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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | Gamers' Corner

The Two Sides of Saturn

'Panzer' and 'House of the Dead' Represent the Best and the Worst

June 15, 1998|AARON CURTISS | AARON CURTISS is a Times Staff Writer

Although they occupy opposite ends of the gaming spectrum, two of the last new titles for Sega's fading flagship demonstrate why Saturn never really caught on with American consumers the way Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 have.

"Panzer Dragoon Saga" and "The House of the Dead" share nothing except the fact that they start the official end of Saturn's troubled three-year run. True to Sega's performance over the last three years, the games highlight the vast variability in quality and playability that earned Saturn a reputation for hosting at least two or three turkeys for every moderate hit.

While Sony PlayStation allowed developers to push the technology limit ever further, many found Saturn too frustrating and confining. As a result, Saturn owners got two kinds of games--absolute dreck and occasional gems by Sega's teams.

With Sega's promising 128-bit monster machine, Dreamcast, set to release in North America next year, Saturn owners will have to find their jollies in the trickle of titles still in development. Like "Panzer Dragoon Saga" and "The House of the Dead," though, they represent the best of games and the worst of games, based on what was on display at the annual Electronics Entertainment Expo.

On a different platform, "Panzer Dragoon Saga" holds the potential to be a breakthrough game, seamlessly mixing the best elements of role-playing games with a more action-oriented flight simulator. Spread over four graphics-packed discs, "Panzer Dragoon Saga" wraps a series that gave Saturn its first early boost. The first "Panzer Dragoon" remains among the best games ever made for Saturn.

As in the first two games, players spend much of their time on the back of a flying dragon soaring through some of the most inspired game environments ever designed. Unlike the first two, though, "Panzer Dragoon Saga" provides a heavy mix of role-playing, complete with detailed attack and inventory menus that hold their own against any pure role-playing game on the market.

Battle sequences are intuitive and realistic. Players wait for their power gauges to refill before launching various attacks and enemies respond in real time. Controlling the hero, Edge, is smooth--particularly with Sega's optional 3-D control pad. But the real fun lies in riding the dragon, which swoops and climbs gracefully through dark canyons and over endless deserts.

Had Saturn hosted more games such as "Panzer Dragoon Saga," the rig would have had a real chance against the hegemony of Sony and Nintendo. Instead, the standard Saturn fare often more closely resembled the irritating "The House of the Dead."

Like television movies that advertise themselves as "based on a true story," "The House of the Dead" boasts that it's "based on the monstrous arcade hit." The key word in both claims is "based." Yes, there is an arcade hit called "The House of the Dead," and yes, it requires players to blast zombies in a creepy mansion where biological experiments have gone horribly--and predictably--wrong.

End of similarity.

Sega should have renamed the game "The Palace of the Pixels," since that's what players spend most of their time looking at. Clunky zombies slog across the screen as players try to shoot them with Sega's light-gun.

The game looks and plays more like the first generation of Saturn titles than the last.

It deserves to have a bullet put in it. And, finally, so does Saturn.

Deathtrap Dungeon: Imagine "Tomb Raider's" Lara Croft in a leather thong, and you've got the derivative "Deathtrap Dungeon," a tedious "Tomb Raider" copycat that's hard to control and not worth the effort to learn.

The game follows either Red Lotus--the aforementioned Croft look-alike who favors big boots and small outfits--or Chaindog--a killing machine raised to slay for sport--as they wander through a dungeon in search of Melkor the Red Dragon.

"Deathtrap Dungeon's" fatal flaw is its clumsy control. All the spooky tunnels and cool lighting effects in the world aren't worth $39.99 if you can't get from point A to point B without throwing the controller. Particularly in battle, "Deathtrap Dungeon's" awkward cameras and sloppy movement curse the game.

Major League Baseball: Nintendo's sports division has a knack for making slick, smart games for its 64-bit machine. The latest: "Major League Baseball," an exceptional digital version of America's sport.

With natural controls and on-screen cues, even beginners can strike out star players such as Ken Griffey Jr. within a few minutes. Control and strategy are both top-notch, but the graphics make the game a joy to watch, not to mention play.

*

Times staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every Monday in The Cutting Edge. To comment on a column or to suggest games for review, send e-mail to aaron.curtiss@latimes.com.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

ESSENTIALS

Title: "Panzer Dragoon Saga"

Platform: Sega Saturn

Publisher: Sega

ESRB rating: Teen

Price: $49.99

Bottom line: Worth mourning Saturn over

*

Title: "The House of the Dead"

Platform: Sega Saturn

Publisher: Sega

ESRB rating: Mature

Price: $49.99

Bottom line: Reason Saturn died

*

Title: "Deathtrap Dungeon"

Platform: Sony PlayStation

Publisher: Eidos Interactive

ESRB rating: Mature

Price: $39.99

Bottom line: Frustrating

*

Title: "Major League Baseball"

Platform: Nintendo 64

Publisher: Nintendo Sports

ESRB rating: Everyone

Price: $59.99

Bottom line: Smart

Next week: "Gran Tourismo," "Monster Truck Madness 2" and "Bio Freaks."

* Entertainment Software Ratings Board

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