Panzer Dragoon, specifically the second game in the series on the Saturn, Panzer Dragoon Zwei, is better than Star Fox 64. There I said it and I strongly believe this to be true. I’ve put a lot of thought into it, and the chances of your breaking down my opinion on this are slim to none. Before I dive in deep however, let me get a few things out of the way:
-Star Fox 64 isn’t a bad game, not at all. It’s a classic that I played all throughout my childhood and I still have a great appreciation for it, even if I don’t think it’s the best rail shooter ever.
-The focus for this article will be Panzer Dragoon Zwei. Several points I’ll be making are applicable to the original Panzer Dragoon and Panzer Dragoon Orta on the original Xbox, but for the sake of maintaining focus, I’m going to primarily concentrate on Zwei.
-Panzer Dragoon Saga is better than any of the opposing games and up there with the top competing RPGs/spinoffs of the era combined. It outranks some of Square and Atlus’ 32-bit offerings for sure. It’s one of the best RPGs ever. Fight me.
Ok, now that all that is said, let’s really dive in.
Like I said, Star Fox is not a bad game. It has tight controls, solid graphics and good level design. None of that can be taken away. Panzer Dragoon Zwei just does these things better and the differences it has between Star Fox only strengthen it more. Panzer Dragoon Zwei’s strongest points all mesh together in ways that further elevate and strengthen the overall experience. The different and unique choices made in gameplay, environment, and overarching style make the game stand out as something special. It was a highlight for games of it’s genre back then and it’s something special we haven’t really seen much of since the last game in the series, Panzer Dragoon Orta graced the original Xbox. Zwei was a breath of fresh air when it came out in 1996 (Before Star Fox 64 I might add,) and that can still be felt playing today.
Panzer Dragoon Zwei takes the standard rail shooter formula and with some simple quirks and tweaks changes things up in fun and challenging ways that further flesh out Panzer Dragoon’s identity as a game. One staple mechanic that started with the original game back in 1995 is a 360 degree view/attack radius. Enemies can come at you from all angles and you have to keep shifting your view all around to stay alive. This level of involvement keeps players better tuned in and on higher alert than with Starfox, which, for the majority of the game keeps on the standard forward facing rail. Panzer Dragoon Zwei’s greater scope with its play field allows for some creative and challenging enemy patterns that really flow beautifully with the game’s shooting. In Panzer Dragoon Zwei there are three ways to take out your enemies at all times. The dragon has a lock on laser, that locks onto a number of enemies as you move the reticule over them and fires when you release the button and the rider has a gun with a more traditional point and shoot mechanic. Enemy patterns are designed so there is an easier way to go with the gun, laser, or both but you can really attack any way you’d like. And if things get too hectic or your dragon is in danger you can choose to unleash a powerful berserker attack that goes after everything on screen. This all has me more engaged than when playing Star Fox 64. It’s more of a challenge in the best of ways and gets me more interested in the game world. I care about winning and moving forward more than in Star Fox. Panzer Dragoon Zwei is both more open and cohesive at the same time.
Also there’s the difference in vehicles. In Star Fox 64 you’re in a spaceship with a few other teammates in spaceships. Space. Space Ships. It’s been done a million times. It’s a boring avatar. Sure your teammates have simple little personalities and you want them alive, but after an initial playthrough the game, it’s hard to really care for them. They quickly become nothing more than a resource you choose to keep going or not. At this point if Falco or Slippy die, I just go “meh, guess I’ll be doing a bit more myself.” It’s a feeling not much different than when a magic gauge runs out in a fight. In Panzer Dragoon Zwei it’s different. You watch your dragon grow and develop. You get attached as it evolves. When it cries out in pain as it get hits you feel something, whether it’s your first run through or your hundredth. You want to kill baddies and make it to the next stage too of course, but you want to protect your lone, organic companion throughout it all. You care more.
The dragon also ties into one of the ways the game spices things up and adds variety; it’s branching levels. Almost every level in the game has one or more branching paths resulting in different environments, difficulties, varied boss encounters, etc. Sure Star Fox has more levels, but these branching options do more than switch up the rail, they directly affect the player and the playstyle itself. By taking different paths and performing in different ways through them you gain points that evolve your dragon. It changes forms, and can more defensive, agile, stronger, or have a bigger, powerful berserker meter for those attacks. It makes you want to come back to the game over and over, not only to try new routes and areas but to experiment with growing your little dragon friend. Sure I don’t have a planetary system to traverse, but the options I do have are thoroughly entertaining, have a strong effect on the entire game as a whole, and continues to build the emotional investment in the dragon/rider, story, and world the player sinks into. In my eyes, that’s another win. If that’s still not enough, Panzer Dragoon Zwei has a plethora of unlockables you can get from longer playtimes, different saves, and various levels of completion. These include new guns with different fire power, and all sorts of dragon and play modifications you can choose from at will.
Story is another area where Panzer Dragoon Zwei clearly overshadows Star Fox 64. It’s richer, more involved, and has a more adult, sophisticated method of storytelling, which again, pulls players in deeper and sticks with them longer than Star Fox 64’s story which is admittedly complete and coherent, but thin and simple. Zwei doesn’t flat out dictate what’s going on, who is bad, and where you’re going next. It sprinkles players with details, narrative, and hints not just through cutscenes but core gameplay. It gives you enough to build a foundation but keeps enough open that players think their way through it, keeping the imagination rolling along. Zwei uses the video game opportunities for storytelling beautifully. It plants things to remember and look for in the world and YOU, the player push it all forward as you play and are rewarded with further depth and understanding. It makes paying attention to the rich world and your struggles through it mean something. Star Fox 64’s little chats with Wolf or Pepper are flat and become white noise quickly. The story and storytelling doesn’t really add anything, if it doesn’t take away from it. And if a game loses meaning, in any sense really, that’s no good. I first bought Panzer Dragoon Zwei in 2005 and I still get swept away by it when I give it a good play. That says a lot.
Panzer Dragoon Zwei might not look as smooth and shiny as Star Fox 64, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful, especially for a game released on the Saturn, a system known to struggle with 3D. The game world, characters, pretty much everything is so rich and unique. A lot of rail shooters before Panzer Dragoon came along, and many after as a matter of fact, were space games. There are a million space shooters out there and after a while it’s hard for them to stand out too well visually. This is where Panzer Dragoon Zwei, all of the games in the series really, shines. Everything is so original that it’s all fascinating. Everything is so well thought out and uniquely constructed it’s beautiful. Nothing looks like Panzer Dragoon. Not many games have you going through flooded ruins, massive airships, Burning villages, and polluted wastelands etc. and more in one game, especially not a rail shooter. The uniqueness in design and implementation do more than pull a player in, keep them interested, or build attachments, the environments and enemies tell a story all on their own. Star Fox is a space shooter. You’re in a ship, pew! Pew! Pew!-ing along. The world and the visuals just touch the surface of what the Panzer Dragoon games do. Panzer Dragoon Zwei set a bar at it’s time of release. A bar that’s very hard to reach.
Panzer Dragoon Zwei does so much right and better than it’s contemporaries, it’s a shame that not that many people have played it. It’s a great rail shooter. It’s memorable, unique, fun, and even better than a great one of it’s contemporaries, Star Fox 64. In all fairness though, it’s no wonder why Star Fox is seen as a classic more often. It’s good, got more coverage in it’s heyday, and is more readily available. It’s a shame Panzer Dragoon Zwei never got that strong of a chance when it first came out. I am dead set in my thoughts on it, but it’s hard to get a good chat out of it all because the Panzer Dragoon games have faded from the typical gamer consciousness. When I was starting to put this together I threw up a poll on Twitter and the numbers were really disappointing. I hope more Star Fox fans give the Panzer Dragoon games, specifically Zwei, a try. And you are the opposite game fan, same thing. In the past I got a got a lot of hate tweets over this opinion, but when I brought it up recently people were civil and I got support, so who knows how popular or unpopular what I think is. I just want more thoughts for more people, and for people to give the champ of a game a solid try. You might be surprised.