I want to see you smile again (in HD)
NiGHTS into Dreams… was a weird game. I mean, really weird—a fact I hadn’t given much thought to in many, many years. I was first introduced to NiGHTS in 1996; it was one of a number of games from Sega that, to me, signaled a huge upswing in creativity and uniqueness in the company’s projects—a shift that would culminate on their swan-song system, the Dreamcast.
NiGHTS happened to be the game that came along with Sega’s fancy new Saturn 3D Controller—a gamepad revision that brought the first source of analog control to a console where only digital D-pads had existed before. I can’t help but think that it may have been a situation very close to Wii Play: A lot of consumers were buying the controller, not the game, and the fact that a game was packed in was seen as a nice bonus.
However, unlike Wii Play, NiGHTS didn’t provide ample amounts of easily understood minigame-fueled family fun. What it did provide was—well, actually, what was the game providing? It was an action game of sorts, but it was also kind of a racing game, except not really, and you could do tricks sometimes, but then you’d also collect stuff, and every now and then, you’d fight a boss. All of this, of course, accomplished while controlling a strange jester-like character as he…uhh, she?…uhm, it?…flew through the air.
Sixteen years later, and my brain still has trouble wrapping itself around NiGHTS’ concepts. And yet, even though putting what this game is into words might not always be easy, I came to understand it on a level I’d never expected. That came thanks to a man named Mike Griffin. At the time, we were roommates, and he adored NiGHTS on a level that was unmatched among those I knew who loved videogames. He really, truly got what Sega’s famed Sonic Team had wanted to create, and his teaching me about the game’s intricacies and unexplained elements took NiGHTS from a bizarre concept piece to being a world I could gleefully find myself lost in.
It’s funny that NiGHTS into Dreams HD should come so soon after the revival of another Sega properly—Jet Set Radio HD—because I see something similar in the two. At a basic level, Jet Set Radio seems like a simple idea: tag graffiti in specified locations, avoid the police, and do all of this in a set amount of time. Underneath all of that, however, Smilebit had buried a much more complex game—one of combos, infinite grinds, and pulling off tricks and techniques that sometimes you’d swear even the developers had never contemplated.
Whatever you think NiGHTS is at first—it isn’t. It’s all of those things that I listed above, but it’s also not. It’s a game about exploration, the relation of elements to each other, and getting to the point where your control over Nights is less about moving from one set of shiny blue orbs to the next and more about connecting all of those movements into one solid, fluid, all-encompassing motion.
Again, let me go back to Jet Set Radio for a moment. When you’re first learning the game, you set out to discover pieces of the world you inhabit that you can grind. Oh, you can grind along this rail. Ahh, you can slide down that roof. Each is their own tiny moment of freedom from the confines of having to walk everywhere on two plodding feet. Spend enough time with the game and find enough appreciation for the world that has been created, and you discover that those elements that once sat alone as singular pieces are—in fact—tiny portions of a much bigger whole. Grind this rail, and then with a well-timed jump, you can continue your grind on that roof. Skill and knowledge allows you to connect those two experiences together, and then lets you connect them with a following step, and that with a following step, so on and so on. Suddenly, it’s not a rail that you can grind, or a roof, or a sign, or anything else—it’s the world itself.
The same can be said for NiGHTS—it’s just that it can be far harder at first to comprehend the relationship between moments of action that seem solitary. This is also a problem because, really, Sonic Team never did a good job explaining to players what kind of game NiGHTS really is.
Here’s what we’re told: The dream world is being threatened by Wizeman the Wicked, an evil being who’s stealing dream energy from humans in hopes of taking over the world. Simple good-versus-evil premise? Check. Two children—Elliot and Claris—have the power to defeat Wizeman, and to do so, they call upon the help of our purple-clad hero, Nights. Establishment of human main characters that we can relate to, and introduction of powerful non-Earthly being who will exist as our main avatar? Check and check.
In each segment of the dream world, we’re told we have to defeat a boss creature. To reach it, Elliot and Claris—with the help of Nights—have to recover four colored spheres called Ideya. These Ideya have been placed inside of capture units, but the player can overload these by collecting at least twenty of the blue-chip orbs that litter the landscape. So, in every segment of the dream world, Nights flies a predetermined path around the area—racetrack-esque segments called Mares—until (s)he collects enough blue chips and regains that particular Ideya, where (s)he can then move on to repeat the process along a different predefined path. During flight, Nights can earn points by doing tricks and flying through rings, battle the monsters Wizeman has unleashed, or collect additional chips before time runs out to help earn a better score for that particular Mare.
The problem with NiGHTS back in the day—and today, as well—is that all of that basic information leads you to have an OK experience with the game—but not necessarily a great one. I don’t necessarily blame Sonic Team nor Sega, as my feeling is that they wanted to craft an adventure where the more time and effort you put into it, the more reward you’d gain. (For example, one element—the “A-Life” simulator where you can raise and take care of Nightopians—is so obscure and unexplained that many will never even know that facet of the game exists.)
Unfortunately, many won’t understand that about NiGHTS, and because of that, it can easily come off feeling like a quirky-yet-extremely shallow adventure that’s over not long after it starts. Making things even more complex is that it isn’t simply a case of comprehending NiGHTS—if you’ll appreciate it is a whole other story. In that regard, no amount of my personal or critical opinion can tell you if you’ll truly like NiGHTS into Dreams HD or not. NiGHTS reminds me of games such as Shadow of the Colossus, or God Hand, or Flower—games where if they click with you, they really click, and if they don’t, then it can be easy to have no understanding of why people would enjoy such things.
For those of you with no history with NiGHTS, my recommendation is this: Give the game a try—an honest try—and see what you think. If you’re looking for something different, something a bit outside of the norm, something that provides a break from the same-old, same-old that’s often prevalent in gaming, then NiGHTS into Dreams HD can absolutely provide you that. Maybe you’ll love it, and maybe you won’t—but decide that after giving it an honest shot.
What about those of you who already know that you’re a fan? For you, NiGHTS into Dreams HD is a great way to go back and relive the game. In this package we’re giving two different versions of NiGHTS—a slightly tweaked port of the original Saturn version, and a widescreen, high-res reworking of the Japanese PS2 rerelease—along with some bonus features, online leaderboards (a great addition to the game), and the special two-stage Christmas NiGHTS release as an unlockable.
As a way to go back and experience the world of NiGHTS, NiGHTS into Dreams HD certainly could have been a bigger, more expansive, and more complete product. For what we get and the price we get it at, however, this is a pretty fantastic release—and I’m especially thankful that it comes at a point where Sega’s really putting care into making sure their classic-game rereleases are treated right.
Plus, I mean, the simple fact that this HD remake even exists in the first place still blows my mind a little. NiGHTS is one of those games that could have easily been lost to time, especially given how niche and hardcore of a project it was. If NiGHTS into Dreams HD isn’t a great example of the power and possibility that digital distribution has brought to console gaming, then I have no idea what is.
SUMMARY: The concepts and challenges of NiGHTS into Dreams HD make it a game that not everybody will be able to appreciate—but for those that do, this is a great way to once again experience one of Sega’s most curious yet creative moments in game development.
- THE GOOD: NiGHTS’ distinct gameplay, wonderfully crafted worlds, and fantastic soundtrack are reborn for a new generation of gamers.
- THE BAD: Some will have a hard time understanding and appreciating what’s presented here.
- THE UGLY: Look, I loved the system, but—those Saturn 3D graphics…
NiGHTS into Dreams HD is available on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.