Game: NiGHTS into DREAMS…
Developer: Sonic Team
Available on: Windows PC, Xbox LIVE Arcade, PlayStation Network
Reviewed on: Xbox LIVE Arcade
I loved the SEGA Saturn. Mocked from the word go when Sony usurped SEGA’s price point almost in real-time, and destroyed in the 32-bit race by the PlayStation, the console that also doubled up as a CD-G playing karaoke machine was, and still is, revered in Japan where its power to host brilliant arcade conversions and 2D games made it a natural successor to the SNES and Megadrive. However, it wasn’t just the fighting games, the blinding control pad and incredible array of shmups that made the unit such an enticing proposition for me, and the Japanese public.
Sonic Team had been SEGA’s golden goose, the studio formerly known as AM8 had delivered a succession of big-selling, hugely popular, enormously enjoyable Sonic the Hedgehog platformers for the Megadrive and SEGA CD, signing off their work in the 16-bit era with the lovely, slept-on Ristar. Moving past the disastrous 32X and Knuckles Chaotix, Sonic Team’s next assignment was to create something for the Saturn. With the proposed Sonic Xtreme sliding towards development hell, their only two Saturn titles were completely new IPs, which took gamers completely by surprise. Indeed, it will probably surprise most of you that Sonic Team never brought Sonic to the Saturn. It is like imagining a Nintendo console without Mario.
What they did bring though was the still-excellent, anime-style 3D firefighting platformer Burning Rangers, and the curious, trippy NiGHTS into DREAMS…, both of which built up a huge, almost cult following. Fans have clamoured for a remake or sequel to Burning Rangers for years, and the PAL original version now changes hands for a pretty penny on eBay. With NiGHTS, Japanese fans were given a SEGA Ages PS2 re-release in 2008, much to the disappointment of Westerners unable to play import games. Thankfully, SEGA appeased fans by releasing a surprisingly excellent sequel the same year, a Nintendo Wii exclusive which captured the charm of the original whilst offering a range of solid control options on a console renowned for ruining games with its commitment to the Wiimote. With HD remakes all the rage these days, SEGA are once again dipping into their back catalogue with some new downloadable versions of much-loved classics. Jet Set Radio has already sated the fans of the Dreamcast skateboard grind-fest. Does the original NiGHTS into DREAMS… stand the test of time?
NiGHTS is an aesthetically classic Sonic Team game. Classic SEGA. I was playing the game the other evening, and asked my better half, who has a healthy, yet far from extensive knowledge of games, if she could identify who had made this flying jester ‘em up curiosity, and she was instantly able to make the connection to Sonic the Hedgehog without a moments hesitation. However, where a Sonic game is a straightforward left-to-right platformer, that needs very little explanation, NiGHTS is a very unusual game that can take some getting used to. For a game that was intended as a landmark first party release, it is quite oblique in nature, with very little in the way of a story, and gameplay that, upon first inspection, is a touch confusing. Newcomers could be forgiven for thinking that they are dealing with a Mario 64-esque 3D platformer, when in reality this is a very different beast that more closely resembles a racer.
The game follows the dreamy goings-on of Elliot and Claris, children who, in their regular lives, have experienced their own failures and losses. Elliot has just had his ass handed to him in a game of basketball, and Claris is overcome by stage fright during a singing audition. So far, so #firstworldproblems. Rather than move on with their lives, these relatively minor setbacks have psychologically scarred these precocious chavvies to the point that it gives them nightmares. The game takes place in their bizarre dream world, split into the twin kingdoms of Nightopia and Nightmare. Nightopia is a lush, vividly coloured land in which the personalities of the individuals experiencing the dream manifest themselves in the form of coloured spheres called “Ideya”. The yin to Nightopia’s yang, Nightmare is a nasty place governed by Wizeman the Wicked, a genuinely terrifying-looking megalomaniacal baddie, who covets the Ideya in order to take over Nightopia, and ultimately the real world. A bit like Dr Robotnik, Mr Wicked creates a bunch of minions to carry out his foul deeds, known as the Nightmaren. What he didn’t bargain on was one of his most kick-ass Nightmaren, the highly likeable flying jester creature called Nights, rebelling against his plans. To punish him, Wizeman sends the mutinous fellow into a prison known as an Ideya Palace. Elliot and Claris escape from the troubles of their own lives into Nightopia, where they find the banged-up Nights and learn of Wizeman’s scheme. They also learn that they are holders of the mythical Red Ideya of Courage; the only Ideya that Wizeman cannot steal. Together with their new found friend, the kids decide that they are going to stick around, presumably after guzzling all of the Nytol out of their old dears’ medicine cabinet, and thwart Wizeman.
The game kicks off with a choice between Elliot or Claris. You are then plunged into a third person platforming section, where you take control of the kids and set out to find the imprisoned Nights and set him free. A handy guide arrow attached to your child will tell you which way to go. Even with the benefit of the excellent HD makeover, which buffs up the PS2 version to a glittering shine (you also have the option to play with the muddy O.G Saturn visuals), there is no disguising that the platforming sections are not NiGHTS’ strongest suit. They have aged terribly, and serve only as a means to an end, a lumbering precursor to the thrilling sections where you are in control of Nights.
Each stage is essentially a racetrack, and while they are on-rails, you control Nights who can twist, turn, loop and swirl around in order to negotiate through rings and collect Ideya and other bonus items. Each environmentally diverse stage consists of four laps, with each lap taking Nights on a slightly different course. Each lap asks you, against the clock, to collect a set number of Ideya before crossing the finishing line. There are enemies to avoid, and items that allow you to swing your way to unreachable areas, or speed up. At the end of each lap you are given a rank. Remember I mentioned it is like a racer? Well it is, but the difference here is that if you simply play it as such, grabbing the bare minimum number of spheres before entering the goal, then you will not earn the best rank. Instead, the way you should be playing NiGHTS is to use the time you are allocated to explore your surroundings, maximise the number of rings you fly through in chains, ensure that your flight has an almost artistic merit, collect all of the goodies and then hit the finish line. Failure to achieve your goal means that you are plunged back into child-based platform hell, losing your Ideya as Sonic loses his rings when hit, and forced to seek out and re-release Nights from his cage to get back onto the cool bit again.
Each four lap cycle is rounded off with a boss. These take on many different forms, from a giant, space hopper-like singing Valkyrie, to a flying snake, and have to be defeated using all of the dashing acrobatic flourishes in Nights’ arsenal. The balloon woman needs to be charged at, Nights behaving like a flying cueball, sending her through a series of walls in a game of psychadelic aerial snooker. The huge, circling reptile is more simple in that you have to use Nights as a projectile to repeatedly hit him upside his head.
As a package, this is as good as you could hope from a NiGHTS retrospective. As well as the different display options, the HD remake being the clear winner here, with its 3D sprite overhauls and crisp textures, there is also a handy instruction manual, which does its best to explain what is going on, a gallery mode which allows you to view the cutscenes and intros, and a superb interview with lead designer Iizuka-san. Best of all is the inclusion of a cut-down version of Christmas Nights, an Christmas-themed bonus level which was originally given away as a promotional item back in the day. There are also Trophies and Achievements which add a bit of structure to how you approach the levels, and are consistent with how best to play the game by maximising your score and rank.
VERDICT: Although he is a wonderful creation, and a gallant, elegant presence in the game, Nights was never going to be the breakout star that SEGA, and their ailing Saturn required. The game is far too left-field in its execution, and confused as many gamers as it enchanted back in 1996. Trying to explain the premise of the game in conversation is tricky in itself – “Erm, well, love, you play as a flying jester, and it is like a racer, but it isn’t. And there is platforming… here, just have a go”.
Looked at today, it is a great example of how SEGA were masters at letting their gameplay do the talking. There is no hand-holding, no tutorial. Even the bosses, approached for the first time, have no clear signposting, no huge flashing weak point to attack; you have to figure things out for yourself. A great latter day comparison would be the similarly mystical Journey, which encourages you to explore and discover without glaringly obvious guidance.
The game works well on modern consoles. Controlling Nights with a contemporary controller is perfectly natural, especially for those like myself who once owned the circular 3D controller with analogue stick that SEGA once bundled with the game. The actual game is one of two jarringly polar opposites. In 1996 it was easier to forgive, but viewed in 2012 the platforming sections are crushingly bad, with ridiculous camera angles and dull gameplay. The flying sections are one of SEGA’s finest creations and still have the ability to dazzle, each one imbued with a terrific, “just one more go” quality, particularly once you figure out what is going on and everything clicks perfectly into place.
NiGHTS into DREAMS… may not have sold many Saturn consoles sixteen years ago, but is a beautiful piece of gaming history, that may look like a mid 90s SEGA release, but plays like very little that has been released since.