We've experienced visions of the past and questioned the future of the shooting genre. My friends, I am proud to say that SHMUPS do indeed have a place in the modern gaming scene and it is an exciting portent of things to come. Thanks to the prompt attentions of Uncle Sam to my tax return this year and certainly the hard work of developer Smilebit and publisher Sega, a cult series is reborn - as is the faith in SHMUPing's future.
What was once strange and abstract due to Saturn polygon count restrictions is now beautiful and surreal through sheer force of insane creative genius and pure console power. Panzer Dragoon Orta is a masterpiece of electronic art.
There...with that out of the way...
Panzer Dragoon Orta exists on two levels: The first is as a 10-stage rail SHMUP, a Starfox-esqe style that’s been all but shunned and forgotten in this modern era of fully immersive 3D worlds. But Orta seems to have evolved beyond its roots: While your dragon is more or less guided toward its destiny down a designated path (with multiple branch points), you can rotate the camera to look in front of, behind, or to either side of your dragon depending on where your foes are currently clustered. You now also have the ability to slow down to dodge certain obstacles and tear apart groups of enemies with a wicked dash move.
Most importantly, your dragon has three distinct forms (rotated through using the Y button); each upgradeable by collecting genomes - or power-ups whose criteria for appearance is never quite clear - from felled enemies. All of this makes for a level of strategy you wouldn’t normally encounter in this or any type of SHMUP. The action is intense and not at all mindless. Success on Normal difficultly requires an intimate, instinct-driven knowledge of all three forms’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as the reflexes to swap between them within fractions of a second. The game is bound to frustrate many (Sega seems good at that these days) since you have to start each level from square one if you should die. Should you make it to the boss of the stage, you CAN continue from there.
Orta’s second level of existence is as a massive sensory overload machine. Fleets of surreal airships float over Salvador Dali landscapes; herds of H.R. Giger nightmares rampage through ruins of places dreamed by Heironomous Bosch; and that’s just in the game’s "real" world, before you start fighting the thingamabobs that live inside concepts like memory. (?!?!) The Panzer series has always been known for its technorganic acid art style, but gaming hardware has never really been able to give the vision a proper canvas until now. Orta never even thinks of slowing down, no matter what insanity is going on, the strongest testimony yet to the power of the Xbox hardware. You have never seen a game that looks this fantastic.
One criticism often levied against modern SHMUPS is that they’re just too short. Orta is certainly on the longish side for a shooter (it could take three or four hours your first time through the game), but Smilebit tossed in a heck of a lot more to keep players busy. First of all, players can unlock the original Panzer Dragoon game and play it in its entirety. Beyond that, there’s a secondary scenario where you can play as another character on the opposite side of Orta’s story. The levels in this scenario are all new, but they are short and not nearly as entertaining as the main quest. Still, it’s great to have as an extra. Throw in a few bonus levels where you play as other characters atop new mounts, an encyclopedia and archives with unlockable art and movies and there’s plenty of extra goodness to keep you playing.
Panzer Dragoon Orta is a must-play. The on-rails aspect certainly won’t appeal to some given the premium placed on open-ended, go anywhere gameplay of late, but Orta proves that AAA titles come in all forms and genres.
..and there you have it. I hope you've enjoyed this little trot down memory lane, and most importantly, I hope that with some reviews and reminiscing I have helped raise some measure of awareness of this maligned style of game. With every generation since the NES, naysaysers have told us that the SHMUP is dead. ...then Darius Twin appeared...then Starfox...then Einhander...now Panzer Dragoon's most recent title - Orta.
No, SHMUPS are not dead. They - like all types of games - have evolved with the capabilities of technology and sensibilities of modern gamers. These remain exciting times for all gamers - SHMUPS included.