I’m a sucker for a retro aesthetic, which is why I was immediately drawn to Panzer Paladin the first time I laid eyes on it at PAX East 2019. Now, there’s no shortage of retro-inspired, action-platforming games “with a twist” paying homage to that good old NES vibe, but few go so far as Panzer Paladin does to make it feel like some mysterious, unreleased NES game seen only in a small blurb in Nintendo Power’s Pak Watch section. The novel mechanics of Panzer Paladin stand on their own, but it’s the way it captures so much of the excitement of that era of gaming, without the downsides, that truly makes it great.
Panzer Paladin Screenshots
Video game storytelling has come a long way in the decades since the 8- and 16-bit eras, but Panzer Paladin isn’t really interested in any of that. No, the only emotional response it’s going for is the warm dopamine rush of pure nostalgia. Its story is simple: meteors full of weapons have crashed on Earth and evil beings are flooding the globe, fed by the nefarious energy of these dark magic-infused weapons of war. How do you get more video game than “bad guys fell from space so let’s shoot’em!”?
As ridiculous as the story of a cyborg named Flame piloting a mech named Grit to beat back the forces of an all-powerful dark magic is, it never winks or nods, but somehow never takes itself too seriously either. It sets the perfect tone for the gameplay, and the story plays out in animated cutscenes that would be right at home in any legendary anime of the series, such as Bubblegum Crisis or one of the dozen or so Gundam series over the years.
Beating the 6-hour campaign rewarded me with one of my favorite parts of 1980s gaming: an extended cutscene. Sure, today we have cutscenes that play out over the span of an hour or more on occasion (looking at you, Kojima), but back then, games like Ninja Gaiden and their microscopic memory sizes meant these dramatic moments were rationed out over the course of your playthrough. The final, extra-long (meaning a few minutes) cutscene felt like a reward for your hard work, and Panzer Paladin revives this lost experience.
Keeping it Old School
Apart from its awesome anime-as-hell cutscenes, Panzer Paladin evokes so many old-school gaming memories that I’m sure there are a million obscure ones I didn’t even pick up on. Nods to the NES library abound, but never feel overt or forced. When you beam into a new level, you exit your floating base of operations in a scene straight out of the (criminally underrated) NES version of Strider.
You pilot Grit in the main levels, but you can push the “minus” button on the Switch and jump out and run around as Flame any time, a la Blaster Master. In fact, there are secrets and sections of each level where you have to play as Flame, who swings from a whip in a confluence of Bionic Commando and the Castlevania series. Moving through the second half is reminiscent of Wily’s castle in Mega Man 2. Certain enemies, when hit, make the exact same noise as the tinny, pinging ricochet effect from Contra. I’m not talking about a close approximation, either: to my ears, trained on decades of NES Contra playthroughs, it’s the same exact sound. It’s almost an old-school overload, but somehow it never felt like I was being hit over the head to show off its bonafides.
Difficulty is also old-school, but only in the good way: thankfully developer Tribute Games added in checkpoints to the levels so you don’t lose all your progress when you fail the fifth white-knuckle challenge in a row. Well, at least not right away. While there is a generously placed checkpoint before each boss battle, if you run out of lives without beating the boss it’s back to the start. There are also only two checkpoints between levels, and sometimes reaching that first checkpoint can feel like a long and arduous haul. There was more than one occasion when I died through my own stupidity before I reached the first or second checkpoint, which set me back a long way. That didn’t feel great.
When I say it was my own stupidity, I mean it. Like the best old-school games, Panzer Paladin doesn’t do cheap hits. The controls between Grit and Flame feel really different, but they’re both manageable and so the few times I missed a jump or landed in a pit of insta-death lava, it was because my stupid fingers just didn’t listen to my brain.
Breaking the Norms (and Weapons)
One of the coolest ideas Panzer Paladin has is its novel approach to weapons: they don’t last forever. As unpopular as the concept of breakable weapons can be, here it’s a required part of how you play, and there’s actually something good that comes of losing your favorite weapon. Holding down the shoulder buttons breaks your current weapon, unleashing a spell, giving you a buff or flat-out raining bolts of lightning from the sky. There are defensive and offensive spells, as well as spells to heal Grit and absorb health from enemies, among others.
I didn’t realize initially how important all of this was, especially when facing bosses. I struggled to defeat the first few, but once I got the hang of applying the proper buffs and offensive spells during the fights, they became much less daunting. For example, breaking a weapon and casting “wings” on Grit let me float around the battlefield to both avoid ground attacks and get into position to deal out damage to when the boss was otherwise unreachable. Breaking half a dozen weapons to heal in the heat of battle happened more than once. The “Absorb” spell made quick work of a screen full of summoned minions, freeing me up to focus on attacking the boss instead of avoiding all the annoying enemies rushing me. In fact, hoarding weapons increases your dark magic levels, which then makes bosses even more difficult. Once you embrace that it’s in your best interest to break those weapons and dispel their evil ways, it all comes together.
But not all weapons are doomed to be destroyed! Weapons obtained after defeating bosses are faster, stronger, much more durable, and some even have the rare “full heal” spell locked inside them. A strong boss-weapon can make short work of the next boss you face, and even the worst boss-acquired weapon is better than the dozens you pick up from random enemies along the way. You need find and collect the power-ups that refill the durability gauge on weapons for those, should you decide to keep them (I’m a fan of the Ice Pop myself).
You also have choices to make about how to break them and when, because extra weapons can be traded in back at your base to increase Grit’s overall life energy meter. But what I really love is the blacksmith option. Essentially, you design your own weapons of war. You have a certain number of points you can assign to your own creations, so you get to decide how durable it is, its power, and more, within the constraints of available points.
Think of it like creating a character in an RPG. My favorite hellblade-creation is fast, with a great amount of damage, but comes at the cost of low durability. Better yet, you get to draw your own in a pixel-art image of it in the blacksmith menu. Actually drawing the weapon is a little cumbersome, but not overwhelming, and I was able to make a sweet looking sword. I’m 100% certain people will use the creator to make obscene weapons, but I managed to hold myself back. (As far as you know, anyway.) It’s a lot of fun seeing the weapons you create get dropped during certain mid- and late-level events.