Gravity” would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The game mechanic wherein you reflect projectiles back at enemies is absolutely perfect. Aim the reticle at the person you want to hit, line your body up with a coming missile, let go of the fire button, and then slam it down again to reflect it. You might even reflect while jumping. It’s unfortunate that the best stage, with the most unrelenting action, takes place under such abstract circumstances: you’re standing on a chunk of asphalt being levitated by a telekinetic little girl. The asphalt zooms like an airplane, taking on a fleet of enemy ships, boats, and planes. Everything is beautiful, and everything hurts. It’s just — first of all, this is a game in which our hero runs and jumps. Why squander the most imaginative enemy formations on a level where you’re flying on a chunk of asphalt? You technically shouldn’t even be able to “jump”. Until that point in the game, there’d been joy in running by interesting scenery, with things happening in all directions. We had the impression that we were in control of a character. Now we’re just being flown around. And — and — what are we doing here? Who are these people? What in the flaming heck are they talking about in the dialogue intermissions? We’d rather they not talk at all, that they just run and shoot. When Sin and Punishment tries to establish context via story cut scenes, the characters say these quite frankly embarrassing, scream-like things, and every character sounds voice-acted by a nine-year-old girl from Portland, Oregon. More than this, every cut scene features the same, huge, blinking, orange text at the top of the screen: “PRESS START TO SKIP”. The only foreseeable reason for a developer putting that text there is deep, horrifying fear that the player might consider the story absolute mutant horse stuff. Maybe, if putting that text at the top of the cut scenes seems like a good idea, you might want to just cut them all out. Who cares if the guy who wrote the script is the boss’s friend’s son? Fire his ass. Put him out on the street. Experience working at a convenient store would teach him a thing or two about the real world.
If you were to eliminate all of the cut-scenes from Sin and Punishment, what would you have? You’d have a guy running through a train station, then you’d have a guy on a rooftop fighting a robot tiger. Then you’d have a pyschic woman screaming. Then you’d be controlling a giant robot, lasering another, gianter robot; then, you’d be a girl inside the depths of a ship. Then you’d be knife-fighting a guy in a cockpit. Then you’d be flying on a chunk of asphalt. And you’d be chasing a missile through the sky. Then you’d be on a train in a red-skied future, fighting alien bugs.
If you were to cut the cut scenes out of Panzer Dragoon Zwei, you’d start the game as a guy on a dragon, running like a chicken across a scorched earth, airships raining hellfire down upon the people. You’d know there was something wrong. The transition from earth to sky occurs within the context of the game. After that, we’re flying to survive. How clean, then, when the emergence of a dragon-flying rival happens within the game context as well. The struggle of our hero and his dragon, despite the overtly foreign and just-barely-concrete scenery of the Happening World, becomes so real and human. It’s silent cinema. In an earlier review, we called Yu Suzuki the Cecil B. DeMille of Japanese videogames — making them because the technology was exciting, offering kids the chance to drive fast cars and fly fighter jets the way early filmmakers let kids see the Roman empire or ancient Egypt with their own eyes. The minds behind Panzer Dragoon Zwei weren’t making games because the medium interested them so much as they were making games because they needed to make something. There’s a very subtle difference. With the Sega Saturn a desert devoid of blockbusters, with Sega absolutely incompetent at the art of “producing”, Team Andromeda was simultaneously cursed with complete “artistic” freedom and accidentally blessed with the mortal urgency that seems to drive every worthwhile piece of entertainment.
1996 was a better year for carnival rides than 1995. Local multiplexes were experimenting with “movies” where the audience members sat in gyrating chairs, “playing” the “part” of an adventurer on a mine cart diving into a volcano full of dinosaurs. Fans blowed in the people’s faces. Mom was able to sit in on this with her full-to-bursting children, and understand why they might enjoy this, even if she didn’t enjoy it herself. The world didn’t welcome Panzer Dragoon Zwei with open arms because it was merely too big to embrace. Stoic and sweet and poetic, with cinematic themes (a man loves nature enough to save a baby dragon, who repays the debt in a fight against insurmountably odd evil) that ran seamlessly parallel to joyfully tight mechanics, Zwei was so far ahead of its time that it’s still ahead of its time. The people who get Zwei, whether they do it consciously or not, go on to craft clean games like Call of Duty 4, which rise above the concept of a “videogame” and actually earn the distinction of “entertainment”. Everything else turns up like Bioshock, with psychic powers to shoot lightning bolts at pools of water that enemies are standing in, just because people imagine that someone has to feel intelligent when they remember one of the things that they can do.
Over the last few weeks, this list of the “Top 25 Games of All-Time” has resulted in many emails from readers, some of them applauding us for including “contrarian” choices, others chiding us for avoiding “obvious” games; some of the mails have even felt like threats, telling us that some games are “always mentioned” on “those lists” because they “deserve to be there”, and that ignoring those games would result in “immediate loss of credibility”. Judging by the many emails predicting the higher entries on this list, it seems the people expect Rez to make an appearance.
That ain’t gonna happen! We can appreciate the useless vibrating sold-separately Trance Vibrator accessory, and we can appreciate Rez as one game developer’s refusal to believe that electronic music is more than a fad, though really, when you get down to the meat and potatoes of it, it’s just not a very interesting shooting game.
We’ll go one further: the Jeff-Minter-esque cycling trippo backgrounds and stages are boring. It looks like something that would be projected onto a bed sheet tacked to a wall at a party for accountants who actually pretend to like Zima. That said, we can appreciate the amazing, Zen-monk-like level of concentration that must have been involved in crafting the game’s many environments. The writer of this review right here has, for the record, drummed in a noise-rock band fond of math-like breaks, where the guitarist would say things like “yeah, there’ll be four measures of feedback and then you just splash in for a couple beats and then I’ll turn down the volume on the guitar and you do a little solo or fill or whatever you call it and then the bass drops in and then I turn the feedback back up and then the bassist will scream and sustain and then I’ll scream and sustain for about two bars” — these conversations would literally go on for six hours at a time. There was no way to record a “demo” of this stuff to show to the band members. It required slow, painful concentrations, hours upon hours of rehearsal — magnitudes more rehearsal than it takes to write and perfect a pop song. Some pop artists might say “it’s harder to write a pop song than an experimental song”, and maybe that’s true, though if you don’t have the balls to be experimental in the first place, you’re going to fall flat on your face two steps out the door. In other words, Rez is a huge achievement. It just happens to also be kind of bullstuff. We have heard that Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s original plan for turning the work of Kandinsky into a synesthesia “experience” videogame was to make a game wherein every motion of the player would make a sound, and every sound would fit the music perfectly. In short: it would be impossible for the music to not sound perfect (only minimal), with obstacles and enemies and stage paths laid out to support this. In long: it would have been mind-blowingly difficult to implement this, so we ended up with kind of the inverse: shooting enemies makes sound; missiles fly at a speed corresponding to the music, so that they can only strike on the proper beat.
Panzer Dragoon Zwei, on the other hand, simply features excellent music, and the chunkiest, violentest, shoom-shoom-shooming pistol sound you could ever hope to hear a thousand times in succession.
If we visit YouTube and watch playthroughs of Rez, we can see comments like this:
“area 5 is one of the best gaming experiences you can get imo”
The mystery begins to solve itself: people who like Rez also feel compelled to say “in my opinion” after stating what is clearly their opinion.
YouTube commenters trying to analyze Rez‘s ending are hilarious:
“o, the machine you had to destroy to save the female figure is “The Machine”? Then, you, like, turn into a butterfly and you, like, see all new colors or something? I’ve always thought everyone saying the entire population of Japan is on drugs was just the only thing that would describe everything Japanese,  this game… It leans me a small bit towards that theory, [though] not entirely…”
And then, the person who had uploaded this perfect play-through of the final stage of Rez, who must consider the game a masterpiece if he is willing to play it until he can score 100% across the board on the hardest stage, replies with this:
“I think the whole story is basically that there’s a virus taking over the network, which is basically the girl turning evil. Once you clear everything out she returns to normal and you save the world! Yahoo!
Haha yes and I totally understand the Japanese thing. Last night my friends and I watched some Japanese movie that was like an anime in real life and there was some crazy stuff going on, we were confused nearly the whole time!”
There you have it! Not going to touch that one any further.
If Rez were a carnival ride, it would be Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”, where all of the pirates were replaced by naked, faceless, sandpaper-smooth department store mannequins standing in front of blue screens. When you got to the end, butterfly-shaped confetti would rain down on your little boat.
Panzer Dragoon Zwei is not only not less of a game than Rez because the planning meetings likely involved a director describing the intended look of stages with words like “mountain”, “forest”, “sky”, “tree” or “airship” instead of “rectangular prism” or “vigorously cycling tetrahedron with a ghostlike trail”, it’s more of a game because it we can actually relate to it at any given moment. In addition to snappy, skill-demanding play mechanics, Panzer Dragoon Zwei has characters, themes, pacing, and a level of conscience and confidence that can only be called “artistic”. Its narrative is simply about a man running away from death, fighting as he goes; the enemies will not quit; either the man overcomes them all or he dies. And somehow, in spite of all this morbidity, it manages to be a relaxing experience.
BONUS CRY FOR HELP: If ever there were a game that deserved a loving, progressive-scan-enabled widescreen remake, Panzer Dragoon Zwei is it. We don’t even care if the polygons are any shinier; we would love the pixels like unfortunate children: we would donate toys to those pixels at Christmastime. This progressive-scan-enabled miracle port could happen in one of two ways: number one, Sega could issue it as a member of their Sega ageS line, as they’ve done with the first Panzer Dragoon, with Afterburner, Afterburner 2, Outrun, and Space Harrier. Or number two: they could make it one of those really super-fancy Xbox Live or PlayStation Network deals.
The extended mention of Rez in this review has managed to slightly peeve off a few email-happy internetizens; we propose that, perhaps, the anger re: Rez might be because Rez got a loving HD port, when Zwei clearly deserves one as well. It’s not fair! That’s all there is to it!