Panzer Dragoon, released for the Sega Saturn (and PC) in 1995, players take control of Keil/Kyle, a mutant hunter whose excursion into the desert is interrupted when he witnesses a battle between two dragons, the most powerful genetically engineered monsters spoken of legend. The black dragon kills the blue dragon's rider, who urges Kyle to mount his creature to one of the Towers so it can be destroyed.
The game was notable for being a rail shooter that allowed a full 360-degree camera rotation to fight enemies in all directions. There was also a Sega Ages version of the game for the SonyPlayStation 2, which spruced up the visuals and smoothed everything out (including bumping the frame rate to a more natural 30 FPS). Naturally, this version stayed in Japan.
Panzer Dragoon Zwei, a prequel released for the Sega Saturn in 1996, gives more insight as to the origin of the blue dragon from the first game. A mutant Coolia is spared by a boy named Lundi from the ritual killing of all mutants, as he couldn't bring himself to do the deed, especially when he noticed the Coolia in question had the especially rare mutation of wings. Adopting it as his own under the name "Lagi", Lundi attempts to teach it how to fly on the outskirts of town one day, when suddenly a flying Tower, dubbed "Shelcoof" by the Empire, destroys his home in a blinding flash, leaving the two with naught but the desire to take revenge.
Zwei introduced the Berserk Meter (which could unleash a Limit Break attack on everything in sight), and the concept of dragon evolution: Lagi had various forms which it would mutate into at the end of each stage, according to score and play style, with a perfect run yielding the series' iconic blue dragon. The music also had a more ethnic feel to it than the orchestral/techno feel of the original game; the series would continue to use this style in later entries.
Panzer Dragoon Saga, also known as AZEL: Panzer Dragoon RPG, is an Eastern RPG released for the Sega Saturn in 1998. It tells the story of Edge, a boy who finds female Drone named Azel at the dig site he's assigned to protect, only to be double-crossed and killed by the Black Fleet, The Empire's elite soldiers. Led by a man named Craymen, they claim the girl for their own in their rebellion against the Emperor, who has gone mad with power and intends to harness the Towers for his own nefarious purposes, of for which he needs Azel. Edge is mysteriously revived and rescued by a strange, but powerful dragon, who seemingly has its own agenda concerning the Towers. Together, they set out to exact revenge on Craymen, unwittingly thrusting the pair into the conflict between the two factions.
The game was praised for its very unique art direction, eclectic soundtrack, interesting combat engine (for an RPG, mind you), engaging story, and gameplay that managed to avoid many (although not all) of the more common RPG tropes. It also expanded the mutation concept from Zwei to allow real-time transformations of Edge's dragon. Four stats were separated into two inversely-related pairs, and allowed the player to boost one of each pair while making the deficiencies in the other more pronounced (Attack boosts the power of the dragon's Homing Lasers, while Spiritual increase damage of special attacks; Defense decreases the amount of damage taken and Agility allows the Active Time Battle-like gauge to charge faster and dodge faster).
Only a handful of copies of the game were made, as the Saturn was on the way out to pave the way for the Sega Dreamcast. It remains highly sought after to this day, and commands extreme prices on online markets. As such, having a copy's considered a badge of honor for Saturn owners.
Panzer Dragoon Orta is the epilogue of sorts for the series. Developed by Smilebit (who had many of the original Team Andromeda developers, after they split up following Saga) and released on the Xbox in 2002, it stars Orta, the daughter of Edge and Azel, who is fought over by various factions because of her unique nature. She's taken prisoner but rescued by a dragon and flies her way to freedom away from a villainous Drone called Abadd, who believes she's the key to restoring the Ancients. Orta ends on a bit of a more positive note as human civilization and mutated creatures begin to bond with each other to form a real working ecosystem without the influence of the Towers. It also includes a separate story mode that follows an Imperial boy named Iva Demilcol as he fights for the Empire, as well as his encounters with Orta.
Orta took the Berserk System of Zwei and the transformation mechanics from Saga and adopted it to the series' original shooter formula, with a dragon that could mutate into three different forms on the fly: "Base Wing" (a standard form with no noticeable strengths/weaknesses), "Heavy Wing" (powerful offensive form with limited mobility) and "Glide Wing" (most nimble form, but lacks Homing Lasers, yet can shoot down enemy Macross Missile Massacre with ease and carries a unique Healing Factor via its Berserk Attack). In order to increase each form's capabilities, "gene bases" must be acquired by either destroying enemies or the environment. Orta was lauded critically for showing off what the Xbox was capable of (and, to this day, still looks gorgeous), tight controls, numerous throwbacks to the original trilogy, and a veritable slew of bonus content that could stretch the replay value for hours (including a full copy of the original Panzer Dragoon). Alas, as with most of the series, it went by relatively unnoticed.
There's also the SegaGame GearSpin-OffPanzer Dragoon Mini, which takes the series and creates a Fun Size variation. Mini was basically Panzer Dragoon, minus the rider, but with extra "cute" added in place.
The series has pretty much died off following Orta, especially after Smilebit was folded back into Sega in the mid-2000s. The creators, however have never been anything short of enthusiastic about the potential future for the series, and the fan following for the series remains very strong. In 2011, a Spiritual Successor of sorts, headed by the creator of the series, was announced for the Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Kinect. Project Draco (revealed in 2012 as Crimson Dragon), although not a direct sequel and still a working title, is at present the closest thing fans will have to a new Panzer Dragoon game. Sega also threw the series a bone when they included "Dragon Valley" in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.Due to the obscure nature of the series (the majority of its titles being exclusive to the notoriously-difficult-to-emulate Saturn, after all), this is very much an example of a series which Needs More Love. Definitely not to be confused with The Legend of Dragoon.This series provides examples of:
After the End - Orta: its encyclopedia even refers to the events of Saga as "The Great Fall". Even before that, the original game opens "thousands of years" after a "once-thriving human civilization perished into dust".
Always Accurate Attack - The dragons' "Arrows of Light" will always hit an enemy, so long as the targets don't go behind cover of some form (like the clouds in the final level of Orta).
Bilingual Bonus - Only the intro and ending to Saga are in Panzerese; the rest of the game is in Japanese. Easy to tell when the switch occurs, as Edge's name starts being pronounced "Ejji" rather than "Edge" by the characters.
Iva's missions are introduced and concluded in Greek.
Broke The Rating Scale - "Out of Bounds": IGN told their readers to ignore the 10 for the graphical score of Orta and mentally overwrite an 11 in the box.
Cast from Hit Points - The Els Enora boss in Orta shoots spears made from its own body fluids and can shed a veritable wall of crystalline feathers to try and snare the dragon. Once you break all its arms, it Turns Red and shoots out ALL of its blood at you. At this point, it becomes immune to player attacks, but loses health every time it shoots at you until it finally passes out.
Disney Death - In Saga, Mustava shoots Edge in the stomach, which blows him backwards and makes him tumble down into a deep crevasse. Subverted because Edge did die, if not the blast, but definitely the impact with the water below, but he's restored to life to become the Divine Visitor's avatar.
Downer Ending - Panzer Dragoon, Zwei and Orta end with the dragon's Heroic Sacrifice, but Saga is the worst offender, ending with the revelation that Edge was Dead All Along, kept alive as a No Fourth Wall avatar for the player, the Divine Visitor, and leaving the fate of most of the supporting cast uncertain.
One must wonder how the dragon's Heroic Sacrifice at the end of the first game and Zwei factors in with the fact that the same dragon is ridden in all four games...
Note it's not the same dragon in each game; at least, not biologically speaking. It's different manifestations of the Heresy Program, which is making use of various hosts to carry out its ultimate mission of destroying the Towers.
Orta does place a Hope Spot: The Stinger shows Orta walking into the wilderness with a new dragon pup by her side, a tone that's quite a bit less somber than it seems. Recall in the beginning of the game on the amount of angst she had on being alone for all her life, until the dragon rescued her.
Dragon Rider - Justified as the Ancients engineered them so they specifically wouldn't work without a human rider, so they wouldn't go berserk. Riders can at least help the dragons by deflecting shots with their laser guns. Also ties into Meaningful Name.
Heel Face Turn - Arguably the Ancients, who introduced the Heresy Program (which itself is responsible for the player-controlled, mutating dragons seen in the series) into Sestren with the task of destroying the Towers that asserted their control over the planet's development.
Craymen...possibly: admittedly, Edge doesn't ever forgive him for killing his entire troop (himself included) to capture Azel, but at Craymen's request, the two end up working against their common enemy, the Emperor, by the end of Disc 3.
Incredibly Durable Enemies - In-universe example with "Pure-type" monsters, which have a much more advanced form of armor that human weapons are unable to damage. It's only when the player characters acquire their dragons and special guns that they can start battling them on equal footing.
Insignificant Little Blue Planet - It's obvious the world is half-way colonized, but nobody remembers what planet they originally came from or how the hell they got there.
Littlest Cancer Patient - Deconstructed with Iva: nobody ever lets him off easy due to his illness, and he's fully expected to perform as a soldier of the Empire, until the Seekers take him in. Even then, he provides them false information in a lack of trust. His father left him a note explaining the truth about his condition (he'd drank polluted water as a child and was taking pills made from dragonmare-sourced serum to stave off the infection), and when he finds out that he's out of medicine, he rushes off on a Suicide Mission to accomplish one last good before he dies. Iva does die, but in his new friend's arms.
The series' title arguably qualifies: at its most bare bones, it effectively becomes Panzer = Tank, Dragoon = Mounted Infantry. On a deeper level, it really makes more sense (see here for a better explanation).
Mind Screw - The ending of Saga has the Divine Visitor, who is revealed to be the player. Read it here.
Moebius - Let it be clear there is no direct connection between Moebius and Panzer Dragoon outside of being one of the big influences for Team Andromeda during initial designs. However, regardless of that, the motifs stuck and the style of the games would remain as such. His only true contribution was the Japanese box art of the original games...which North America did not get; said pieces he produced after the design work was already completed.
Not So Different - Iva's Story demonstrates how the Empire views Orta and her dragon: a witch hellbent on destruction.
Oddly Named Sequel - Of course, the series has no real consistent Theme Naming, but Orta subverts this in the alternate closing credits, which identifies it as Panzer Dragoon Vier. "Vier" is German for "four".
Old Save Bonus - Zwei and Saga can actually affect each other with their saves, as they were developed concurrently.
Organic Technology - Almost all technology is organic, including the guns. Yes, the guns are snail-sized and shaped living organisms.
Our Dragons Are Different - Dragons are only dragons in the most general sense: they perform more like living X-Wings and shoot lasers and tend to look more like giant armored fish with horns crossed with an H.R. Giger doodle. They're really only "dragons" in title. The Ancients simply referred to any biological creature with the highest tier of power to be referred to as a dragon. In-universe, the modern day usage is on par with using the word "dragon" to mean a god or an instrument of god.
Considering almost all wildlife presented is spectacularly alien with the exception of "humans", this really isn't that far of a stretch.
Recurring Character - The blue dragon is an available form in all four games; it's referred to as "Solo Wing" in Zwei, Saga and Orta. By default, it's considered the highest form the dragon can assume, being the single most powerful form in each game its in, save for the first, since it was the only form available.
Red Baron - The Empire has taken to calling the dragon the "Dragon of Destruction", which pretty much sums it up. Granted, its technical title of "Heresy Program" isn't any better.
Scenery Porn - When the game launched, Orta was critically lauded for its gorgeous graphics which showcased a wide range of locations. Even by today's standards, it could be mistaken for a first-run Xbox 360 title.
Shoot 'em Up - The far more common gameplay variety in the series.
Story to Gameplay Ratio - The first game, Zwei and Orta have almost none. The entire story has to be pieced together from Saga and Orta via the bonus material world bible.
The Unchosen One - Kyle: at the start of Panzer Dragoon, the blue dragon's original rider is killed by the dark dragon, and he just happens to be there to see it. The unnamed rider gives him his mission as his dying wish, then just keels over.
This also leads to the rather unfortunate side-effect of Kyle being the one rider just about everyone seems to forget, since his place in the series is seemingly nominal at best when compared to the other heroes. However, some DO note that for the dragon to fight at maximum capacity, it NEEDS a rider; without Kyle, it could never have accomplished its mission.
Taking You with Me - Evren blows up her dragonmare to try to take out Orta. Doesn't quite work, although it does render her dragon temporarily unable to fly.
Vestigial Empire - Simply called "The Empire". It's been crumbling for quite a while and every-so-often someone with a dragon comes along and kicks the crap out of it a little more each time.
As of Orta, it was making somewhat of a comeback because it started integrating the colonial cultures into it instead of driving them into the ground. Lord only knows what Orta blowing up their airforce again did to them, though.
Voluntary Shapeshifting - Lagi, Edge's and Orta's dragon can remold their bodies to enhance their battle effectiveness in terms of strength, defense, speed and "spirit power".
Welcome to Corneria - Played with in Saga, as some people will simply refuse to talk to you because they don't know you. You also have the possibility to listen to conversations from afar.