How Panzer Dragoon Defined The Sega Saturn Era

From its early days of promise to its heartbreaking failure, the Sega Saturn was a fascinating game machine. If there’s one game series that is emblematic of Sega’s ambitious, quixotic 32-bit console, it’s Panzer Dragoon. It began as a graphical showcase of the console’s abilities, and finished its Saturn life as a role-playing game that Sega hoped could topple Final Fantasy.

It was a series created in-house at Sega specifically for the Saturn console. It was there when the Saturn launched in 1994, full of hope for the future. It was there at the end, a swan song for the few diehard Saturn players who stuck around. The Saturn Panzer Dragoon trilogy spanned genres, beginning with shooters before making the improbable shift to role-playing. Its best days were on the Saturn, and it only got one post-Saturn release before it went dormant.

At the Game Developers Conference earlier this year, game director Yukio Futatsugi and art director Kentaro Yoshida gave a talk about the development of the Panzer Dragoon trilogy on the Saturn, and Kotaku sat down with them later that day to talk more about the history of Panzer Dragoon, and how closely it intertwines with the history of the Sega Saturn hardware itself.

Yukio Futatsugi joined Sega in 1991, during the height of the popularity of the 16-bit Mega Drive, or Genesis, but he didn’t work on any games for that generation of game hardware. As a new college graduate, he did what he described in a 2013 interview as “menial tasks” for a while, until Sega announced that it was recruiting staff members for its upcoming next-generation Sega Saturn console.

The company told Futatsugi that he could make a game in either the shoot-em-up or the racing genres. He picked racing. Then he was told that a racing game had already been chosen, so the 23-year-old junior staffer had no choice in the matter; he would be making a shmup.

Thing was, Futatsugi was always more of an RPG guy. “My favourite game is actually Tactics Ogre,” he said, the 1995 Super Famicom strategy game designed by Yasumi Matsuno. “If you had to ask me what my desert island game was, that would be it.”

When he thought about shooters, the one that had impressed him the most was Namco’s Starblade, an early polygonal first-person outer space shooter that hit the arcades in 1991. He loved its “cinematic presentation” and “Star Wars-like story,” which inspired him to make Panzer Dragoon similarly focused on characters, storylines, and a movie-like feel. At the time, these things were uncommon in the shooter genre.

There was something else that heavily influenced the creation of Panzer Dragoon: Sony’s impending entrance into the video game market with its first PlayStation. Sony’s console represented a possible stumbling block for Sega’s ambitions with the 32-bit generation. “The Mega Drive in Japan didn’t actually do all that well, so with a new piece of hardware coming out, this was our chance to turn the tide,” Futatsugi said. “In America, it actually sold quite well, so I’m sure there’s that idea over there that Sega was doing pretty well, but over here, it was a totally different story.”

The Saturn and the PlayStation turned out to be very different machines. It was a time of major transition for the game industry, from 2D graphics to 3D ones, and home consoles couldn’t do everything. Each machine had to make some concessions somewhere.

“Looking back on it, trying to figure out the information we had about the Saturn when we first introduced it, we didn’t really have a lot to go on,” said Kentaro Yoshida. “One thing we did know is that in the arcade… textures weren’t really a thing yet.”

Sega’s groundbreaking Virtua Fighter, for example, wowed arcade crowds with its polygonal graphics, but each polygon could only have a single block of colour on its face, not a detailed texture. “One thing they were telling us is, on the Sega Saturn, you’re finally going to have textures,” Yoshida said. “And so we were getting excited about that.”

“Of course, when it actually came out, it turned out that they were just modified sprites,” Futatsugi said. The Saturn, it turned out, took a rather non-standard approach to 3D. While it was what Futatsugi called “the ultimate 2D machine,” it created 3D graphics not with standard triangle polygons but by warping and morphing 2D sprites.

The PlayStation, on the other hand, handled 3D quite easily but had to do similarly unorthodox contortions to get 2D graphics on the screen. The end result was that even though the Saturn could create beautiful 2D games, its 3D just couldn’t look as good as the PlayStation’s. And Sega knew it, even while both systems were still in development.

When thinking about the shooter he’d signed up to make, Futatsugi wanted to create “visuals that were impossible on the PlayStation.” There was at least one thing that Saturn could do, thanks to its odd 2D-3D integrated hardware, that PlayStation could not, which was the “infinite plane.”

The Saturn had a special graphics chip that could draw massive 3D planes with textures all the way to the end of the horizon. If the PlayStation wanted to do this, it would have to spend a lot of its limited amount of onscreen polygons to do what the Saturn could do for “free,” and even then, it likely couldn’t draw the planes all the way to the horizon.

So the Panzer Dragoon team, named Team Andromeda, structured the look of the game’s world around the idea of the infinite plane, with lots of wide-open space—vast oceans, blue skies, endless deserts. The game was designed as something truly native to the Sega Saturn hardware, showing off its unique strengths and downplaying its weaknesses. Futatsugi’s love of cinematic stories and RPGs manifested itself in the game’s lengthy story sequences. Since most shmups, like Starblade or Star Fox, were about vehicles fighting in outer space, the more fantasy-oriented story of a young man riding a dragon and fighting amongst desolate ruins allowed Panzer Dragoon to stand out within the genre.

Still, Sega worried about the PlayStation. As its release was drawing near, Futatsugi and programmer Junichi Suto snuck into a closed-door press preview event for the new machine by pretending to be third-party game developers. They saw a demo of Namco’s launch game Ridge Racer and were blown away. “There was a clear difference in the number of polygons,” Futatsugi said. “It just seemed like they took the arcade version and got it running on PS1.”

Ironically, Sony executives later revealed that seeing Sega’s Virtua Fighter in the arcades was what had convinced them to focus on 3D for the PlayStation, at the expense of 2D. “Once Virtua Fighter was out, the direction of the PlayStation became instantly clear,” former Sony Computer Entertainment chairman Shigeo Maruyama said in 2012. “With great timing, Sega saved our hides.”

Suto and Futatsugi felt despondent as they rode the train home together after Sony’s press event. “We were like, what the hell are we gonna do about this? That’s how much we were thinking about and how conscious we were at Sega about PlayStation.”

“Even to this day I have this lingering trauma from those days, from that era, that causes me to be very very irritated any time I think about it, or someone mentions the original PlayStation,” Futatsugi said. Commercials that aired on Japanese television last year for the PlayStation Classic, he said, were “very very painful to watch.”

As it turned out, Sega had a brief glimmer of hope shortly after the two consoles launched. The Saturn launched in November 1994, with the PlayStation hot on its heels a few weeks later. By the end of the year, Sega had sold about 500,000 Saturns, but Sony had only sold about 300,000 PlayStations. Saturn actually sold pretty well in Japan for the first few years, and was still outselling PlayStation when Panzer Dragoon was launched in March 1995.

“We definitely thought that we could win,” Futatsugi said. “Up until the point where Final Fantasy VII got announced.”

Former game developer Keiichi Tanaka later called it the “Final Fantasy VII shock that shook up game developers.” When Square revealed in early 1996 that Final Fantasy VII would be a PlayStation exclusive, the role-playing game’s incredibly detailed graphics, with polygonal characters on intricate pre-rendered backdrops, blew everyone away—including other game creators.

“Square games often have pretty amazing CG, but more impressive than that is actually the PR and the marketing,” said Kentaro Yoshida. “Final Fantasy VII had this incredible push behind it, so just seeing that was like, I didn’t know that this was a kind of way that you could promote games.”

Futatsugi recalled being less impressed. “They ran commercials for it before they even had any game to show,” he said. “There were commercials on TV where they rotated a model that they’d made and said ‘Final Fantasy VII is coming to PlayStation.’ I think that feels really cheap. That’s not a fair thing to do.”

Cheap or no, Final Fantasy VII represented the greatest threat to Sega’s narrow market share victory in Japan, and the company knew it. Sega didn’t make very many RPGs; it wasn’t something in the company’s institutional DNA. But after Panzer Dragoon shipped and found critical acclaim, Sega split Team Andromeda into two parts. One would make a shooter sequel called Panzer Dragoon Zwei, and the other would make a full-on role-playing game, the Saturn’s answer to Final Fantasy VII.

“At the time, we were all called to Sega’s president’s office and told to make a game that would beat Final Fantasy and beat the PlayStation in the console war,” said Panzer Dragoon Saga battle designer Akihiko Mukaiyama in a 2018 interview. “So, there was a sense of necessity to make a better game than Final Fantasy.”

Futatsugi said that the design of Panzer Dragoon Saga wasn’t specifically a reaction to Final Fantasy VII, but rather, the realisation of a challenge that he already had wanted to tackle: making a role-playing game using only 3D graphics, with no 2D sprites or pre-rendered backgrounds. “I really hate rendered graphics. It just doesn’t feel consistent,” he said. “But if you make everything in 3D, whether you’re looking at the movies or playing the game, everything fits together in a good way.” Besides the introductory sequence, which was a pre-rendered movie, everything in Panzer Dragoon Saga takes place inside the game’s 3D engine in real time.

“Aside from a few PC titles, I don’t think there were many games that had yet attempted to do what we were trying to do,” said Futatsugi. Given the sheer volume of story sequences that had to be rendered in real time, Team Andromeda decided to use motion capture, which was then a fairly early technology, for the animations. During the GDC panel, Futatsugi showed the team’s improvised motion capture setup, with the actor portraying the main character riding on a “dragon” made of plastic beer crates. “We had to use some creative and very smart tricks in order to make that happen,” he said.

Panzer Dragoon Saga was ambitious, and it turned out to be a critical success, praised by the press and by players for its fascinating story, its beautiful graphics and music, and its innovative gameplay that turned the original game’s 3D dragon battles into turn-based RPG encounters. But it had cost a lot of money and time to develop, and once it finally came out in January 1998, the Saturn was beyond saving. Saga sold poorly: just under 100,000 copies in Japan and a few thousand more in the West. Also, in 1998, Sega was already planning for the release of the Dreamcast later that year. Saturn was done, and Team Andromeda was done along with it.

“The team was disbanded because of how much it cost,” said Futatsugi. Once Team Andromeda was split up, Futatsugi and Yoshida decided their time at Sega was over as well.

“We really wanted to make games together, so if we couldn’t do that, that was it,” Yoshida said. “We’re not salarymen. We’re creators and artists who want to create things, and we usually go to places where we’re allowed to create what we want.”

“I joined with the start of the Saturn, and I left when the Saturn ended,” Futatsugi said.

Many Team Andromeda members stayed on at Sega, and they ended up creating what is currently the most recent game in the series, the 2002 shooter Panzer Dragoon Orta, for the original Xbox. But after that, the series went dormant and has been ever since.

“I’m sure this hasn’t come out anywhere, but within Sega, there’s actually been plans every now and then for new Panzer Dragoon games,” Futatsugi said. “One did come to fruition—obviously Orta is a game that came out—but there have been all sorts of other ones that just didn’t go the distance.”

After he bounced around to different game publishers including Sony, Konami, and Microsoft, Futatsugi teamed up with other Sega alums to found his own studio, Grounding Inc., in 2007. That studio has created games like Sakura Samurai for the Nintendo 3DS and also Crimson Dragon, a spiritual successor to Panzer Dragoon released as an Xbox One launch game. Grounding’s upcoming games include .

The Panzer Dragoon series is also getting something of a revival this year, with remakes of the first two games coming from the Polish game developer Forever Entertainment. “If those sell well, it’s always possible that there might be a chance for something new to happen with that series,” Futatsugi said. “I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me considering approaching Sega for the licence to Panzer Dragoon.”

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