Some of my favorite toys of all time are the Captain Power spaceships and videotapes. In conjunction, they would simulate a videogame-like experience. The spaceships were designed to be guns with color-sensitive sensors and a light gun that can register hits. The videotape would then play through a flying sequence with missiles and enemy ships colored differently. Purple lights on the screen would register as an attack, and yellow lights (if not avoided) would register as damage. Surprisingly the formula worked, but what really got me going were the flight patterns the videotape would take me. While somewhat derivative of the Star Wars designs, the camera angles would twist and turn in so many different places I often found myself swerving along with the cartoon. Definitely one of the highlights of my childhood life, and I never felt that way again until I played Panzer Dragoon Orta.
The fourth in the legendary series that began in the now defunct Sega Saturn, Panzer Dragoon Orta sticks with what made the first two games (the third being a role-playing game) so wonderful. Each game the dragon would take the player through a wild rollercoaster ride through the minds of the game's art directors under the influence of M.C. Escher, H.R. Giger and a drop of acid. It's all too easy to dismiss the game as a "rails" shooter under pretense. While the game is essentially on the rails (meaning led through a predetermined track through a level), it would just be insulting the intelligence of the designers, as well as over-simplifying the entire experience. Panzer Dragoon Orta is the ultimate trip.
The story begins with the heroine Orta locked in a tower. The city she's in is attacked by imperial dragon forces and is set to kill her. Another dragon that comes out of nowhere then saves her, and the game begins. There's more backstory behind the whole mythology, unfortunately I've only played the first game of the series and the story detailed in the instruction booklet is purposefully vague. But even my lack of know-how in the Panzer Dragoon mythology doesn't take away from the fact that it is a mystical world of imagination and wonder, thanks to the wonderful set and creature designs.
Panzer Dragoon Orta introduces the series to probably most of the American audience. The game is fundamentally different from other rail shooters by allowing the player full 360 degrees camerawork. That means enemies and projectiles attack in from in front of, behind or to the side of you. And when they attack, that means you'll often see a sea of bullets and missiles being hurled at you. Fortunately, you have to options to return fire. Orta packs heat with a standard rapid-fire gun that will shoot down almost any projectile. Holding down the same button and moving it over targets is your secondary form of attack: the dragon. Releasing the button will unleash a homing laser attack to a limited amount of enemies, all targeted when you glide the targeting reticle over them. And after dealing enough damage, Orta's dragon can unleash a berserk attack, which is your standard enemy-clearing attack.
While maneuvering is limited, you can accelerate and decelerate to avoid certain obstacles. Or, during the multi-tiered boss battles, you can use the function to flank, outflank or trail the enemy to find its weak spot or avoid damage. The dragon comes with three different forms: glide, base and heavy. Base is your standard attack form, with rapid-fire lasers and you can target the most enemies with the dragon. Glide shrinks the dragon into what looks like a Chernobyl-born butterfly. While it lacks the dragon's firing ability, it's the most maneuverable and can glide often. The targeting reticle for the handgun is larger and allows for auto-aim, ideal for those hairy situations when you're faced with a wall of missiles to shoot down. Heavy is what it sounds, slow handgun fire and maneuverability, but powerful and limited dragon blasts. All three forms can be upgraded by collecting gene bases, released when you kill certain hard-to-hit enemies. The final forms of all three dragons are truly a sight to behold and are worth the trouble to see.
The beauty of the game is worth the trouble of repeated plays. All of the dragon designs are different from the traditional Euro-centric idea of what a dragon looks like. Puff the Magic Dragon this ain't. The dragon's heavy form has bony appendages in place of what should be his legs. The base form's armor looks like extensions of its skeleton, protruding out of its leathery skin. And the glide form is that deformed butterfly—what MSN's trademark butterfly logo would look like after loading up on several different, strong drugs.
The enemies achieve similar feats of aesthetic design. One moment you could be avoiding being trampled by a herd of Flamingo-like headless dinosaurs, the next you'll be nearly blinded by the beauty of a huge manta ray-like creature that fills the entire area with silvery feathers. When the levels showcase such beauty, it's hard to underestimate the graphical achievement this game is. When the manta ray shed its feathers, I literally was so distracted I ended up dying before I realized what was happening. It's also to the developer's credit how they were able to make it easy for the player to differentiate between destructible and indestructible projectiles. None of the missiles are ever obviously marked, yet they all feature the same white burst behind them, a sure-fire sign that you should shoot them before they reach you. It's subtle touches like this that separate Panzer Dragoon Orta from being a failed shooter. Everything feels classic, because the classic gameplay of 2D shooters from the beginning of this industry remains. There are the beelines of smaller enemies, big enemies fluttering about (or gliding beautifully alongside your dragon) and huge bosses with a weak point.
And like those old Captain Power tapes, I found myself swerving my entire body to the screen. Since Sega coined the term 'blast processing' to publicize their 16-bit Genesis system, only Sonic The Hedgehog has been able to live up to that name. Now Panzer Dragoon Orta has levels that are run through lightning quick without a hint of slowdown. What's also impressive is the player's lack of control over the direction is a worthy sacrifice for the inertia Smilebit was able to replicate through the levels. Those susceptible to motion sickness be warned: Smilebit were able to devote very convincing flight physics to the camera and movements, some of the best ever captured in a videogame cartridge or disc.
There are plenty of goodies in the disc as well. Not only are the movies and folklore from the previous games accessible, but also the entire first game of the series. Panzer Dragoon was a launch game for the Sega Saturn, and it's certainly a treasure that it is preserved in Orta. I do regret that the other games weren't included, but that's just asking for too much.
Panzer Dragoon Orta effectively dodges criticism about being too linear or restrictive because that was always the point of the series, and they never indicated once that it would change. I do wish that a different approach might be taken eventually, because this world is just too detailed to be restricted to mere roller coaster shooting. But as Orta herself would probably tell you, it's not easy telling a legendary dragon of destruction where to go. You're just along for the ride and fortunately he picks the most scenic and difficult areas. Yes this game may be difficult for some players. I found normal to be a hefty challenge and hard was just outright dangerous. But the player gets incentives to keep going to unlock all the goodies (including the previous movies of the series) by scoring higher, playing longer and overall just getting better.
The Panzer Dragoon series finally have found their Trojan horse in Panzer Dragoon Orta, reaching American gamers in a way that the other installments could not. Panzer Dragoon Orta is a non-revolutionary, absolutely refined piece of art with Salvador Dali-like appeal. It is one of the crown moments of the genre, of the Xbox and of the next generation. It's now part of a proud lineage that consists of Galaga, Gradius, Star Fox and its own previous installments. And now it has become part of that eternal child within me that isn't afraid to duck and swerve in front of a television.