['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week's column looks at the eminent Panzer Dragoon series.]

Panzer Dragoon

pd.jpg The year is 1995 and you are walking through a department store looking for the VCRs. Strolling past a Sega Saturn demo kiosk, you spot Panzer Dragoon out of the corner of your eye. Transfixed for a moment, you watch as a dragon swoops under a strange airship, spitting bolts of energy, tearing off huge chunks of metal which tumble and collide overhead just like that dream of a plane crash you had once. Even though you left all that video game stuff in the past, you couldn’t help but be fascinated. Panzer Dragoon was very different, hinting that games, instead of being relegated to the back closet of childhood, were about to become something really important.

Created by Team Andromeda, one of Sega’s newly-formed internal development groups, Panzer Dragoon was an early release for the Saturn console. A showcase for new 32-bit technology, the game featured gorgeously rendered cinemas, a lush, orchestrated soundtrack, and sweeping, dramatic camera moves afforded by the power of real-time polygon rendering. Although a short and relatively simplistic shooter, Panzer Dragoon seemed to inhabit a living environment that existed beyond the confines of the the TV screen.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future in which the planet has been rendered unrecognizable by genetically-engineered super technologies, Panzer Dragoon was a sophisticated mix of 60’s and 70’s science fiction filtered through the visual sensibilities of the French comic magazine Metal Hurlant. The world of Panzer Dragoon was dense, alien, and endlessly compelling. Acknowledging their creative debt to European illustrators, Team Andromeda commissioned Jean Giraud (Moebius) to provide image art for the Japanese release.

Panzer Dragoon II Zwei

pdzwei.jpg Panzer Dragoon was a commercial success and Team Andromeda followed with Panzer Dragoon II Zwei in 1996. Expanding on the promise of the first game, Zwei was a refinement in every sense. The game engine was enhanced to provide a smoother frame rate. The graphics were an explosion of retina sizzling color and the somber narrative was as memorable as the game play. As a shooter, Zwei was regarded as one of the finest. With elegant control and visual drama, it fully satisfied the pleasures of reflex and spectacle.

At the same time that Zwei was being developed, a smaller group within Team Andromeda began work on different game that would expand the franchise into new territory. As Zwei finished up, the entire team came together to create an unusual RPG called Panzer Dragoon Saga. It seemed strange for an action game to transition into cerebral role playing but the complex setting of Panzer Dragoon provided a rich background around which designers wove an epic tale.

Panzer Dragoon Saga

pdsagacover.jpg Panzer Dragoon Saga was a role playing game unlike any other. A work of true creativity, Saga dispensed with most of the standard fantasy tropes that defined RPGs over the years and instead dug deep into its own mythology to create an experience that was challenging and literate. Its game play was amazingly fun, eliminating much of the tedium that is associated with RPGs. The visuals were opalescent, almost fevered in their intensity, redolent of hashish and black light. A pulsing, electronic soundtrack underscored Saga’s oneiric vibe.

Unfortunately, circumstances were not kind to Panzer Dragoon Saga. By the time of its release in 1998, the market had shifted overwhelmingly in favor of Sony’s Playstation and retailers had all but abandoned the Saturn. As a result, Sega of America made little investment in the game’s release and with only 30,000 copies printed, Panzer Dragoon Saga quickly fell by the wayside. As Sega restructured in preparation for the Dreamcast, Team Andromeda dissolved and many of its staff joined new Sega groups including Smilebit, United Game Artists, and Artoon.

Panzer Dragoon Orta

pdorta.jpg Over the next few years, the torch for Panzer Dragoon was kept burning by fans and Panzer Dragoon Saga achieved cult status as the Greatest Game You’ve Never Played. Responding to the undiminished affection for Panzer Dragoon, Smilebit created a new game in 2003 called Panzer Dragoon Orta for Microsoft’s Xbox. Orta returned to the series roots as a shooter and utilized the new console’s graphic horsepower to push Panzer Dragoon’s hallucinatory imagery to its limits. As a bonus, Orta included a port of the Windows version of the first Panzer Dragoon game.

An Ancient Recording Device

Collecting the Panzer Dragoon series is relatively easy, with the exception of Saga. Panzer Dragoon and Panzer Dragoon II Zwei were both heavily marketed and sold well so copies should not be difficult to find. Panzer Dragoon is worth $20 and Zwei a bit more at $30. On the other hand, Panzer Dragoon Saga is extraordinarily difficult to acquire at a reasonable price. With its limited numbers and lofty reputation, expect to pay around $150 for Saga if you buy online. Be aware that Panzer Dragoon Saga contains four discs in a standard case, one on the spindle and three in cardboard sleeves.

With all Saturn games, the condition of the jewel case is very important as they are not replaceable. Panzer Dragoon Orta is still easily found at any place that sells used games so don’t pay more than $15. A soundtrack CD for Orta was released by Tokyo Pop although it is now out of print so search through used music outlets and expect to pay about $10. Completionists may want to seek out Panzer Dragoon for Windows PCs published by Expert Software, Inc. in 1997. This version is considered inferior and probably not worth more than $6.

I found my copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga at a used game store for $15. I tell you this not to gloat but to encourage everyone to put the legwork in and dig through the shops. Online auctions are not the only answer. Although the chains have long ceased buying used Saturn games, independent game stores can still be a good place to look.

pdjpn.jpg Across the Pacific, a wide range of Panzer Dragoon merchandise was sold including books, soundtrack CDs, and other assorted collectables. A Panzer Dragoon OAV was produced in 1996 which was brought to America by AD Vision. Sega created a children’s Panzer game for the Game Gear called Panzer Dragoon Mini in 1996. For the hardcore, Microsoft produced a limited run of 999 white Xboxes to coincide with Orta’s release in Japan. In a promising development earlier this year, Sega of Japan re-released the original Panzer Dragoon as Vol. 27 of its Sega Ages 2500 Compilation Catalog for the Sony Playstation 2. One can only hope that some day Sega will recognize the importance of the entire Panzer Dragoon series, and give this essential piece of game history the wide exposure that it deserves.

[Jeffrey Fleming is a Bay Area book dealer and writer. More of his writing on video games can be found at Tales of the Future.]