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GameSetWatch.com is the alt.video game weblog and sister site of Gamasutra.com. It is dedicated to collecting curious links and media for offbeat and oft-ignored games from consoles old and new, as well as from the digital download, iOS, and indie spaces.

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Column: Game Collectors Melancholy

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Shin Megami Tensei

January 18, 2007 7:05 PM |

persona.jpg['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. Recently IGN’s Best of 2006 feature listed Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs The Soulless Army as a runner-up in the “Best Game Nobody Played” category. As collectors know, the games “Nobody Played” typically become the games “Everybody Wishes They Could Find”.]

Shin Megami Tensei

The Shin Megami Tensei series got its start back in 1987 with a Japanese RPG called Digital Devil Monogatari: Megami Tensei, which could be translated as “Digital Devil Story: Goddess Reincarnation”. Based on a series of novels by Aya Nishitani, the game was first published by NAMCO for the MSX computer and later that year for Nintendo’s Famicom. A sequel followed and then Atlus took over publishing the series. Subsequent games added the word Shin to the title, which is read in Japanese as “true/genuine” but is also homonymous with “new”. In the years since, Atlus has made Shin Megami Tensei a cornerstone of their business, releasing a bewildering assortment of remakes, sequels, side stories and spin-offs. However, only a handful of these games have received English language releases.

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Package Fetishism

January 4, 2007 3:04 PM |

['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. Now that the holidays are over and all the gift paper is recycled, let’s take a moment to consider the box.]

Tsumi Ge-mu or “Stacked Game” is a wonderful Japanese term for a game that is initially purchased with enthusiasm but once home is left unplayed, added to an ever-increasing stack of games that the obsessive collector will never have time to actually play. It is frequently associated with vague feelings of dissatisfaction and guilt. A useful method for counteracting these feelings is to take pleasure in video games as objects and enjoy the artistry of their packaging. Don’t be ashamed of package fetishism, embrace it.

Infocom

suspended.jpgInteractive Fiction was, at one time, a very popular computer game genre. In the early 80’s, as the personal computer revolution was taking off, IF represented the cutting edge of game design. Although free of graphics and sound, Interactive Fiction stirred people’s imagination in a way that was completely new, unlike any entertainment media before.

One of the innovators in IF was company called Infocom. Founded in 1979, its first product was the famous Zork adventure game. It was a hit and over the next six years Infocom produced more than thirty successful text adventures. As the decade wore on, the company’s fortunes took a downturn as consumers became increasingly drawn to games featuring colorful visuals and action. Activision purchased Infocom in 1986 and unsuccessfully tried to redirect it toward producing graphic adventures. By 1989 the market had moved on and Activision shut Infocom down.

However, in those early years Infocom did some amazing work and their stories were satisfyingly complex, challenging, and irreverent. In addition to the Zork titles, other outstanding games included A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The Lurking Horror, along with many others. Infocom games were unique in that they were packaged in elaborate boxes that included a multitude of supplemental material. Called “feelies”, the supplements ranged from maps, journals, newspapers, cards, stickers, and buttons, to glow-in-the-dark rocks and scratch-n-sniff cards. The feelies also served as copy-protection by requiring players to look up information that could only be found in the supplements.

Diskette Dreams

The era of the 3.5 inch diskette was a Renaissance age for extravagantly wasteful software packaging. In the 90's, Big Box retail had not yet become the primary distribution channel for computer games. Most were sold by small specialty shops and publishers scrambled for customer’s attention by packaging their games inside increasingly creative and bizarre box configurations.

marathon2.jpgSpectre VR by Velocity and Comanche by Nova Logic came in strange, origami fold boxes that were as mysterious to look at as they were to figure out how to open. The Macintosh versions of Bungie’s Marathon series were also packaged in complex, non-euclidean boxes. The Marathon Trilogy Box that was released in 1997 was cleverly designed so that the two halves of the box slid open like an airlock to reveal the disks and art book inside.

Wargames were usually packaged behind somber covers but came loaded with dense manuals. Atomic Games’ V for Victory series, published by Three-Sixty Pacific included thick books, filled with carefully researched military history. I don’t think I ever really got around to playing Harpoon (also published by Three-Sixty Pacific) but I spent many hours studying the manuals.

ultima.jpgPerhaps inspired by Infocom, fantasy games often included extra materials to enhance verisimilitude. Richard Garriott’s first games were sold in zip-lock bags but he soon moved up to a premium presentation and even remade older games to meet his high standards. Garriott understood more than most the relationship that develops between a player and an RPG and he served his audience with deluxe packaging that included detailed manuals, cloth maps, metal coins, and talismans.

Working Designs

Console games have always had very standardized packaging but there have been a few exceptions over the years. Nintendo’s gold cartridge Zelda for the NES let consumers know that they were buying something special. When Nintendo published Earthbound for the SNES in 1995, they included a strategy guide and packaged it in a large book case box.

One company that truly understood the game collector’s package fetishism was Working Designs. Founded by Victor Ireland in 1986, Working Designs was an independent publisher that focused solely on localizing Japanese games for the American console market. Over the years they published games for the TurboGrafx-16, Sega CD, Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation, and Playstation 2. The titles they picked for localization were usually quirky, anime-flavored RPGs that were colorful and distinctive. Working Designs became known for a translation style that often took liberties with the source material, imbuing the dry, Japanese text with a goofy sense of humor and American pop culture references.

growlanser.jpgNever prolific, Working Designs took its time with each release, often producing enhanced versions of games whose American packaging exceeded the original Japanese. Much effort went into creating color manuals that were printed on heavy card stock with foil stamped covers and several games came with fold out maps and stickers. Their Playstation releases of Lunar, Lunar 2, and Arc the Lad came in boxes with hardcover manuals, maps, soundtrack CDs, and making-of movies, and a variety of other curios. Working Designs’ final release was Growlanser Generations for the Playstation 2. Published in 2003, the game came in two versions. One priced at regular retail, and the other a deluxe boxed edition that included a soundtrack CD, playing cards, jewelry, and a watch.

Fetish

Games are like books. I know I’ll never be able to read them all. Sometimes it’s enough to just take them down from the shelf and run my finger along the spine or feel the embossed texture of the title. Smell the gloss on the jacket. Maybe read a page or two. Sometimes. That’s enough.

[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.]

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Military Madness

December 21, 2006 9:01 AM |

['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. Nintendo’s Wii has been on the shelves for a several weeks and interest in its Virtual Console feature is growing. Now that Military Madness has just been released for the Virtual Console, let’s take a look at Hudsonsoft’s strategy gem.]

Lunacy

military_madness_boxart.jpgNEC’s TurboGrafx-16 (known as PC Engine in Japan) has a special place in the hearts of collectors. Brought to America in late 1989, the TurboGrafx-16 was the underdog of the fourth generation consoles and struggled for life against the much more popular Genesis and Super Nintendo systems. Saddled with a complex variety of models, formats, and peripherals and a limited catalog of primarily Japanese games that most Americans were unfamiliar with, the console limped along for a few years before being consigned to the dustbin of history. Sad, but not too many tears were shed. However, all of the qualities that worked against TurboGrafx-16 in the marketplace make it irresistible to collectors and one of the key titles for TG-16 enthusiasts would have to be Military Madness.

Developed by Hudsonsoft and released in 1989, the game carries the somewhat more dignified title of Nectaris in Japan. Its narrative set up is good guys versus bad guys, slugging it out in a science fiction war on the surface of the moon.

At its core, Military Madness’ turn-based strategy is very basic. Each unit on the play field has an attack strength, defense strength and a movement allowance. In combat these factors are modified by terrain and encirclement. Over time, attack and defense erode as the unit suffers losses, although this is offset somewhat by the hardening of experience. Also, some unit types are weaker or stronger against other unit types to keep things interesting.

The game can be seen as a refinement of a wargame formula first articulated in 1986 by System Soft’s Daisenryaku and later employed by games such as Panzer General and Iron Storm. But it is the elegance and simplicity of Military Madness that sets it apart from other similar titles. While the game’s mechanics are easy to understand, better put a pot of coffee on because mastery will take some time.

Military Madness is also blessed with an excellent AI opponent. Aggressive but good at playing defense when necessary, the AI is flexible and surprisingly life-like. As the game’s minor-key soundtrack turns quietly in the background, it is easy to imagine yourself facing off against a devious cybernetic mind, cool and subtle. Death comes quickly in the hard vacuum of Mare Nectaris.

Monomania

military_madness01.jpgSearch for Military Madness online and expect to pay about $35 for a complete copy. Games for the PC Engine/TG-16 came on a format called a HuCard which was also called a TurboChip in America. It was a chip embedded in a thick, plastic card about the size of a credit card. The cards were stored in custom CD jewel cases with booklet inserts and then packaged in cardboard boxes about half the size of the old CD long boxes. Although the cards are mostly indestructible, all the extra packaging has a tendency to go missing, so pay a lot less if you are buying just the card by itself.

Over the years there have been a number of versions of the the original Nectaris. In 1992 it was ported to the NEC-98 and Sharp X68000, two popular Japanese micro computers.

A sequel called Neo Nectaris was released on CD-ROM for the PC Engine DUO in 1994. In Neo Nectaris battles were fought across a martian landscape with a variety of new units. The game was further enhanced with detailed animations and a CD audio soundtrack. Unfortunately, the TG-16 was pretty much dead at that point so it never received an American release.

A PC DOS version was created by a German developer in 1995. It was unusual in that it was complete remake done under license from Hudsonsoft. A Windows 95 port of the PC Engine version was released for Japan in 1997.

Japan also got a Gameboy version in 1998. Nectaris GB included a map editor and a feature called GB KISS that enabled data to be swapped between games via infrared ports built into the cartridges. It also took advantage of Hudson’s GB KISS LINK peripheral, an infrared modem that plugged into a personal computer, allowing game data to be shared from the cartridge and a hard drive.

In 1998 Jaleco published a Playstation remake of Military Madness for America called Nectaris: Military Madness. It was largely the same game as the original, padded out with an abundance of extra maps and a map editor. The graphics were upgraded in places and polygon battle scenes were added. Visually, the end result was not entirely successful. The maps had a blurry, smoothed over look and the battle scenes dragged an already time consuming game down to a snail’s pace. However, the moody music was intact and the underlying game play was tuned to perfection.

Jaleco packaged Nectaris: Military Madness behind the most generic cover art that I have ever seen and it is unlikely that anyone who wasn’t already familiar with game even bothered to pick it up. As a result, online auctions are probably the best place to find it for around $20.

In addition to the Wii version, Military Madness can also be found on mobile phones. A neat idea, but completing a single map can sometimes take hours of concentration, making the game seem ill-suited for quick, on-the-go play.

Involutional Melancholia

military_madness07.jpgYears ago I had an opportunity to buy a TurboDuo system, still in the box, along with Military Madness, Vasteel, and Dracula X. The owner was going to let the whole thing go for fifty dollars. I passed.

I don’t know why. I probably wanted to spend my money on Descent for the Playstation, thinking that it looked “cool” or something. Oh well. I am beginning to realize that collecting is really about the empty spaces on a shelf, the things that are lost and gone.

My collection can never be complete. I can only attempt to fill varying degrees of absence. It makes me a bit sad when I think about it, but then I remember games are fun to play! So, with Military Madness now available for only 600 Wii points, I won’t be letting this one slip away again.

[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.]

Images: (C) 2006 Hudsonsoft, Inc. All Rights Reserved

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - M.U.S.H.A. - Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor

December 7, 2006 8:04 AM |

['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 we slot M.U.S.H.A. into the Ono-Sendai deck.]

2.07.jpgTexas Radio

Washed out of school, kicking around the Sprawl, trying to live some teenage daydream of drop-tuned guitars and burned out amps. Reading Gibson’s Neuromancer and studying Survival Research Lab videos for secret strategies. Side one of SY’s Sister playing over and over. Smoke the color of rust and smelling of kerosene. A hit of Vasopressin to clear the haze.

Kid Afrika drops by the apartment to show off his new Sega Genesis. These are high grade chips, straight from Chiba City, he says. The vented black plastic, with its ports and expansion slots, looks like pre-war surplus. Here, boot this up, he says handing me a cart. It’s called M.U.S.H.A. - Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor.

Phantasmal Noh

3.10.jpgWelcome to the Retinal Circus. Gekiga sim-stim sets the scene with techno-shred-trash in stereo. M.U.S.H.A. comes on fast, swarming with metal demons and bio-mechanical ghosts. The pace is hard-edged and demanding. You versus the universe and it’s raining shit. Embedded symbols from Noh drama cross-band with sci-fi mecha as the hand-crafted, parallax-scrolling landscape erupts in a frenzy of destruction.

Shooter Heaven

5.11.jpgM.U.S.H.A. was developed in Japan by Compile and published for America in 1990 by Seismic Software. Look for it online and expect to pay around $35 for a complete copy with its box and manual. Pay a lot less if it’s just the loose cartridge.

In its nineteen year history Compile developed a wide variety of software. It was perhaps most famous for creating the puzzle game Puyo Puyo (better known as Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine in America) but the company was also behind some fantastic shoot’em ups as well. Titles like Zanac, Aleste, Blazing Lazers, and M.U.S.H.A. helped define the vertical scrolling shooter genre of the late eighties and early nineties.

Unfortunately, when the 32-bit generation came along, the shooter began to fall into disfavor. While developers stayed true to the formalized patterns of shooter design, critics lost patience with a genre that appeared played out and irrelevant. The games were pushed to the margins, little discussed and indifferently marketed to an increasingly niche audience. In recent years Treasure’s Ikaruga received a lot of notice and new shooter games continue to pop up every now and then, but most people pass them by. Compile itself closed shop in 2002. Fans dream of a revival but shooters remain a ritualized form, difficult to get into and all but closed to casual gamers. And maybe that’s the way it should be.

Slot M.U.S.H.A. into the deck. If the A.I.’s on Straylight dream, it probably looks like this. Shooter Heaven.

[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.]

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Yasumi Matsuno

November 23, 2006 10:09 PM |

[In its twenty years of publication the Weekly Famitsu has given out only six perfect review scores. It should be noted that two of the six, Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII, are the work of Yasumi Matsuno, an under recognized master of game design This week's 'Game Collector's Melancholy' column looks at Matsuno's history in the game biz, highlighting each of his major games.]

The Final Fantasy?

plain6.jpgFinal Fantasy XII was a long time coming. Five grueling years of production had left the development team fractured and depleted. Halfway through, Yasumi Matsuno, the game’s director and writer was forced to step down from his duties because of alleged poor health. There were rumors of internal strife at SquareEnix and in 2005 Matsuno left the company for good. Things did not look promising for Final Fantasy XII...

The March of the Black Queen

Matsuno’s first major work was Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, developed for the Quest Corporation. Joining Matsuno on Ogre Battle were music composer Hitoshi Sakamoto and character designer Akihiko Yoshida, who would remain constant partners with Matsuno throughout his career. Released in Japan on the Super Famicom in 1993, Ogre Battle was a hybrid of turn-based and real-time strategy that was unusual for the complexity of its game play and story. Set in a high fantasy world of wizards and dragons the game followed the rise of a young knight who becomes an emperor. Along the way he must make a great number of practical and moral choices while micromanaging a growing army and ruling over a conquered population. All of these choices have consequences down the line and it is this aspect of the game’s design that seems to most define Matsuno’s aesthetic.

Enix brought the game to America in 1995 but in limited quantities, making it quite difficult to find. Expect to pay at least $50. In 1997 Atlus re-released the game as Ogre Battle: Limited Edition for the Playstation. The conversion was handled by Artdink who put some extra effort into upgrading the graphics although not so much that it could considered a remake. This version sells for as much as $60 and comes with memory card stickers and a fold-out chart.

[Click through for more of Matsuno's major titles.]

COLUMN: 'Game Collector's Melancholy' - Rez

November 9, 2006 4:02 AM |

['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. In the last column we discussed the Panzer Dragoon series so it seems appropriate to stay with the theme for a bit and take a look at Panzer’s Zen tripping spiritual sister Rez.]

Drop the diamond in a groove and let it ride awhile...

In the 90’s Tetsuya Mizuguchi was one of Sega’s rock star designers. Heading up the internal group AM Annex which later became AM 9, Mizuguchi oversaw a series of very successful high velocity racers including Sega Rally Championship, Manx TT Superbike, and Sega Touring Car Championship. As the century closed out, Mizuguchi wanted to move in a new direction and formed United Game Artists in 2000. Drawn to the electric pulse of club music booming out of London and Tokyo, he gathered a diverse group of artists and musicians (including ex-Team Andromeda member, Katsumi Yokota) to create games whose quirky design aesthetics would be informed by Electronica and Turntabilism.

Hyperaesthesia

stg1_02b.jpgOne of the most unique games to emerge from Mizuguchi’s experiment was Rez, an esoteric mix of rhythm and color. Characterized (unfairly I think) as a shooter, Rez can seem a little austere to the uninitiated. At first glance, it seems to be an artifact from an alternate future in which the Vectrex became the dominant home console. You see a simple figure traveling along a fixed path, riding a current of metronomic dance music while shooting at abstract objects that rise up from a geometric landscape. The sound of laser fire is replaced by the ticking of a snare drum and explosions are sublimated into synthesizer blips. Interesting, but nothing that is going to change your life.

However, spend some time with Rez, focus your attention and be amazed as it reveals itself to you. Iterating wire frame, laser light show images grow in complexity as you progress through the game, over saturating your retinas. The music’s relentless beat rises in intensity as overlapping synth lines stitch tighter and tighter. The targets spinning around propagate exponentially until the screen is a crazed riot of boiling color. It is at this point that your senses open and you are shot through the forehead by a diamond bullet.

Everything in its right place

stg2_16b.jpgAfter playing Rez late one evening, I went to sleep and had a strange dream in which everything that passed before my eyes was highlighted and selected. Cars, people, trees, dishes on a table, all marked and arranged by a ghostly cursor. When I woke up I had a new insight into Rez’s appeal. I realized that the game was not really about shooting things. Rather, it presents a chaotic loom of information and requires players to rapidly identify and organize the rush of sensory data pouring into their cortex, separating meaning from noise. It is a uniquely computer age experience.

Score Attack

Rez has a complicated publishing history. Arriving in Japan late 2001, Rez was released for both the Dreamcast and Playstation 2. At the time Sega of America was so busy pulling out of the Dreamcast market that they did not even bother publishing it for the aborted console, instead waiting until early 2002 to bring Rez to the Playstation 2. However, Europe received a simultaneous release for both the Dreamcast and Playstation 2 in 2002.

If you are looking for Rez on the Dreamcast, Europe is your best bet. In Japan, Rez had an initial print run that included a large number of defective discs so good copies are hard to find. Instead, search online auctions for the European version and expect to pay around $65. PAL discs will work fine in your NTSC Dreamcast although you will need a mod chip or boot disc to bypass the territorial lockout. You will also want the Jump Pack for your controller and the game features undocumented support for the Dreamcast Mouse. While you are kitting out your Dreamcast you might as well locate a VGA adapter so you can output Rez to a high quality monitor.

stg3_02b.jpgThe Playstation 2 version of Rez is more readily available. In addition to the regular game, a special package was sold in Japan which included a vibrator that plugged into the PS2’s USB port. Called the Trance Vibrator, the device throbbed and pulsed in sync with Rez’s thumping music. No one was quite sure what its official purpose was, so users were left to er... tickle their fancy in whatever manner they saw fit. Manufactured by ASCII, the Trance Vibrator was also sold separately and could be used with Disaster Report and another UGA game Space Channel 5: Part 2. The Special Package of Rez auctions for around $65. The Trance Vibrator by itself is no longer made and will fetch about $35. In 2003, Rez was reissued in Japan as a budget priced “Playstation 2 the Best” game.

A Japanese CD of remixed selections from the Rez soundtrack was published as part of the “Gamer’s Guide to...” series and can be imported for around $25. Analog loyalists may want to search for the Rez OST on vinyl.

Here in America, Rez had a small print run and made little impression on buyers. As a result, finding used copies in stores was difficult and Rez’s auction price had become very inflated. Fortunately, Game Quest Direct stepped in and arranged with Sega to reprint the game, making brand new copies available online for $44.99. A used copy of Rez can now be acquired for a very reasonable $25.

Go to synaesthesia

stg4_04b.jpgUnited Game Artists’ life span was a short one. By 2003 they were merged with Sonic Team and Mizuguchi left to form Q Entertainment, his first company independent of Sega. Since then he has been busy producing hit games for portables like Lumines and Meteos as well as the recent Ninety-Nine Nights for the Xbox 360. A sequel to Rez is supposed to be in the works for one of the new generation consoles. I can only hope that the lightning bolt of enlightenment will strike twice.

Further Reading: Go To Synesthesia... Jake Kazdal’s Journey Through The Heart Of Rez interview by Matthew Hawkins, Gamasutra, May 6, 2005

[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.]

Images: (C) SONIC TEAM/SEGA, 2001

A Game Collector's Melancholy: The Panzer Dragoon Franchise

October 26, 2006 11:34 PM |

['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.]