An Underrated Mashup Of Zelda 2 And Mega Man Is Finally Getting The Multiplatform Love It Deserves

3 weeks ago 44

Some games make my heart bubble up with joy. They remind me of thumbing through tiny, beautiful booklets and tag-teaming tough bosses with friends. Not everyone’s childhood was easy, simple, or happy, but all of us have moments in our lives we look back fondly on and games that briefly bring them back to us. Panzer Paladin is one of those for me, and the retro action platformer is finally getting a second chance on PlayStation and Xbox.

The Top 10 Most Played Games On Steam Deck: February 2024 Edition

It was made by Tribute Games, the indie team behind 2022 GOTY contender Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge. Before that, they were best known for the puzzle RPG Wizorb and the run-and-gun side-scroller Mercenary Kings. All of the studio’s projects have showcased top-tier pixel-art and a flare for turning the fundamentals of old genre classics into homages that looked great and felt novel. Following 2017's Flint Hook, described early on as “Spider-Man with a gun,” Tribute released Panzer Paladin, a 2D platformer where you pilot a mech and collect giant medieval weapons.

It’s structured like Mega Man with a stage select screen and boss fights at the end of each level. It borrows from Blaster Master in that you can exit your mech to navigate parts of the levels as tiny pilot with a grappling hook. It plays like Zelda II, Nintendo’s one-off side-scrolling experiment that threw Link into tense 2D duels against armored knights. What Panzer Paladin has that those games don’t is a sophisticated breakable weapon system where you collect swords, spears, axes and other deadly tools as you play, even crafting your own and sharing them online with other players.

There’s plenty of spike pits but no Castlevania-style knockback hitting you into them, and every level has optional checkpoints. The combat is crunchy, the levels are imaginative, and the art is oozing with love, respect, and appreciation for the 8-bit era. But the boss fights are tough, and there are definitely some controller-throwing platforming sections. The warm fuzzy feeling you get from the retro nostalgia does not stop Panzer Paladin from being, all things considered, a pretty hardcore throwback.

Gif: Tribute Games / Kotaku

Its development also followed a now uncommon trajectory. Announced in early 2019, Panzer Paladin was made in just over a year and came out in the summer of 2020, months into an unprecedented pandemic nobody saw coming. It launched exclusively on PC and Switch, with a free content update in the fall that added a leaderboard and challenge levels. At the time, Tribute said there were no plans to bring the game to PlayStation or Xbox, leaving retro enthusiasts on those platforms out of luck.

With Shredder’s Revenge done and its DLC out last year, the timing finally lined up to bring Panzer Paladin to other platforms. If porting was as easy as copying and pasting some code, it might have happened a lot sooner, but Tribute works with a proprietary game engine and had to bring on outside programming help, as well as navigate a byzantine platform certification process that included making sure server support for the game’s user-generated content—its player-crafted weapons—didn’t break on PlayStation or Xbox.

“You go through certification and you get bug reports for some things and there’s always the temptation to go, ‘Oh, we could correct this in a specific way, or we could add a feature to this,” Ray, a producer who helped coordinate the process, told me in a recent video interview. “But there’s also that little voice that says we need to keep it as simple as possible, so we get through certification and we introduce less risk of something breaking because we changed something else.”

With that complete, Tribute can now focus on its next project. Will it be a one-game studio or is there room for another Panzer Paladin-sized experiment in its future? “Right now we have multiple projects in the pipeline including some ports,” publishing manager Eric Lafontaine told me (several of the studio’s older games like Wizorb aren’t on modern consoles). He added that the team is currently growing, a reassuring sign at a time when lots of other indie studios are facing extinction.

In the meantime, Panzer Paladin is ripe for re-discovery like a long-lost NES cartridge juiced up on modern tech. There’s no shortage of gorgeous looking retro games on PC and console these days, but it only takes a few minutes with Panzer Paladin to see there’s much more to it than just another incredibly GIF-able pixel art game. And one of the things I now love most about it is the way it’s brain-wormed its way into my own nostalgia for the summer of its original release. 2020 was an absolute shit year in so many ways. Playing Panzer Paladin offered brief moments of retro respite I still haven’t forgotten. And now it’s back with a Platinum Trophy on PS4.

Continue reading