Art may largely be a matter of taste, but one conclusion is close to inarguable: 1998 was the best year ever for video games, producing an unparalleled lineup of revolutionary releases that left indelible legacies and spawned series and subcultures that persist today. Throughout the year, The Ringer’s gaming enthusiasts will be paying tribute to the legendary titles turning 20 in 2018 by replaying them for the umpteenth time or playing them for the first time, talking to the people who made them, and analyzing both what made them great and how they made later games greater. Our series starts today with Panzer Dragoon Saga, the boundary-breaking, tough-to-obtain 1998 role-playing game (RPG) for the Sega Saturn that’s deservedly become a cult classic.
Weeks ago, when I first tried to acquire Panzer Dragoon Saga, my computer met some malware and blue-screened several times. I installed extra security, removed the intruder, and reached the Sega startup screen. When that display appeared striped with unexplained lines, I tinkered with settings to get the game to run smoothly. When the second of its four discs refused to load, I downloaded a different version that worked. When my fingers felt the first hints of oncoming keyboard cramp, I purchased a special, retrofitted Saturn controller that could connect to my PC. And when the game froze repeatedly at one of the last lines of dialogue before the final fight, I scoured forums for a fix and, after again beating several bosses, made my way past the sticking point to the cutscenes and credits beyond.
The struggle was worth it. In fact, it felt right. Saga is a game about a world in ruins, produced by a disintegrating development team haunted by heartbreak at a company in decline. Creating it pushed people on both sides of the Pacific past their breaking points, so it’s only appropriate that playing it would also be almost impossible. As Panzer Dragoon creator Yukio Futatsugi tells me via email, translated from Japanese, “It was such a difficult process that even now, when I run into problems, I think, ‘Well, at least this isn’t as hard as when we were developing Panzer Dragoon Saga.’”
Like a lot of the 1998 titles whose 20th anniversaries we’ll be celebrating throughout 2018, Panzer Dragoon Saga is one of the greatest games of all time. Unlike most of the games scheduled for the rest of this retrospective series, very few people have played it. Its scarcity has conferred a cult-classic status that’s become part of its appeal: It’s The Goldfinch hidden behind the headboard. To play it is to enter an exclusive, clued-in club and join the sparse population that’s had the pleasure of seeing Saga’s equally sparse and lonely landscapes. But because the game is so good, its elusiveness, scant sales figures, and skyrocketing prices on the secondary market are also regrettable, echoing and amplifying the sense of loss and sadness that suffused its development, setting, and story.
Saga, which came out in January 1998 in Japan (where it was known as Azel: Panzer Dragoon RPG) and April 1998 in North America, is the sequel to two previous Panzer Dragoon games: the original Panzer Dragoon, which launched alongside the Saturn in North America in 1995, and Panzer Dragoon II Zwei, which followed the next year. All three games were developed by Team Andromeda, an internal Sega design unit led by Futatsugi, who was only 23 and two years into his Sega career when he conceptualized the series and began helming the project. Futatsugi’s first two Panzer Dragoon games were “rail shooters,” a genre that places the player in partial control of a vehicle or character that proceeds along a set path; the player aims, shoots, and dodges as the scenery inexorably scrolls by at a predetermined pace.
In that respect, Futatsugi’s brainchild belonged to the lineage of earlier Sega rail-shooter arcade classics like Space Harrier and After Burner. But Panzer Dragoon was different, from its 360-degree camera control (an impressive feat at the dawn of the 3-D era) to its stirring soundtrack which, in a rarity for games of that era and attributable to Futatsugi’s origins as an aspiring filmmaker, was written after the levels were finished, allowing the score to be synced to the events on-screen for maximum image-sound synergy. And rather than featuring a fixed-wing aircraft as After Burner had, Panzer Dragoon put the player in control of an animated dragon with flapping wings and an undulating tail, the better to show off the Saturn’s processing power. But regular dragons would have been too basic for Futatsugi’s innovative cell inside Sega; as veteran Panzer Dragoon designer and director Manabu Kusunoki explained when Saga came out, “That is just what these bio-engineered creatures are called in this world; they’re not related to ‘real’ dragons in any way. I’ve always liked breaking people’s preconceived notions.” So did the rest of the team.
Zwei expanded on the original’s offerings, adding branching paths through each level, upgradeable dragons, and unlockable content to pad the original’s brief playtime. At its core, though, Zwei was the same game. Its sequel would be dramatically different.
Part of Panzer Dragoon’s appeal had always been the games’ tantalizing looks at a larger mythology lurking on the periphery as the player soared past. The world of Panzer Dragoon was run-down, ruined, and yes, postapocalyptic, although that last adjective is so often applied in pop culture criticism that it undersells Panzer’s special stew of antecedents. The series owed debts to a smattering of sci-fi/fantasy works from Futatsugi’s formative years: Dune, Mad Max, Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the French animated series Les Mondes Engloutis, Brian Aldiss’s novel The Long Afternoon of Earth, and Arzach and The Incal—comics by the French artist and writer Jean Giraud (a.k.a. Moebius), who created original artwork for Panzer Dragoon, including the first game’s Japanese cover art. Many of these influences contained common elements: hardscrabble societies scavenging amid the bones of bygone, advanced civilizations; devastated ecosystems; unnatural nature run amok.
In another tactic borrowed from the film world, Saga was developed concurrently with Zwei to expedite its production, but still took two extra years to finish. It was also designed to delve deeply into that dystopic setting, of which Panzer Dragoon players had previously only been given a glimpse. “Because there was a positive reaction to the view of the world we got in the first Panzer Dragoon game, [Futatsugi’s then-boss and Panzer Dragoon producer Yoji Ishii] suggested that we make an RPG featuring that world,” Futatsugi says. It would be a fully-fledged role-playing game, one with a wealth of well-rendered cutscenes, a dynamic turn-based battle system, a memorable cast of characters, and a mix of on-foot exploration and dragon-riding—this time, with no directional limitations. But while Saga would escape the strictures of the rail shooter, enabling leisurely progress through its fully navigable environments, it couldn’t slow the march of time and technology.
When the first Panzer Dragoon game came out, Sega was riding high, having toppled Nintendo from its previously impervious perch as the Genesis stole a chunk of the NES maker’s market share. “Sega was the best game company in the early to mid-’90s,” former Sega of America employee Chris Lucich says via email. Lucich, along with Matt Underwood, worked as a lead tester and text editor for Panzer Dragoon Saga’s North American release. “It was also an incredibly fun place to work. You’d go home from work and your face and abs would hurt from smiling and laughing all day.”
By the time Saga came out in 1998, though, Sega of America was well into the depressing process of shrinking from a boom-time total of 2,200 employees to what Lucich calls a “skeleton crew” of 200. The Saturn, Sega’s powerful CD-based successor to the Genesis, had lost the latest round of console wars to Sony’s PlayStation and Nintendo’s N64, sunk by a steep $399 launch price (roughly $650 in today’s dollars), a rushed release on the heels of Sega’s market-cluttering 32X Genesis add-on, a lack of third-party software support (exacerbated by the system’s difficult-to-work-with dual CPU), and the absence of an original platformer starring Sega mascot Sonic. With Sega on the verge of discontinuing the Saturn and scheduled to release its next system, the Dreamcast, later that year, Saga would be one of the Saturn’s last games.
“That project was in a very strange transitional period for Sega,” Underwood says, also via email. “The Saturn was pretty much dead, employees were fleeing the company, and personally I pretty much figured it was going to be the last thing I did for Sega. … Those final U.S. releases were just painful because they were all great games, but Sega had moved on to developing Dreamcast.”
Worse still, Sega was expecting Saga to sell in the millions and compete with the PlayStation’s flagship RPG, Final Fantasy VII. But Final Fantasy VII had come out a year earlier with an enormous development and marketing budget behind it and had become a huge hit, going on to sell more than to 10 million copies worldwide. Saga simply may not have had the crowd-pleasing potential of Square’s classic; as Underwood says, “The Panzer Dragoon world was used up and the people were just trying to survive. More Mad Max than Sonic. … We ended up basically positioning the game as the polar opposite of PlayStation’s big RPG in tone.” It was also facing competition from Grandia, another well-loved Saturn RPG that beat it to market by a bit more than a month. For those reasons or others, Saga perplexed and disappointed Sega by selling only 110,000 copies in Japan, according to VGChartz.
Outside of Japan, it made an even smaller sales impact. Between the Dreamcast’s impending arrival, the Saturn’s sunset, and the game’s financial flop in its home country, where it had received a wide release, Saga wasn’t set up to succeed in North America or Europe, where retailers had grown reluctant to stock Saturn games. “Matt and I were telling the execs and sales, ‘Go go go! Make more!!! This game is special!’” Lucich says. Their appeals were ignored, and a diminished and distracted marketing department devoted little money or time to what looked like a low-dollar dead end. “We had almost no marketing for the game,” says Lucich, who took to sending screenshots to bloggers just to spread the word. “Just a couple of print ads.”
The story was the same at Sega Europe. Former Sega Europe employee David Nulty, who was credited as a producer of Panzer Dragoon Saga, was tasked with playing Sega games sent from Japan to assess their suitability for the European market. Without his advocacy, Saga might not have been released in that region at all. “What I do remember is how impressed I was when the game arrived at work,” Nulty says via email, recalling that its art direction, character/creature designs, soundtrack, and cinematic cutscenes made it “one of the most epic-feeling games the Saturn ever had.”
According to Underwood and Lucich, only 20,000 North American copies were produced in Saga’s initial run. After those sold out in two days, between 2,000 and 5,000 more were made. Then the tap turned off forever. Nulty recalls an “extremely small run” of roughly 1,000 copies being ordered in Europe.
As a result, the non-Japanese versions of Saga are almost impossible to play today. If gamers want to revisit another 1998 classic—Grim Fandango, say, or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time—they have options: The former got a remastered release in 2015, while the latter has been ported to or remastered for four Nintendo systems (with more maybe on the way). If they want to play Panzer Dragoon Saga, which has been ported to zero non-Saturn systems, they have no attractive options. On eBay, gamers can pay upwards of $1,000 for a factory-sealed copy or anywhere from a few to several hundred dollars for a used one, hoping that the disc isn’t scratched and that their Saturn’s aging disc drive won’t die. Or they can do something slightly illegal: Download a pirated disc image and play it on a modded Saturn or a software Saturn emulator. I did the latter; since there’s no way to get the game physically aside from a sale on the secondary market—the proceeds of which wouldn’t go to the game makers—I’m still sleeping well.
If a gamer does go to the trouble (or expense) of getting Saga one of those ways, he or she will be rewarded with an experience that contemporary game developers could take a cue from. (Also, I’ve learned that it is possible to download a clean copy of the game that won’t sabotage one’s system.) In Saga, the player controls a young mercenary named Edge who’s helping the Empire excavate artifacts left buried by the Ancients who once ruled (and despoiled) the land. As the game begins, he’s attacked by a rogue Imperial named Craymen who orders his henchmen to kill all of Edge’s co-mercenaries (including his quasi-adoptive dad), abduct a mysterious girl named Azel (whom the excavation crew had just unearthed from the ruins in suspended animation), and leave Edge for dead. Miraculously, Edge is rescued by the dragon that he rides for the rest of the game, and he sets off in search of Craymen.
Zwei was a straight-up revenge story, and Saga starts out that way. But its seemingly simple plot soon broadens and deepens into a moral morass where no one is wholly heroic, including Edge. The Empire, which Edge initially supports, is seeking to harness the technology left by the Ancients—namely, a network of towers that regulates the environment but also produces genetically modified monsters that keep the human population in check. Craymen is ruthlessly seeking to stop the Empire in order to free the world from the Ancients’ influence. And Azel, it turns out, is determined to help him, battling Edge, her would-be rescuer, in multiple early encounters. As the game goes on, Edge’s certainty about Craymen’s motivations dissipates. “I thought so at first,” he says, when asked if Craymen is his enemy. “Honestly, I don’t know anymore.”
Further blurring the lines between bad and good, Azel—Saga’s most memorable character, and another manifestation of its mold-breaking—is an artifact made of the same stuff as the monsters, whom she pities but still destroys. “The one thing we didn’t want was your typical wide-eyed, anime-style little girl,” Kusunoki said when the game came out. “We laid that down as a rule from the start. As a result I think we’ve created a character in Azel who really matches the mood of this world.” Azel’s emotional awakening—reflected in her dialogue’s shift from making impersonal observations to saying “I think” and, finally, “I feel”—is the game’s most affecting emotional arc.
Saga’s story unfolds over what amounts to a 90-minute movie embedded between battles and exploratory stages. “At the time, it was typical to show cutscenes using prerecorded full-motion video,” Futatsugi says. “We presented all our cutscenes using real-time 3-D CG. We also recorded voices for all of the dialogue, to preserve a single feeling throughout the entire game, which was really new.” Saga begins with almost 20 minutes of cutscenes, which—while maybe a bit much from a pacing perspective—was a powerful flex in early 1998. Saga’s commitment to full (Japanese) voice acting—aside from snippets of “Panzerese,” a constructed language that the linguistically inclined Futatsugi designed to impart a sense of place to his series—even extends to the non-player characters Edge encounters in combat and in on-foot sequences throughout the game. Final Fantasy didn’t add voice acting until Final Fantasy X, which came out three and a half years later.
That dialogue was layered over Saori Kobayashi’s plaintive soundtrack, which fuses synthesizers and tribal beats in an ethereal mix that mirrors the game’s blend of high-tech and homebrew machinery. Kobayashi says via email that there were “instances when I had to create a particular type of music for the first time ever, so I ended up listening to ethnic folk music from all around the world. In that sense, it was a tough project for me.” In another conceptual leap for video game scores of that era, she also had to “make main themes for each character and setting, and then place those melodies into each location of the game” in order to enhance Saga’s cinematic feel.
Everything about Saga was similarly ambitious, largely because the developers on Team Andromeda didn’t realize how huge a task they had taken on. “A fully 3-D RPG with beautiful visuals—that kind of game hardly existed anywhere in the world, which meant that no matter what aspect of the game we worked on, we had the challenge of making it entirely from whole cloth,” Futatsugi says. This was bad for Team Andromeda, but good for gamers. Because the developers were new to the genre, they reinvented everything rather than rely on any stale formulae of RPGs past.
The result is an RPG for people who think they don’t like RPGs. While leveling up in Saga supplies the usual sense of empowerment and progression, the game eschews the slow starts, tedious travel, and copious fetch quests that typify the genre, skipping straight to the dragon riding and monster slaying. And although its four discs are intimidating, much of that storage space is absorbed by the video and dialogue. A playthrough lasts less than 20 hours—long enough to feel meaty, but not so bloated that it becomes a burden. In that sense, Saga is the antithesis of that 60- to 80-hour RPG odyssey that many gamers have heard such great things about but just haven’t found time to play.
One way Saga achieves that relative brevity is by pruning the party system that normally allows RPG players to accumulate controllable characters. In Saga, only Edge and his dragon are playable, and the rest of the cast is kept to several core characters so as not to spread them too thin from a story perspective. As Futatsugi said in 2007, “I wanted you to be able to concentrate on the person in front of you and have it mean something.” That tight focus also eliminates most of the maintenance work that RPGs impose: scrolling through menus, emptying out inventories, parsing skill trees. The May 1998 issue of Sega Saturn Magazine (which included the first disc of the game as a giveaway) made Saga’s stripped-down interface a selling point, raving, “Panzer Saga has the simplest controls of any RPG ever!”
Despite the simplicity of its systems, Saga’s combat contains a great deal of depth. Here, too, Team Andromeda’s lack of preconceived notions around RPGs resulted in a singular solution. “At that time, most RPGs were just random-encounter games like Phantasy Star,” Lucich says. “You walk through a maze and then Boom! Four Jelly Blobs appear. Then the text windows appear: ATTACK SPELL ITEM RUN.” By comparison, Saga’s system feels almost like real-time action—a byproduct of its developers’ desire to blend RPG conventions with Panzer Dragoon’s signature gunplay (and lasers). “What does exhilarating shooting combat look like in an RPG?” Futatsugi recalls wondering while planning the game. “Deciding the answer to that question,” he says, “was extremely difficult.”
The answer he arrived at was uniquely satisfying. Saga allows the player to shoot enemies as Edge or command his dragon to deploy lasers or devastating special attacks, with the number of available moves governed by a gauge that charges up over time. In a technical tour de force (by 1998 standards), one can also customize the dragon during battles, moving any of four opposing ability sliders one way or another to change the dragon’s appearance and attributes and unlock class-specific attacks. “Magic and Attack were opposites,” Lucich recalls. “Defense and Agility were opposites. This was so cool. I’ve never seen it in another game.”
Better yet, Saga preserved its predecessors’ kinetic component by permitting players to swoop around enemies to avoid attacks and target weak points, tipped off by a compass that indicated the most and least dangerous locations. Battles weren’t wars of attrition in which the player and computer exchanged broadsides until one side’s health bar was emptied; attacks required creativity, and the faster the player dispatched the opponent, the greater the rewards in experience and loot. Sweeping camera movements coupled with martial music made each encounter seem cinematic. “I’m not particularly a huge fan of turn-based battles in RPGs, as I find them a bit of a grind, and the constant random interruptions quite an annoyance,” Nulty says. “But I liked the way you could constantly jostle position around the enemies to avoid incoming attacks and strategically position yourself for attacks on the enemy. Much more engaging!”
All of this innovation took its toll on the team, which grew to 40 members (double the size of Zwei’s) amid delays. “I was exhausted, the team was exhausted, and since there were a lot of people on the team to deal with the massive volume of work, and at the time there wasn’t as much managerial know-how for handling large projects, there was a lot of pressure to domineer over the staff,” Futatsugi says. “I remember being really rough on them too.” The crunch—an industry term for the soul-crushing, round-the-clock schedule that often sets in during the last stages of development—was almost intolerable. “At the peak of production, everyone worked until the early-morning train left,” Futatsugi says. “Then they went home and napped for a few hours before coming back to work. Some people who lived far away just stayed overnight at the company, just working in a style that’s impossible now.” The exhausted team blew off some of the stress of sleepless nights and sky-high expectations by playing fighting games on an SNK Neo Geo arcade cabinet during lunch breaks.
Saga’s creators were beset by tragedy, too. During development, one of Futatsugi’s workers was killed in a motorcycle accident, and one of Futatsugi’s superiors took his own life. In the past, Futatsugi has suggested that the strain of the game may have contributed to at least one of the deaths. “The passing of our staff members produced a huge shock in all of us,” he tells me now. “One of the persons who died had a close relationship with me, so their loss affected me for a long time.”
On the other side of the Pacific, Lucich and Underwood were working equally hard to localize the game, knowing full well that few players would ever appreciate their efforts. As devoted fans of the previous Panzer games, they were motivated to make Saga as good as they could, even though Sega looked like a sinking ship. “We worked every night until 4 a.m. to get it all done,” Lucich says. “I actually had severe bronchitis on the last day it was in test, and I was sent home. I wanted to be there for the end, but I was coughing up blood, literally. I was trying to tell people, ‘No, I’m good.’”
Working with little supervision and extensive creative control, the two took a very rough, out-of-sequence translation of the game’s dialogue and text that was separated into thousands of text files and missing hundreds of pages and polished it into elegant English, filling in the gaps with their own interpretation of the story gleaned from playing the game’s Japanese build. “So much of the text in general was vague or weirdly translated that we did take a lot of liberties,” Underwood says.
The mid-20s tag team took advantage of their free rein by inserting some inside jokes. “We had fun renaming some of the creatures that really didn’t translate over to English well,” Underwood says. “Like the weakest monster in the game is named Pattergo. We named it after the two right fielders on the Sega softball team (Patterson and Pedigo) who we always wished we could merge into one player because one had no arm and the other couldn’t catch. The Baldor was Lucich’s girlfriend’s dog.” In a bid to generate backdoor buzz, they even included an Easter egg that echoed the era’s most famous South Park catchphrase, captured in the quintessentially 1998 screenshot below.
But most of the changes Lucich and Underwood made doubled down on the darkness that they found in the game. “I do remember reading dark fantasy novels right before writing Panzer to get my head in the right place,” Lucich says. “I wanted that dark postapocalyptic feel.” Saga was sometimes upsetting: In one scene, Edge is brutally tortured; in another, an entire town—which Edge has sworn to protect—is destroyed. (Few games have ever made me feel guiltier.) In one area, Edge comes across the corpse of a hunter named Radgam, whom he’s previously met in town. According to Lucich, the text about the body in the first draft simply said that Radgam was dead. But with each revision, he and Underwood went into greater detail. “Every time we edited this guy’s corpse it got worse and worse,” Lucich says. “I think Radgam ended up with shattered bones, his eyes sucked out of his head, and a bloodless corpse. It’s a harsh world.”
The most meaningful contribution that the duo at Sega of America made involved the central relationship between Azel and Edge. “Azel and Edge’s romance in the Japanese version is sketched thinly,” Futatsugi says. “It’s not presented explicitly, but it’s expressed in a way where you can feel it in the air. … However, when we developed the U.S. version, because the localization staff said that this wouldn’t come across to U.S. players, we decided to express the romance more explicitly.”
Once again, a developer’s personal ordeal crucially shaped Saga’s tone. “I was going through a bad breakup before working on Panzer,” says Lucich, who had split from a woman whom he’d met, and declared that one day he would one day marry, when he was 10. “So I put all of my ‘tragic love story’ energy into the game.”
By design, Saga’s ending is open to interpretation; as Kusunoki said in 1998, “One of the features of the Panzer Dragoon series is that in the games, we only reveal one-fifth of the total world we’ve actually created. That is to leave space for players’ imaginations.” The consensus, though, says that Edge is dead (or at least not fully alive) all along. In one of its closing cutscenes, the game breaks the fourth wall, revealing that the “Divine Visitor” referenced throughout the story is the player, who in powering up the system reanimates Edge. At the end of the game, the text instructs the player to “press the button”—that is, finish the game and power down the system, thereby stranding or erasing Edge. Sega of America never received translated text for the post-credits cutscene in which Azel sets off to find Edge, so Lucich spun it how he saw it. “I figured the best ending was for Azel, who was an immortal guardian, to search the world forever and never find her first love,” he says.
It’s a tragic ending to a game with a tragic real-life origin story. But like so much else, it sets Saga apart. “I think the love story in Panzer Dragoon Saga was one of the first love stories in a video game that was deeper than ‘Sorry Mario, the princess is in another castle,’” Lucich says. If Edge and Azel had ended up together, the ending might not have had the same heft. And maybe they would have, if Lucich hadn’t lost his own love. The breakup, Lucich says, “helped me write the best emotional ending.”
The industry’s increasing sophistication hasn’t made Saga’s story seem dated. “Even today, when we now have Mass Effect, The Witcher, and Metal Gear Solid V, [Saga] still holds its own in terms of story and setting,” John Szczepaniak, author of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, says via email. “I genuinely cannot think of a game whose story impresses me more. … Keep in mind, this was back in 1998—a time when mainstream society still looked down on video games.”
As a first-time Panzer player, I’m unswayed by nostalgia when I say that the endgame inspires the same sort of reaction in 2018 that it did during the Clinton administration. “There were some big tough dudes in Sega Test at the time, and I’d ask them, ‘How did you like it?’ as they finished,” Lucich says. “Some of them had tears and said, ‘It…was…great…” in a choked-up voice. The PR group watched the final few scenes and cried. They didn’t even experience the whole story. When you can reach people on an emotional level, it means that the story worked.”
Team Andromeda was built to develop Panzer Dragoon. Having completed Panzer Dragoon Saga, it disintegrated like one of Edge’s foes at the end of a fight. Veterans of the series scattered to other studios both inside and outside of the downsizing Sega, and Futatsugi, stripped of his team, quit the company and went to work for Konami and later spent to time with both Sony and Microsoft before co-founding his own studio. At Sega of America in Redwood City, no fanfare greeted the game’s release. Underwood sold an autographed copy of the Panzer Dragoon Saga production discs on eBay to pay for pizza for himself, Lucich, and the game’s testers. “That was our launch party for one of the best games of its time,” Lucich says.
I wish I could claim that Saga’s story has a happier ending than Edge’s; that while Team Andromeda and Sega of America’s critically acclaimed work went underappreciated by the public in its time, subsequent generations have discovered what the gamers of two decades ago missed. Or, to paraphrase the popular line about the Velvet Underground, that while few people bought Panzer Dragoon Saga, those who did all started their own game-design companies. The truth is, though, that Panzer Dragoon is rarely explicitly cited by modern developers. Last year, Yoko Taro, the director of one of 2017’s best titles, Nier: Automata, acknowledged his affection for Panzer Dragoon. But when I reached him via Twitter, he declined to classify the series as an inspiration. “Despite my admiration for Panzer Dragoon, it didn’t influence my work,” he said (translated from Japanese). “I just like fantastic shooting games.” And even he, a self-professed Panzer Dragoon fan, hasn’t played Panzer Dragoon Saga.
Former Team Andromeda developers went on to apply the lessons they learned from Saga to other great titles, including Shenmue, Rez, and 2002 Xbox sequel Panzer Dragoon Orta, the fourth and (thus far) final Panzer Dragoon game, which was made without Futatsugi and stripped away Saga’s RPG elements, returning the series to its simpler, rail-shooting roots. But Saga’s greatest legacy may be the way that players who discover it today retroactively see Saga in so many other games that came after Team Andromeda’s demise.
In Saga’s story of distant descendants depending on, chafing under, and warring over the crutch of ancient terraforming technology, I spotted coincidental alignments with Guerrilla Games’ 2017 standout Horizon Zero Dawn. Guerrilla Games director Mathijs de Jonge says that the company researched Saga while working on a flying section of their previous game, 2011 shooter Killzone 3, but John Gonzalez, a writer for Horizon who joined Guerrilla in 2013, says Saga didn’t serve as a reference point during the game’s pre-production. Likewise, Saga’s portrayal of an intimate computer companion that both protects and draws strength from the player suggests obvious parallels to Fumito Ueda’s Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and most of all, The Last Guardian. “You could pet your dragon and you could feel it bond with you,” Lucich says. “No other game did that at the time. The dragon was more than a vehicle.” Those similarities to Saga don’t detract from the greatness of Horizon or Ueda’s oeuvre, but they do burnish Saga’s street cred: Horizon and Ico et al. are regarded as distinctive and original games, and Saga got to some of the same territory first.
Graphically, the game looks its age. “I go ‘Whoa...’ when I look at that game now,” Futatsugi says, and he doesn’t mean “Whoa” in a good way. To some extent, Saga’s art, atmosphere, and action make up for its pixelated landscapes and short draw distances; Szczepaniak makes the case that “the grainy low-resolution textures actually enhance the feeling of age,” adding that “ancient things are meant to be grainy and rough. The low-polygon monsters, meanwhile, seem all the more alien, precisely because they’re misshapen and malformed.” Similarly, Kobayashi believes that the need to reduce the number of frequencies and shorten the number of loops in the game’s sound files to sidestep the Saturn’s memory limitations paid creative dividends. “The final quality of the audio is indeed below that of the original compositions,” she says. “However, I personally believe these downsampled files actually convey the desolate world of Panzer Dragoon better.” There’s truth to both of those arguments, but because Saga dates from gaming’s awkward, 3-D adolescence, it could benefit from an audiovisual upgrade.
Sadly, aside from a newly released rearrangement of the game’s soundtrack, one almost certainly won’t be forthcoming because of a final, fitting twist to Saga’s semi-cursed story. According to multiple sources, Sega lost Saga’s source code amid the massive restructuring that followed Team Andromeda’s demise, which means that the company can’t “remaster” the game. Instead, it would have to recreate it from scratch, as Square Enix is doing with Saga’s old rival, Final Fantasy VII. Although Saga is a staple of lists about the best games that people never played, rebuilding a title that didn’t sell well the first time would be a dubious investment for Sega. “It’s such a shame that it couldn’t enjoy a second life as a remastered version on the latest consoles,” Nulty says. “I think there is the appetite now in the West for quality Japanese RPGs, whereas the market for them back in 1998 was very niche/hardcore.”
If Futatsugi could redo Saga using today’s technology, he would make it less linear and less insular than the cutting edge allowed two decades ago. “Make it open-world and as much as possible allow the player to make their own choices,” he says. “Make a strong correlation between the characters’ responses and behaviors and the player’s actions, so that the characters change depending on the player’s choices. Also, I think there would be online communication. I have an image of each player’s game content like a different parallel world.” He also expresses interest in playing Panzer Dragoon in VR—assuming a publisher ever presented itself. “There is no plan for a new Panzer Dragoon,” Futatsugi says.
It’s tempting to wonder what might have been had Saga come out at a better time or on an ascendant console, like the PlayStation. But maybe the mysterious Saga wouldn’t be itself without the whiff of unattainability. “On PlayStation the colors are more bright, and on Saturn the colors are cloudier,” Futatsugi once said. “So to express the atmosphere of Panzer, it was necessary to have the color palette of the Saturn.” Some work isn’t meant for the mainstream, and some treasure is supposed to stay hidden. As long as it’s missing, we have something to pursue.
If we’re stuck with the same old Saga forever, that wouldn’t be so bad. “To this day, I love the game,” Lucich says. “It felt like art. … Panzer Dragoon Saga has heart.” In a 2005 blog post that, like Panzer Dragoon Saga, is now available only in archived form, Futatsugi described the design principles that he said had guided him during Panzer Dragoon’s development. “I want to create something with permanence; something that will remain in the hearts of the group of people I made the game for; something for those who are starving for a new experience; something that will stay fresh and unique 10 years after its release; something that uses graphics and sound to leave a mark in the minds of players; something that doesn’t look like any other game,” Futatsugi wrote. With Panzer Dragoon Saga, he miscalculated in only one way: He created something that’s stayed fresh and unique for twice as long as intended.
Thanks to Peter Day and Kazuto Yamazaki for translation assistance.