#10: Lair (PS3)
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 Nowadays, unfortunately, the visuals look a bit outdated and the trouble one has to go through to patch the game in order to make it enjoyable may not be worth it for some people.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.
#9: SkyGunner (PS2)
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.
#7: Omega Boost (PS)
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.
#6: SoulStar (SCD)
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.
#2: Rez (DC)
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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