It’s weird to say that I’ve finally played NiGHTS into Dreams. Sixteen years ago I wanted to play the game so bad I could taste it. Not only was NiGHTS colorful and unique but it just looked fun to play. But, sadly, I was never able to play it. As much as I wanted my hands on it, it was only available on the Sega Saturn and back in 1996 I was ten—not exactly the prime age for dropping money on a new console. The Dreamcast would have been released and the Saturn long dead by the time I saved up enough birthday and Christmas cash. After all this time, Sega is hoping to cash in on gamers wanting to take a trip down memory lane with some HD versions of old classics. In addition to Jet Set Radio and Sonic Adventure 2, NiGHTS is now available for download; but is it everything I had ever hoped it to be?
For the uninitiated, NiGHTS has a somewhat bizarre plot revolving around the two parts of the dream world Nightopia and Nightmare. Wizeman the Wicked is the ruler of Nightmare and is trying to steal dream energy—represented by colored spheres called Ideya—so he can take over Nightopia and eventually our world. Wizeman creates Nightmaren to help him and among them is Nights, the purple-clad flying jester, who eventually rebels and is then imprisoned. Still following? Elliot and Claris are two children that become involved after they escape into Nightopia after suffering from bad dreams of personal failures. It turns out that Elliot and Claris possess the red Ideya (Courage) which is the only kind Wizeman cannot steal. They free Nights from his prison and set out to defeat Wizeman and restore balance to the dream world.
The HD version of NiGHTS is based off the remake of the game for the Playstation 2 that was released exclusively in Japan in 2008. For what it is, the game looks beautiful. Sure, the graphics lack the refinement of what you might get today; creatures and environments can often look blocky and jagged and there’s a lot of two dimensional objects sticking out in an otherwise three dimensional world. Despite all this the game contains one of the most vivid color palettes then and now. A bright, green garden will look great on any HDTV. From a deep blue underwater section to a stark-white snow level you will see why NiGHTS made such an impact when it first came out. Like the PS2 remake, the HD version also includes an option to play the game with classic Sega Saturn graphics. The original graphics are modified for wide screen support and also try to polish things up a bit. However, it would take a true NiGHTS purist with big nostalgia glasses to play the game exclusively in the “classic” form. The classic graphics suffer from a great deal of pop in textures and the levels contain much less depth in this form. It is nice that the option exists, though, so you can see for yourself how a game can truly evolve with enough love and attention. You might even be surprised that the cutscenes have aged somewhat gracefully and don’t look stretched and pixellated beyond repair.
One thing that has proved timeless about NiGHTS is its soundtrack. Constantly referenced and remixed, much of the music is just as recognizable as other popular game themes. A newcomer to the series will find great solace in the dreamy opening theme or even get the “Spring Valley” track stuck in their head for days. Each track is a wonderful moment and it truly does stick with you. Since you are going to constantly be repeating levels for better scores it is essential that the music delivers and it does. It harkens back to the days when each piece of music stood out on its own and was representative of the level it was played in; as opposed to the more theatrical direction many popular soundtracks are taking these days. Aside from the music there isn’t much else to hear. Only a few lines of dialogue are spoken and the various sound bites and effects are as simple as they come.
NiGHTS is a racing game at its core—something I never realized when the game was first released. You might be misled into thinking the game is a sort of “3D flying platformer” and it’s quite understandable. When you first start a level you have control over Elliot and Claris and can move and jump them around the 3D environment with very poor camera controls. As soon as you gain control of Nights the game truly begins. The purpose is to recover the four stolen Ideya by collecting 20 blue chips in each track and breaking open the capture device. Environments are 3D but you fly around in a predetermined 2D plane, merely giving the illusion of 3D environments. Each level contains four tracks that will take you around different parts of the map, each with their own shortcuts and point stores. You have two minutes to finish each track and try to finish the level with the highest possible grade. After breaking open the Ideya device all blue chips will turn gold and reward more points; in addition you go through loops, paraloop around enemies, and try to chain together as many moves as possible to reach the highest possible score. If you run out of time then you lose control of Nights and lose all your blue orbs (like when Sonic loses his rings) and have to escape a weird blue alarm clock that will end the turn.
All this sounds relatively easy and it is. What becomes apparent is that getting a good score is quite difficult. I played different tracks and levels several times and was only able to achieve an “A” rating once. As a hybrid racing game you really want to play each track often enough to memorize all the ins and outs of how to get the best score. I thought practice would make perfect, but alas. One cause for frustration is boss encounters. Unless you have amazing intuition you aren’t going to beat a boss on the first try. Details on how to beat them are vague at best and a hint is only given after you lose. Even worse is that the fights are timed as well and getting hit shaves off seconds. To fight the boss again you have to play through the whole level and repeat all four tracks. To play against the final boss you actually have to score an average “C” grade on each level—let me tell you, it isn’t easy.
It is worth noting that when NiGHTS originally shipped on the Saturn it came with a 3D controller that had an analog stick. This was released shortly before the Nintendo 64 in the United States so, at the time, it was quite revolutionary. Because of that the game does control very smoothly and as well as current games. As a further bonus the HD edition includes “Christmas Nights” which gives some of the levels in the game a Christmas theme. The add-on was very hard to come by when it first came out and is a great treat for anyone wanting the complete experience.
NiGHTS into Dreams certainly wasn’t the game I thought it was all those years ago. Actually, it fits along quite nicely with many games offered today. It is a pure gameplay experience because it begs to be played over and over to fully master it. Many current downloadable and independent titles build upon that feeling you got when playing a game like Super Mario or Sonic—the same kind of games that inspired NiGHTS. A lot of times you will find people doing speedruns of games and NiGHTS could fit perfectly in that scene. This HD cut of NiGHTS into Dreams provides a look back at a game that did an excellent job at looking forward.