The Making Of... Panzer Dragoon Saga Part 1
The first part of Retro Gamer's lookback at the brilliant Panzer Dragoon Series
Published on Dec 17, 2008
Sega found itself in competition with a newcomer – Sony, with its PlayStation console – and preparing for a battle in which the rules of combat were not immediately clear to the more established of the two parties.
Still, by 1993, Sega’s higher-ups had decided they wanted cutting-edge 3D games to form the crux of the early Saturn line-up. One of the teams established to produce such titles was christened ‘Team Andromeda’ and would, during its five-year existence, shape a unique game series matching the allure of 3D shoot-’em-ups with an otherworldly RPG context. Team Andromeda’s work culminated in the legendary 1998-vintage Panzer Dragoon Saga, a scarce game whose monetary value today is expensive yet doesn’t seem overpriced (such is the quality of the experience). But first, let’s hitch a ride on dragonback and journey to the first game in the series: Panzer Dragoon.
Kentaro Yoshida is today studio director at Q-Games, the Kyoto outfit behind the retro-styled PixelJunk series of PSN games, but he began his working life at Sega. “When we started work on Panzer Dragoon, I was in my second year at Sega and just a lowly artist,” Kentaro recalls. “For Panzer Dragoon I did texturing, modelling… things like that. I did a lot of work on the boss scenes, as well. We had a veteran art director on the team, and the producer was also an old hand. I became the art director for Panzer Dragoon Zwei, but the concept art and movies were overseen by the previous art director, Manabu Kusunoki, who also did all of the dragon, character and world art in the original Panzer Dragoon.”
In advance of the Saturn’s arrival, Sega had begun to make changes to the structure of its internal teams. This was partly a response to changing technologies, but also a method of reinvigorating its pool of developers. Kentaro explains how Team Andromeda’s make-up affected the production of Panzer Dragoon: “Team Andromeda and Panzer Dragoon were conceived at the same time. Everyone assigned to Andromeda was already working at Sega, but the team line-up was dictated by the fact that the Saturn hardware was quite a bit different from previous Sega consoles. With the Mega Drive, most of the [internal Sega] development teams were experienced ‘consumer division’ people. For Saturn games, though, many developers were brought across from the ‘arcade division’, and in Team Andromeda three of the main people – [art director] Manabu Kusunoki, [system programmer] Hidetoshi Takeshita and [main programmer] Junichi Suto – had always worked on arcade games… until the Panzer Dragoon project began. As a result of that, Panzer Dragoon was from the start intended as an arcade-style game. The people with the arcade development background had worked on games such as OutRunners and Rail Chase, which were 3D games that used 2D sprites, so with Panzer Dragoon they wanted to try making a ‘real’ 3D game. I don’t think those of us who came from the Mega Drive side of things would have been able to do that so quickly [without the help of the arcade-experienced team members].”
The main challenges Team Andromeda faced during the development of the first Panzer Dragoon game were inevitably related to the timing of the project and unfamiliarity with the Saturn hardware. “The schedule we were working to was really tight,” Kentaro says. “We actually ended up missing our deadline, which was set as the Japanese launch day of the Saturn hardware. At first we were on the same schedule as the team producing Clockwork Knight, but no matter how hard we worked there was no way we were going to be able to meet that deadline, so Sega ended up putting Clockwork Knight out first and releasing Panzer Dragoon some months later. Sega had wanted a launch line-up of Clockwork Knight, Virtua Fighter and Panzer Dragoon…”
It transpires that Team Andromeda only received prototype Saturn hardware partway through the development of Panzer Dragoon; initially, Andromeda’s programmers had to get along by anticipating how the console was likely to perform. Kentaro elaborates: “At the beginning of Panzer Dragoon’s development, the Saturn hardware wasn’t finalised and we didn’t have any prototype consoles to test with. The artists were using Silicon Graphics’ SoftImage, and the 3D graphics were programmed on workstations using OpenGL. After a while, we were finally able to send things across to the [debug] Saturn we’d received, but the transition was really difficult for the programmers. Of all of us, I’d say the programmers probably had the most difficult job, because of the volume of 3D work they had to get through. They used both of the Saturn’s GPUs in tandem, but I’m not sure how well that really worked out… [laughs]. Early on, the frame rate was terribly low, but eventually they got it up to 20fps.”
In spite of those difficulties, inside Team Andromeda (and, for that matter, the rest of Sega) there was complete confidence in the Saturn’s supposed ability to win the imminent console war. “Sega was still really strong when Team Andromeda was formed and everyone there was certain that the Saturn would not be beaten by the PlayStation,” Kentaro laughs and winces. “Everyone was determined to make sure Sega would win the battle. We thought we’d have no problem making games that were superior to PlayStation games.”
Panzer Dragoon’s on-rails style of play, propelling the player forwards into the screen while introducing enemy targets from all directions, would seem to have been an obvious evolution of the Space Harrier template, but Kentaro believes other games had a greater influence on the direction of the first Panzer game: “I suppose [Space Harrier] did have some influence on the design of Panzer Dragoon, but in terms of games as inspiration, probably Namco’s Starblade, Nintendo’s Star Fox, and Taito’s 2D shoot-’em-ups – particularly RayForce – had more of a bearing on how Panzer was put together. Team Andromeda was full of shoot-’em-up fans – our programmers were especially into [shmups]. When they got tired of coding, they’d take a break from Panzer and play high-score competitions on [Toaplan shmup] Slap Fight on the Mega Drive. We also played Puyo Puyo a lot during Panzer’s development…”
Thanks to its score (penned by a Japanese composer who had produced a series of Krautrock-inspired albums during the Eighties) and its cinematic cut-scenes, Panzer Dragoon was able to make an early break into territory outside the confines of traditional games, and in the process an altogether un-game-like world was created. The classic shoot-’em-ups Kentaro mentions certainly helped to shape Panzer’s style of play, but he reveals that other factors played equally significant roles: “I think there were all sorts of things that had an influence on Panzer Dragoon: particularly anime and films. The concept is completely different, but I’d say the production style of Star Wars was definitely influential – you know, how it made an unearthly world appear so real… Also, we were determined to avoid going down the same path as the sci-fianime that was considered cool at the time – Gundam, for example, with its big robots – and we certainly didn’t want to follow Final Fantasy’s lead, where you’d have characters waving impossibly big swords. Kusunoki was adamant that he didn’t want any Final Fantasy-style unusual haircuts like [gestures a Cloudlike spike] or purple hair or anything like that,” Kentaro laughs. “We wanted to do something closer to reality… with just a normal-looking person as the protagonist.”
The Panzer Dragoon series’ protagonists certainly are quite ‘normallooking’, but the overall visual style of the games – the environments and the dragons, in particular – is distinctly odd, although according to Kentaro it wasn’t always like that: “The first presentation video we put together featured a classically European-style green dragon, a pretty typical kind of dragon. However, we later changed the look of the dragon completely because we wanted to make it more sci-fi. Kusunoki decided to push the art direction in a slightly Turkish-looking, Ottoman style, because everyone was already familiar with the more European aesthetics [and he wanted Panzer Dragoon to look different from other games].”
Ottoman and science-fiction influences accounted for, Panzer Dragoon’s cultural mélange is confused even further by the obviously German theme of the Panzer Dragoon games’ titles. “I think Futatsugi was a big fan of German names,” Kentaro explains. Yukio Futatsugi is also the Team Andromeda member credited with constructing the unique language heard in the Panzer Dragoon games – but why did he choose to develop an original language for the games in the first place? “If the games had used Japanese language,” Kentaro says, “well, Japanese people at the time didn’t really think of their language as a cool thing… And if the characters had been speaking English, the games would have seemed too American, too close to Hollywood. So Futatsugi wanted something completely different and decided to make his own language. Also, there was a famous anime film called Oneamis No Tsubasa [English title: Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise] that used its own language, and we all thought that was really excellent…”
Other artistic influences came to the fore in Panzer Dragoon, even though the same influences were scaled back in Zwei. Specifically, the first game’s on-rails, set-route nature of play enabled Team Andromeda to successfully commission a noted composer-producer to create a score that was perfectly in sync with the game’s own cadences. Yoshitaka Azuma had already produced half-a-dozen albums of soundtrack-style music during the Eighties, informed by ambient and Germany’s Krautrock movement – but Panzer Dragoon was his sensational videogame debut. “For the music in Panzer Dragoon, we gave Azuma a detailed explanation of the timing of the game’s levels,” Kentaro explains. “We’d write notes – things like, ‘The boss appears 30 seconds on from here’ or ‘Water appears at this point’ – to give him an impression of how each level progressed, from start to finish. That’s why the music matches the pace of the game so precisely. We didn’t do the same thing with Zwei, though; just with the first game. I seem to remember this was because we introduced branching levels in Zwei, which would have made that process impossible to replicate…”
Another factor adding to the mystique of Panzer Dragoon was its cover art, which was famously supplied by French artist Moebius: “Everyone at Team Andromeda was a fan of Moebius,” Kentaro says, “so we asked him to do the artwork for the packaging of Panzer Dragoon. For Panzer Dragoon Zwei, we just used some computergenerated images – probably because Moebius was too expensive to commission twice [laughs].”
With Panzer Dragoon out of the door by March 1995 (four months after the Saturn’s Japanese launch), Team Andromeda’s attentions turned immediately to the development of two very different new games: an advanced 3D shoot-’em-up in Panzer Dragoon Zwei, and an RPG with shooting elements in the form of Panzer Dragoon Saga. As Kentaro explains, Team Andromeda expanded to cope with the demands of producing two new games concurrently: “We made Zwei and Panzer Dragoon Saga at the same time. Team Andromeda was split down the middle, effectively becoming two teams. Kusunoki and Futatsugi led the Saga side of things, and quite a few new artists and programmers joined them, while we worked on Zwei. We all knew that making an RPG would take more time than producing another shoot-’em-up, so Panzer Dragoon Zwei was designed to be released before Saga. The original Panzer Dragoon took us a year and a few months to develop, but Zwei was quite a bit quicker to produce – it didn’t even take a full 12 months – because we already had the engine in place from the first game.”
Panzer Dragoon was ahead of its time, but in some respects suffered for how adventurous it was: Panzer Dragoon Zwei, on the other hand, benefited enormously from the experience Team Andromeda had gained in developing the first game. It also reworked the basics of Panzer Dragoon, introducing features such as dragon evolution and multiple paths through levels, in turn adding a layer of depth to the game’s formula that is notably missing from the original Panzer Dragoon. Panzer Dragoon Zwei’s branching levels, Kentaro explains, were the idea of the game’s director, Tomohiro Kondo – “He wanted users to be able to enjoy more variety in the game.” We ask whether Tomohiro Kondo had anything to do with OutRunners – perhaps that’s where the inspiration came from? “Kondo was from a ‘consumer division’ background; only Takeshita had worked on OutRunners… But maybe the influence of OutRun seeped in a little here,” Kentaro laughs.
“As well as the branching courses,” Kentaro continues, “in Zwei we put a lot of effort into introducing dragons that would develop and evolve. I think that was a really good feature, because it meant that players could have their own individual experiences with the game. I seem to remember Futatsugi came up with the idea of evolving dragons, and he wanted it to feature in both Saga and Zwei. Another important improvement in Zwei was the frame rate. Panzer Dragoon was at 20 frames per second most of the time, but the programmers managed to engineer Zwei to 30fps, which made the game feel much smoother to play.”
But it wasn’t just the technical accomplishment of Zwei that put it a level up from the original Panzer Dragoon: the art direction was also more refined, nicely preparing players for the mesmerising world of Panzer Dragoon Saga, which would appear in 1998. “For Zwei, Kusunoki wanted to set a slightly darker tone,” Kentaro says, “and we were joined by a couple of talented youngsters, one of whom was an artist called Ryuta Ueda, who went on to become the art director on Jet Set Radio. He had lots of original ideas that he wanted to see in the Panzer Dragoon world, and the more dynamic boss designs in Zwei were partly thanks to his abilities.”
We ask Kentaro if he can remember how Panzer Dragoon and Panzer Dragoon Zwei were received by Japan’s premier games magazine, Famitsu, but he draws a blank: “I really can’t remember… I think it got a decent score,” he laughs. (For the record, Panzer Dragoon Zwei was awarded a highly respectable 35 out of 40 (9, 8, 10, 8) by Famitsu’s reviewers back in 1996.) Kentaro is more concerned with the favourable reaction of fellow Japanese developers, though: “Even today, many Japanese developers still play the Panzer Dragoon games. Our boss had hoped for more sales than Panzer Dragoon achieved – but it can’t have performed that badly because we got the go-ahead for Zwei and Saga straightaway…”