The opening cinema of Panzer Dragoon -- rendered on the Saturn in a small window with blocky FMV -- relates the story of two young men hunting in the desert, one of whom is the hero, Keil. They look up, and find two dragon riders dueling in the skies. Keil's friend is accidentally killed, leaving our hero stranded in a cave, about to be eaten by some of the world's nastiest monsters. Before his death, one of the dragons flies by and carries him to safety. The rider is dying, but in his last words, he begs Keil to take his beast and follow his opponent, the evil black dragon, before he reaches the Tower and causes mayhem.
Compared to the later entries in the series, the original Panzer Dragoon is a bit cut and dried -- the only weapons are your standard gun and homing laser, there aren't any options to speed up or slow down, and there are only six completely linear levels. Additionally, from a 2008 perspective, it takes awhile to get used to the choppy framerate, and the lack of analog control is annoying.
Despite feeling barebones, it's still a remarkably fun game. The Easy Mode only lets you play to the end of level four -- Normal Mode and beyond lets you plat the full game, but it's pretty difficult. Although the levels are only about five minutes long each, it's a pain to get to the boss, die, and have to start all over, especially since there are no life power-ups. You get a limited number of credits, although you gain more at the end of each level based on how many enemies you've killed. Strangely, there are some minor differences in the difficulty levels between the Japanese and Western releases, with the Western version generally being more difficult.
For awhile, Sega was actively porting many of its console and arcade games to the PC, with varying degrees of success. The Windows port of Panzer Dragoon has a bad reputation, but it's basically the exact same game -- choppy framerate included -- running at a higher resolution, so it looks crisper. It's a nice, dirt cheap alternative to the other versions.
This version was included as an unlockable in Panzer Dragoon Orta for the Xbox, which also runs at a higher resolution than the Saturn version, so it looks a bit better. The ability to use the analog stick is nice (the Saturn one only supported the system's digital pad) even though it's not technically true analog control.
Panzer Dragoon also was treated to a rerelease in 2006 for the Japanese PlayStation 2 as part of the Sega Ages 2500 budget line-up. It includes a "Saturn Mode" with graphics similar to the original game, and an "Arrange Mode" which features anti-aliased graphics, better texturing and some improved polygon models, mostly notably the dragon. Both versions now feature control with the analog stick, although again, it's not true analog.
Unfortunately, despite the opportunity to fix some issues, the draw distance is still fairly short, and the frame rate hasn't improved at all. Some of the minor effects, like the rolling ocean waves in the first stage, don't look quite right either. It's a nice package overall, and probably the best looking of all of the versions, but it's not substantially better than any of the other versions. The major bonus is the addition of the Pandora's Box bonus menu, which features a bunch of artwork, as well as a full replay of the entire game by an expert.