NiGHTS: Into Dreams; Christmas NiGHTS (1996, Sonic Team)
Yuji Naka is the head of Sonic Team, one of the finest videogame studios to emerge in the past two decades. Breaking through in 1991 with Sonic the Hedgehog, Naka created the first truly classic platform game to break away from the slavish Mario mold. This spirit of creativity carried through the 16-bit era (Sonic CD, Sonic 2, Sonic 3 & Knuckles), up to today, with brilliant, original works like Chu Chu Rocket!, Samba De Amigo, and Phantasy Star Online. Naka's crowning achievement is as well-loved as any Sonic Team classic. That game is NiGHTS: Into Dreams, and it is, without question, among the greatest videogames ever made.
NiGHTS appeared on the struggling Saturn in 1996, just when Nintendo had unveiled Super Mario 64, Eidos Interactive introduced Tomb Raider, and Naughty Dog released Crash Bandicoot. This was a heady, revolutionary time, as the rules and conventions of the 3D videogame were being mapped out. Shigeru Miyamoto, of course, would win the day with Mario, as he had so many times before, but because NiGHTS was released on the less-successful Saturn, Sonic Team's efforts were largely overlooked, except by the Sega faithful and die-hard gamers.
If you invested the time, you would discover a game that was, in its own quirky way, nearly as innovative and forward-thinking as Super Mario 64. The challenge was how to take the traditional 2D videogame experience, and bring it into a three-dimensional world. While Mario 64 created a whole new experience while keeping the spirit of the old 2D Super Mario, NiGHTS struck a balance between the old and new, a game world that weaves between 2D and 3D.
NiGHTS tells the story of two children, Claris and Elliot, who have never met but come together in shared lucid dreaming. They encounter an androgynous jester (who vaguely resembles Prince), who flies, twirls, and loops around surreal fantasy worlds, featuring clock gardens, dark forests, icy snow caps, and…well, it doesn't really make much sense.
Each level, or "dream," begins with one of the children walking around a fully 3D environment. When the gem they are carrying is stolen, they run towards a gazebo where NiGHTS awaits. You then take control of our hero, who flies along a set 2D path that loops and curves around the environment, collecting blue spheres in a set time-limit. Imagine Sonic blazing through loops and vaults, but without the foreground graphics.
What makes NiGHTS play so brilliantly is that the character is always centered on the screen. This is a common convention in 2D, but it is easily lost in 3D. The worst thing Sonic Team did in Sonic Adventure (1999) was to pan the camera away from Sonic as he jumped the loop-de-loops. The viewer is taken out of the action, which kills the fun; the joy of these games comes from being flung across the screen with the hero. That roller-coaster thrill, that old Sonic rush, NiGHTS delivers it in spades. Add in an ever-turning camera (this is still a 3D world), and you have a game that is as fast, possibly faster, than anything before.
NiGHTS is a masterpiece of subtlety. At first glance, you see a game that feels more 2D than 3D. But over time, and repeated playing, the many layers emerge. The children, for instance, can avoid the gazebo and wander around, discovering many surprises. There are surprise pathways; surprise bonuses hidden on the air tracks; surprises that seem minor, but enhance the enchanted feel of the world (like leading a car back to its garage).
The greatest surprise of this game has to be the Nightopians. This feature is so subtle that it may be overlooked for the first few hours, but it is no throwaway. Pians are, in fact, one of the pioneering Artificial Life experiments, which became hugely popular with Tamagotchi. In NiGHTS, Pians are little creatures who populate the landscape, flying about, building things, taking naps. They will also mate and lay eggs, which can be hatched by NiGHTS or the children. Your behavior also has an effect. Pians can be (accidentally) killed, or scared away, which affects the music. But kind treatment of the Pians will have its rewards, which I will leave for you to discover.
The sense of flying is wonderful. That mix of improvisation and racing is simply unmatched. NiGHTS can perform two dozen different stunts when flying; there are several places where this can be done for bonus points, but most of the time, this is simply an opportunity for the players to improvise. The act of flying in this game is not unlike abstract painting, with its swift, sweeping movements and colorful accents.
Regardless of the Saturn's hardware difficulties, Sonic Team achieved a stunning level of beauty in NiGHTS; confident, colorful, and bristling with life. Everything just looks wonderful: the rush of the waterfalls, the crunch of snowballs, the whole psychedelic craziness of it all. This is without question the most tripped out videogame ever made. The best example is the "Soft Museum," a dream sequence involving a world where the ground literally bends and warps when walked on. Sonic Team also delivers a wonderful musical score, one that is at times epic and theatrical, but also laid-back and casual. Everything just fits together so perfectly.
NiGHTS is the sort of videogame that requires one to examine everything else in a new light. Just what kind of game is this? Is it a platformer, like Sonic the Hedgehog? An old-school arcade game? Is it a racing game, a virtual pet, or an adventure? It is really a combination of all these things. That's probably the best explanation I could offer. What a fantastic, visionary work.
Christmas NiGHTS is a special demo release was released in only limited quantities through various videogame magazines in 1996, and today has become a sought-after collector's item. It includes two of the dream stages from the main game, which you can play as either of the children, allowing you to play through each dream's four courses and face the flying frog boss at the end.
This demo makes novel use of the Sega Saturn's internal clock to affect the game. For example, the graphics are rendered in a Christmas setting during the Holiday season, with trees, bells, candles and holly seen everywhere, the holiday songs sung in the background. On rare occasions, you may even spy Santa and his reindeer flying in the distance. There are also variations for New Year's Day, Valentine's Day, and other select dates. You can change your system’s settings manually if you wish to see any of the seasonal variations. The Christmas mode is always available for play throughout the year.
The other notable feature are presents which are awarded in a matching-tile game. You are given a number of tries after completing the NiGHTS dream world. These bonus items include CG character art, time attack and link attack modes, a two-player versus mode, a karaoke mode, a Nightopian monitor (which observes their overall mood in the game, and can be adjusted on the fly), and two promotional videos. The best surprise is a cameo by Sonic the Hedgehog, who becomes playable in the demo. Dr. Robotnik/Eggman also makes a cameo as the end boss.
The American release of Christmas NiGHTS has become very rare and expensive as prices have exploded in recent years. The game was also given a retail release in Japan with the standard CD jewel case and color instruction manual. I picked up a copy for ten dollars, which is an enormous bargain. Readers should note that the storybook clips are spoken in Japanese and are not subtitled in English, but you can easily follow along. The wonderful acapella performance of the NiGHTS theme song that appears after you complete the two dream stages remains in its native English.
I skipped NiGHTS when it was released in 1996, as I was spooked by the tepid, almost apologetic tone of the coverage in Next Generation magazine. "It's too strange. It's too unusual. Nobody will understand it. It's not in the same league as Super Mario 64." Because of this, it wasn't until I found a copy of Christmas NiGHTS at a local Blockbuster Video store for five dollars that I decided to give the game a try. I immediately fell in love with the demo disc, especially the quest to unlock all the presents and bonus features. I soon bought a copy of the full game and never looked back.
Any proper remake of NiGHTS must include the Christmas NiGHTS disk in its complete and unabridged form. It is a perfect companion piece to Yuji Naka's finest hour, and easily stands as the best videogame demo ever created.
(Update 5/23: Revised the text on Christmas NiGHTS and added new screenshots showing the demo disc in widescreen mode.)