Initially released in 1995, the original Panzer Dragoon did an amazing job in showing what the recently released Sega Saturn was truly capable of and offered to Sega supporters something to call their own. The game was an on-rails shooter, a sub-genre tragically overlooked and criminally underrated, especially in the West. The ability to ride a dragon and soar through the skies is one of the most distinctive aspects of Panzer Dragoon. The game did not pioneer this feature in gaming, however; this honor goes to Dragon Breed, initially released in 1989. Panzer Dragoon was a moderate success and managed to effectively draw attention to the (then) recently released Sega Saturn, and as well somewhat revived interest in the dwindling sub-genre of on-rails shooter. The first game was ported to Windows-based PCs in 1997 and later re-released for the Playstation 2 in 2006, only in Japan, with slightly updated graphics. Panzer Dragoon II Zwei was released in 1996 and to this day remains a Saturn exclusive. For the third release, the developers (Team Andromeda) adopted a new genre: Panzer Dragoon Saga is a role-playing game. The game greatly expands the universe of the series and remains as one of the most expensive games on eBay. Panzer Dragoon Orta was the latest game released in the series, exclusively for the Xbox in 2002. There was also a spin-off title called Panzer Dragoon Mini, released only in Japan for the Sega Game Gear in 1996. Tiger Electronics also released two additional versions of Panzer Dragoon, one for the ill-fated R-Zone and one LCD handheld game. After the release of Panzer Dragoon Orta, Sega has not touched the series again. The only exceptions are a cameo appearance of the dragon in OutRun 2006, and a track inspired by Panzer Dragoon in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (2012). The series remains as one of the most fondly remembered in gaming history.

Honorable Mention: Crimson Dragon (Xbox 360)
Crimson Dragon is an upcoming game for the Xbox 360. As of the time of this writing, Crimson Dragon is still awaiting an official release date. The game is considered the spiritual successor to the Panzer Dragoon series, since production is being overlooked by Yukio Futatsugi, director of the first three Panzer Dragoon games. The game will make use of Microsoft's Kinect motion sensor and is currently being developed as an Xbox 360 exclusive title. In late 2012, a spin-off title, Crimson Dragon: Side Story, was released for Windows Mobile Phone platforms.

Honorable Mention: Geist Force (Dreamcast)
Geist Force is an unreleased game for the Sega Dreamcast. The game was expected to be released in 1998, but one year later Sega of America officially canned the release of the game. Why is it included in this list, then? Because in 2011 fans of the game acquired a beta version of the game and funded a "release" of the previously long-lost title in late 2012. That goes on to show how dedicated fans of the Dreamcast are. Geist Force, apparently, was originally conceived as an installment in the Panzer Dragoon series, since the group that acquired the beta version of the game stated that there were some Panzer Dragoon files inside the disc. Somewhere along the development cycle, however, Sega decided that the title should be part of a new intellectual property, and the name Geist Force was adopted, along with a more futuristic spaceships and blue haired spacesuit wearing girls. The backgrounds and enemies, however, are clearly inspired by Panzer Dragoon. From large pools of water to giant purple insects, this game is very reminiscent of Panzer Dragoon. Gameplay is severely compromised because the product is notably unfinished. The full game is playable, but the game hangs at some points and the player must use special codes to skip inaccessible levels. Geist Force has fantastic graphics, and had it been released, it would have been the best looking game on the Dreamcast. It may not be a complete retail release, but Geist Force still remains as an amazing piece of gaming history and proves that there was a huge, but sadly almost completely untapped potential on the Sega Dreamcast for on-rails shooters.

Honorable Mention: Elemental Gearbolt (Playstation)
Light-gun games are essentially on-rails shooters, but there is a subtle, yet very significant difference between these games and Panzer Dragoon: light-gun games usually never show the player's avatar on screen. They are almost always intended to be played with a peripheral usually created to look like a real world gun or pistol. I could never imagine any of the Panzer Dragoon games being played with a controller resembling a gun. Since the games in the Panzer Dragoon series never aimed at reproducing this kind of experience, I decided to avoid light-gun games on this list. But it would be impossible not to mention Elemental Gearbolt at all. Artistically, the game is very similar to Panzer Dragoon, with many locales inspired by elements of nature (water, earth and rocks, for example) and enemies mostly consist of big-sized insect-like monsters. The soundtrack of the game is really excellent and noteworthy, with some amazing Celtic songs. One of the most intriguing aspects of the game is that players gain experience levels and can increase the maximum amount of hit points, just like in a Role-Playing Game. Difficulty is rampant and many players will have trouble even surviving the first few minutes. But that should not detract real fans of on-rails shooter from enjoying this game.

While Dragon Breed (1989) was the first game where players could control a character riding a dragon, a couple years before, in 1987, Dragon Spirit let players control a fire-breathing dragon in a two dimensional vertical shoot 'em up environment. Since the release of Dragon Spirit, many players dreamed with the day they would be able to fire-breath their way through hordes of enemies with total freedom of movement and realistic graphics. The original Panzer Dragoon (1995), while a technical marvel for the time, was far from being a free-roaming game. Some years later, in 2003, Drag-on Dragoon (Playstation 2) managed to offer players more freedom of movement and new possibilities for massive destruction. Its Japan-only sequel, Drakengard 2 (2005), also exclusive to the Playstation 2, expanded the concept and delivered a more refined product. But it was not until the release of Lair that players could fully experience the joy of guiding a dragon through realistic landscapes. Or so it seemed. Lair's biggest downfall rests on its flawed controls. The game makes use of Sony's sixaxis motion sensitive controller, and at the time of its release, the limitations of the control input were fairly obvious. Lair was universally bashed by critics and the splendorous visuals were put to waste. Roughly six months later, Factor 5, the developers of Lair, released a patch for the controls through a package called "Dragons and Control Pack". This pack included DualShock 3 support, allowed players to play Lair on the PSP via Remote Play, and also added analog flight control. Now, Lair was finally playable, but by that time no one really cared about the game anymore. With the reworked controls, Lair is a great game to play. At the time of its release, the crisp and detailed high-resolution graphics were the selling point of the game. Nowadays, unfortunately, the visuals look a bit outdated and the trouble one has to go through to patch the game in order to make it enjoyable may not be worth it for some people. Lair will be sadly remembered as an example of outstanding potential that was fulfilled too late.

SkyGunner looks a lot more like Velldeselba Senki (an obscure Playstation title, released only in Japan) than any of the Panzer Dragoon games, but the charming character design, steampunk atmosphere and intense battles are sure to win Panzer Dragoon fans over. In this game players assume control of a group of Gunners who are contracted to prevent the Eternal Engine, an engine that can run forever without an external power supply, from being stolen by the criminal genius Ventre. Though not an on-rails shooter, and with no dragons whatsoever to be seen (much less ridden), Panzer Dragoon fans will feel that some of the airship designs and pastel tones used in some locales are certainly familiar. The dialogues are fully voiced (not always to great results, though) and the soundtrack is strangely reminiscent of Sega's franchise, presenting a magnificent orchestrated musical score that helps setting the mood for the battles. The best thing about the game is that it oozes style. Every little detail was carefully crafted in order to invite players to explore the world in SkyGunner, pretty much like one would expect from a Panzer Dragoon game. Gameplay is simple, but effective, with a lock-on mechanism where players can shoot out bombs at the enemies. Adding some variety to the gameplay, there is a machine gun as the primary weapon and players are also given the possibility to target foes using homing missiles at certain points during battles. The only major problem the game has is that it slows down during boss fights, but it plays great otherwise. Minor technical problems aside, this is a great title that was shamefully overlooked when it was first released in 2002. One that should not be missed, especially by Panzer Dragoon fans.

After Burner and Space Harrier are Sega's best known on-rails shooter series. Both series are completely different from Panzer Dragoon in style and I would dare say that Panzer Dragoon offers a slightly more refined gameplay compared to previous releases from those two series. After the release of Panzer Dragoon, in 1995, Sega released only one more entry in the Space Harrier series (Planet Harriers, released in 2000 only for the Arcades) and produced a couple more games in the After Burner series, After Burner Climax (2006) and After Burner Black Falcon (2007). Black Falcon is Sega's last de facto on-rails shooter so far, and the company has not revisited the genre since the release of the game for the PSP, except for porting Climax to home consoles in 2010. Though completely different from Panzer Dragoon in style and setting, Black Falcon shares one essential similarity to Panzer Dragoon when it comes to gameplay: the player can lock-on to multiple enemies and fire at them all at once. The action is intense and the game throws a lot of enemies at you almost nonstop. As if that were not enough, there are multiple objectives in each stage, what ensures players are always on their toes and ready for anything the game can throw at them. While competent, the game is fairly mediocre visually, though. The backgrounds are generic and severely deprived of details, but that is excusable thanks to the fast, breakneck speed the game moves. The visuals feel refreshingly organic considering the setting of the game, presenting green fields, large forests, red sand deserts and snowy mountains, for example. The game has the distinctiveness of being the only on-rails shooter released for the PSP, which goes on to show how increasingly rare on-rails shooters have become.

If one happens to be a fan of Macross and also Panzer Dragoon, Omega Boost is probably the best-suited game for this person. While not exactly a fan of giant robots battling in outer space, it was impossible for me not to surrender to Omega Boost's qualities. The game is polished in every aspect and the gameplay successfully adopts some of the best elements from Panzer Dragoon. The lock-on mechanism and massive explosions are very similar to the ones found in Sega's franchise, and while the atmosphere is quite a bit different, Omega Boost is a polished game with nice subtle graphical details that take full advantage of the Playstation's graphical capabilities. The game was developed by Polyphony Digital, the same team behind the massively successful driving-simulation series Gran Turismo. Unfortunately, however, after Omega Boost the developers never revisited the genre again, and the game remains a lost jewel in Sony's crown. The game's soundtrack has been praised for being dynamic and inviting, and the sound effects are powerful and very effective, suiting the game really well. The lead designer of Omega Boost was Yuji Yasuhara, a former member of Team Andromeda who previously worked on Panzer Dragoon II Zwei.

People who do not like Panzer Dragoon mockingly call it a glorified tech demo. While I agree that Panzer Dragoon was created to show off the Saturn's 3D capabilities, the retail product is much, much more than a tech demo. It has a wonderful sense of immersion, great story, fantastic musical score and, of course, amazing graphics for its time. What I really like about the visuals is how masterfully the designers used colors and perfectly combined the elements in the scenery with the gameplay. One of the very few games that could ever come close to Panzer Dragoon in this aspect is SoulStar. The game was released in 1994, when the Sega CD was still struggling to find acceptance within the general public. The machine was eventually not accepted by the masses, contrary to what Sega expected, and maybe because of that SoulStar has been mostly forgotten. Given the limited hardware it was developed on, what Core Design achieved was nothing short of a miracle. At the time of the release of SoulStar, no one thought any other on-rails shooter on the Sega CD could surpass Silpheed (1993), a game that was severely hyped before its release and still today is fondly remembered by fans, but was ultimately ignored by consumers. While Silpheed used streaming full-motion video for the backgrounds, SoulStar creates a quasi-3D effect. Gameplay is fluid and the visuals are fantastic. The game starts in a generic outer space setting, but after the first stage the backgrounds become much more organic and resemble those in Panzer Dragoon, from a large ocean where enemies emerge from, to a sandy desert and large rocky landscapes. The audio fits the game really well and while the sound effects can get tiresome after a couple hours, the musical score is so great it actually serves as an incentive to extend playtime. SoulStar is an excellent game and the overall product a truly underappreciated work of art.

Child of Eden takes the concept behind Rez (see entry #2 on this list) and somewhat expands it even further. The game looks gorgeous, colorful and bordering psychotic sometimes. It was created as a spiritual successor to Rez, and the main difference between the titles lies on the control scheme. While Rez is fully playable with an analog controller, Child of Eden introduces a new way of controlling the game through motion sensors. The title was first released on June 14, 2011 for the Xbox 360 and roughly three months later it was ported to the Playstation 3. On the Xbox 360, the game is compatible with the Kinect peripheral, while on the Playstation 3 it takes full advantage of the Playstation Move motion-sensing controller. Child of Eden can also be played with a regular controller, but its main selling point was the fact the game is intended to be played with Kinect or Move, using the player's own limbs, rather than a traditional controller. The psychedelic visuals and masterful use of colors are very effective in fully immersing the player and invites him or her to actually move their bodies along with the game. The game takes on-rails shooters to a new level and could possibly dictate the beginning of a whole future generation of titles. More conservative players, however, will prefer to use buttons and analogs to play the game, and this should not be a problem. There is room here for everybody and Q Entertainment made it sure that all tastes are welcome to experience the game.

Planet Harriers is the latest installment, so far, in the acclaimed Space Harrier series. The game was released in 2000 only for Arcades. A console conversion was supposed to be released for the Dreamcast, but pretty much like the aforementioned Geist Force, it never saw the light of the day. Fortunately Planet Harriers managed to be released on the Arcades. Similar to After Burner: Black Falcon, Planet Harriers takes a hint from Panzer Dragoon and allows players to lock-on to multiple enemies. The graphics look quite a bit dated nowadays (after all, the game was released in 2000), but are on par with what one would expect from a Sega Dreamcast title. As with other rail-shooters produced by Sega, the action is lightning fast for the most part and the game requires almost nonstop shooting. The environments are very reminiscent of Panzer Dragoon, though a lot more goofy and exaggerated in style. The same is true for the characters. The main difference between Planet Harriers and Panzer Dragoon is that the former gives players lots and lots of power-ups. Players can even collect money and buy power-ups in between levels, whereas Panzer Dragoon relies on quick thinking and extensive memorization of the levels rather than raw shooting skills. Still, the atmosphere is unmistakably familiar to Panzer Dragoon fans and the overall Sega quality is everywhere to be seen. Too bad this game never received a port to any platform.

Star Successor is the sequel to the critically acclaimed Japan-only release Sin and Punishment (2000), for the Nintendo 64. On its own, Star Successor is an amazing game. The visuals are technically excellent and squeeze the most out of the Wii. Gameplay is very well structured and the Wii Remote feels like the perfect controller for an on-rails shooter. Treasure went as far as to include support to the Wii Zapper, the Classic Controller and even the GameCube controller. The myriad of possibilities is truly outstanding. Star Successor's biggest strength, however, lies in its artistic creation. Backgrounds never look plain or repetitive, though the use of color is sometimes disappointing, consisting mostly of shades of gray. Characters look great and the game's script allows the characters to express all their personality. Boss encounters are fantastic and memorable. Bosses are usually huge and intimidating, and often present quite a challenge. Gameplay is intense, but unlike the first game in the series, Star Successor rarely moves in an insanely fast speed. It does not mean that the game is any easier, though. On the contrary, Star Successor is best-suited for gluttons for punishment (no pun intended). This is one of the few games on this list which is a direct sequel to a previous release; very few rail shooters nowadays manage to become a series, what only serves as a testament to the quality of the games Treasure makes.

Rez has been described as Panzer Dragoon on acid. And that is not far from the truth. Stylistically, both titles are completely different, but when it comes to gameplay, Rez mimics Panzer Dragoon almost perfectly. The game was developed by former members of Team Andromeda, who carefully replicated Panzer Dragoon's most intriguing elements in a totally different graphical style. Rez replaces typical sound effects with music samples, resulting in a streamlined experience unlike any other on-rails shooter before it. Also, there is an optional accessory that can be used with the game, the Trance Vibrator, that, as the name suggests, pulses in time with the music. The objective is to induce players to achieve a form of synesthesia, combining visuals, audio and tactile feedback. Rez makes use of abstract graphics and strong colors, creating unique visuals. The title was originally released simultaneously for the Sega Dreamcast and the Playstation 2 in late 2001. Only the Playstation 2 port was released in North America, while both the Dreamcast and Playstation 2 versions of the game were released in Japan and Europe. In early 2008 the game received a high definition upgrade and was ported to the Xbox 360, being released worldwide through the Xbox Live service.

Sin and Punishment is a faster and more furious game than its successor. The game pushes the Nintendo 64 to its theoretical limits and set a new level of what to expect from an on-rails shooter. While the genre is usually praised for nonstop action and seamless gameplay, Sin and Punishment exacerbates these aspects and creates a unique experience, combining stunning visuals and an intriguing, thought-provoking plot in one of the best examples the genre has to offer. Sin and Punishment oozes style. Characters, enemies and backgrounds are meticulously combined to offer the best visual experience possible on the platform. The game's locations are organic and feel very natural to Panzer Dragoon players. The introductory stage, for example, has players strolling through a vast yellow-colored field, shooting down flying enemies strangely reminiscent of Panzer Dragoon. Bosses are huge and battles are breathtaking. Gameplay is well-structured, and the variety of locales the game offers is a welcome addition. Unfortunately, Sin and Punishment was only released in retail stores in Japan for the Nintendo 64 in 2000. The game was re-released in 2004 for the iQue Player in China, and later it was made available globally through the WiiWare service, for the Wii's Virtual Console, in 2007. The text in the game, however, remains in Japanese.

It has been more than ten years since the last installment in the Panzer Dragoon series was released, and judging by recent developments, it does not look like there is a bright future ahead for fans of the franchise. While many games tried to compete with Panzer Dragoon, very few titles adequately succeeded at reproducing some of the aspects that make playing the Panzer Dragoon games truly memorable and engrossing experiences. Here I presented some of them, and I hope more people take note of these amazing shooters.

List by Simon (01/22/2013)

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