One of you out there reading this has my copy of Panzer Dragoon Zwei. I can just feel it.
Don't worry. I'm not going to start naming names.
I'm not going to go easy on you, either. I had to go through a lot of garbage to get that game. I'm not going to get into it now. Suffice it to say, it was quite a dangerous encounter at a used game store in -- what, 1999?
I have played that copy of Panzer Dragoon Zwei at least once a week since getting my hands on it. I loaned it to you three months ago, almost. It's time to give it back.
I'm leaving the country in . . . oh, four hours? I'm coming back in three months. I expect my game to be waiting at my house.
I'll be glad to see it, too. Even though I'll most definitely have bought a new Japanese Sega Saturn and a gently used copy of the game by then, I'll be glad to have the game back. That copy of that game is my small triumph; it was my triumph over the dark memories of the sad day when the clerks at the Electronics Boutique in the Castleton Square Mall in Indianapolis, Indiana sold the copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga I'd actually preordered. They didn't even call me when it came in.
And now, you don't even call me to arrange to give me back my game. Your girlfriend borrowed a scarf from me, for God's sake. What are you people? I mean, really?
I browse, out of mild sadomasochistic tendencies, the GameFaqs.com message boards. You, with my copy of Panzer Dragoon Zwei, and your girlfriend, with my scarf -- you're the kinds of people who'd complain about Panzer Dragoon Orta's length.
"It only took me three hours."
"I beat it in an afternoon."
"It was only, like, ten levels."
"It wasn't even that fun. Just lots of shooting stuff."
"The last boss was too hard."
"I didn't get the story."
You're also the kind of people to refer to videogames in the past tense. Which is okay -- you're grown up now, maybe -- and games are slowly slipping behind you. Is that it? Might your fingers no longer yearn for the thrill of the analog-stick-whipping, multiple-lock-on-ing hunt? Might the sight of laser blasts no longer impress you? Might a made-up cross between German and Japanese not keep you bolted to your recliner?
Well, uh . . . me neither.
I honestly don't know what the hell happened with Panzer Dragoon Orta. It is, on the one hand, a well-crafted on-rails shooter with plenty of pretty scenery and ugly boss monsters. On the other hand, it stuffs its predecessors' characteristically spare gameplay full of must-keep-constant-watch-over special abilities that rob us of most of the pleasure that used to come with holding down the fire button, swinging the controller around, and targeting a dozen enemies. Panzer Dragoon Orta, then, is flawed, in that it is missing the one thing that keeps me coming back to Panzer Dragoon Zwei: joy.
There is joy from the onset in Panzer Dragoon Zwei. Your dragon, Lagi, begins that game without the ability to fly. So it is that for the first few levels your dragon runs as you gun down airplanes from afar until you find a way to take them on from the air. When the dragon finally does fly, there's a crash of music, and then silence, and then the rushing of winds -- and then the enemies come in.
In the beginning of Panzer Dragoon Orta, you're flying through a rainstorm, followed by a few hundred angry soldiers on dragons. You either shoot fast, or you die. At the end of the level, you're still flying, still sweating. It's not until four levels later that your dragon is grounded until he grows some bigger wings. At that point in the game, we're wondering: why don't they just let me fly again already?
Smilebit is starting to gravely disappoint me. They're disappointing me in the worst way: with mediocrity as opposed to truly bad games. So yes, in some respects, I would call Panzer Dragoon Orta a mediocre game. It's missing the soul and joy of Zwei.
Smilebit are a talented team of individuals, I'm sure, to be able to craft such detailed worlds as those of Jet Set Radio Future and Panzer Dragoon Orta. When it comes to actual game design, they're known to take risks that don't always pay off. Making the camera button and the graffiti button one and the same in Jet Set Radio was like a callout for death threats from angry players. Gun Valkyrie's odd control scheme shook the nerves of even those who purchased it for ten dollars at Blockbuster. The slightly questionable decision to make Jet Set Radio Future control like a sloth in a pool of chocolate syrup also comes to mind.
With Orta, Smilebit should have known better than to mess around. They were taking up the work of legendary Team Andromeda; the basic concept and control scheme was in place from before the game's formal planning stages. All Smilebit had to do was give us more of Zwei, and I'd have been happy.
Instead, in the name of taking great risks, they bogged down my simple little lovely game with the "glide" and "morph" abilities, both borrowed in some form from Panzer Dragoon Saga.
"Morph," activated by hitting your favorite loaf-of-bread-sized controller's Y button, changes your dragon to or from one of three forms: Base Wing, Heavy Wing, or Glide Wing.
Base Wing is the basic dragon. He has decent defense and offense, and can use that patented and beloved lock-on dragon breath. What's more, he can now use an ability called "glide" to speed up or slow down, bursting through or avoiding enemies, respectively. His "Berserk" attack targets all enemies on screen.
Heavy Wing is a big, scary-looking dragon with one hellacious wingspan. His lock-on breath can only target three enemies at once (in the beginning of the game, at least), yet does many times the damage of the Base Wing's lock-on attacks. To balance his skills out, Heavy Wing is large, and therefore nicknamed "The Big Target." He moves at about half the speed of Base Wing, and he can't use the glide ability. His "Berserk" attack fires a super-concentrated beam of laser energy that focuses on one target.
Glide Wing, just one Y-button-click and a super-quick transformation from Heavy Wing, looks more like a big dragonfly than a proper dragon. It's green, and it's fast. Glide Wing can use the glide ability three times in a row before having to recharge. The downside is that his weapon is the weakest in the game -- maybe even weaker than the stampeding hooves of the animals you're forced to shoot down for your 100% in stage two. The poor things don't ever get a chance to touch you, though -- and you get plenty of chances to touch the enemies as Glide Wing. What he lacks in power, he makes up for in versatility: his targeting crosshair's diameter is a good four times that of Base Wing and Heavy Wing -- and get this: he can auto-lock-on to enemies with his rapid-fire shots. This allows Heavy Wing's piddly little blasts to take out swarms of enemy bullets. Glide Wing's "Berserk" attack, interestingly enough, siphons energy out of the enemies and into you.
The trick is to switch to the right dragon at the right time. If you're confident enough in your crosshair-manipulation, you can use Base Wing to eliminate just about any threat of the bullet kind. Glide Wing only makes it easier. Heavy Wing only makes it much, much harder.
The morph: it's fast. Before your thumb can leave the Y-button, you're in your new form and firing.
So yes, in theory, this morphing system can be mastered. It can be owned.
want to own it?
The glide ability has another function: it can put you from one side of a large enemy to another, giving you easier access to a weak point.
Sometimes this is required.
This might not sound like a bad thing. And it's not, really -- it's just confining. Certain points of the game that an enterprising player might want to challenge as the challengingly glide-less Heavy Wing require a change into a glide-enabled form to pass through successfully.
A lot of people tell me they don't know what I mean when I say this. So, allow me to clarify with a little
When you're playing a fighting game, if there's a character who has, like, three stances, and you have to press a whole bunch of extra buttons to change back and forth just so you can finish a ten-hit combo, do you
A. Use that character all the time
B. Run the hell away?
I choose "B," myself.
In the beginning Gunstar Heroes, we choose between Fixed and Free shot. The game is entirely beatable as either form.
Glide Wing -- a Panzer Dragoon dragon without a lock-on breath! -- intrigued the hell out of me. I wanted to be able to play the entire game without switching out of the Glide Wing form.
I couldn't do this. Otherwise, the bosses lucky enough to have mandatory hit attacks would kill me before the three hours it took to finish a fight had finished.
And oh, those three-hour fights would still be fun -- the bosses are mostly inspired, and range from giant mollusks to giant caterpillars to giant golden statues brought to life. Most boss battles require constant dizzifying rotation of the game's point of view camera, which can make the hands of a seasoned gamer shake as he ponders all the other things he has to keep track of.
Luckily, the story isn't something anyone has to keep track of. It is, for the most part, silly as all hell. You play as Orta, a girl who for some reason is imprisoned in a tower when the game's god-machine decides to throw her a dragon. You might wonder: What did she do to get in the tower? What role does she have to play in this computer-animated 1820s German science-fiction film that is the future of the world? Why does she have two black eyes in the in-game graphics and two normal eyes in the full-motion video?
"What does 'Orta' mean? Ain't it German for 'three'?"
My friends were talking about this one day.
"No, dumbass," the other one said. "It's four."
"Yeah -- 'orta' is German for 'four.' I mean, listen to the sound."
"Why would it be four, though? There were only two other Panzer Dragoon games."
"Don't forget Saga, dude."
"I thought 'Orta' was the name of the girl."
"Duh! And the Japanese version of Panzer Dragoon Saga is called Azel: Panzer Dragoon RPG."
"The girl's name, man."
I just don't get these people -- a game series comes back, and everyone's become an expert during the hiatus.
It's a shame someone at Smilebit didn't try to become an expert; if they had, we'd be hearing some tripped-out music to go with the level that looks like the interior of a giant Rez-ish computer. Instead, we get ambient blips and bleeps that prompted one friend to comment:
"This music sucks."
And another friend to ask, honestly, as he crosses through the living room
This is never a good sign. I'm not saying all Panzer Dragoon music has to sound like that of level one of the original Panzer Dragoon; I'm just saying that someone should try. That's all.
[next: Part 2: Where is the love?]