NiGHTS into Dreams... Review

Developer:

Sonic Team

Publisher:

Sega

Console:

Saturn (remade on PlayStation 2, PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360)

Players:

1 (2 in head-to-head combat)

Rating:

K-A (ESRB)

Release Date:

  • August 31, 1996 (US)
  • October 7, 1996 (Europe)
  • July 5, 1996 (Japan)

Genre:

Arcade

-Greg Livingston

When NiGHTS into Dreams HD was announced, I figured I’d replay it and write a review for EWG GGN. No big, considering the game’s short length and the simplicity of its gameplay. It’s something I replay every few years anyway (my previous save file bears the name of my sophomore year dorm room), and it’s never gotten old. The gameplay is simple, yet its spirit of freedom allows for depth, and when all is said and done, it’s good, clean fun. I hate to jump on the bandwagon here, but NiGHTS is a timeless classic.

For you bums that aren’t familiar with the basic concept of NiGHTS (for shame), it’s simple. You control a purple androgynous jester as it flies freely on a 2D plane. Beating a level means picking up 20 blue baubles, feeding them into a machine somewhere in the level, then going back to the starting point so you can enter the next level. Levels loop, so you won’t need to backtrack; you can just go forward until you hit the beginning again.

NiGHTS is that purple guy. Girl. Thing. Look at him/her/it go.

This game was the big showpiece for the Saturn’s analog pad, and it really works; NiGHTS’ flight path will match every subtle move of your thumb on the analog pad. Controlling NiGHTS is, if you’ll excuse the pun, like a dream. It’s in the game’s favor that most of the action is just you guiding NiGHTS along.

As someone recently pointed out to me, that’s half the point of NiGHTS into Dreams. The story centers around two children: Elliot, who struggles in sports, and Claris, who is nervous about an upcoming audition. They feel out of place in real life, and when they enter the dream realm, their controls match that feeling. It’s not so much because NiGHTS’ 3D platforming engine is primitive (although it is), but rather, it’s because the ground in the dream realm isn’t very suitable for walking to begin with. Once they meet NiGHTS, however, they fly in 2D space with the greatest of ease.

This is why you go into video game journalism instead of performance arts.

Dreams often tackle problems we face in daily life, yet they also contain fantastic elements. NiGHTS transforms Elliot and Claris from bumbling kids into a majestic flying thing, giving them the confidence to overcome their nightmares. And, because nightmares are inextricably linked with everyday challenges, the kids are able to carry this confidence into their daily lives and make a change for the better.

But that’s just the basics of gameplay.

A skilled run will take note of the link chain system. Every time you run into an item or fly through a ring, that’s one link. If you pick up an item or go through a ring immediately after that, you’ll have two links. With each subsequent action, your link chain grows. Allow too much time to pass—a second is all it takes—and the link chain goes back to zero. And since levels loop, you could hypothetically have one big link chain that spans multiple runs through the same level. To be honest, I’ve never pulled it off myself.

Observe: a link chain in progress.

It’s easy to get engaged in the link chain system—it’s not hard to just pick up stuff and fly through rings—but it allows for depth and technical play as you grow your chains even longer. This game runs the gamut, accepting newbies and challenging experts, all without a difficulty select.

NiGHTS does this through a paradigm shift in game design. In most action-oriented games, you look to preserve yourself as long as possible. While it is possible to game over in NiGHTS, since you have 120 seconds to clear each individual stage, it’s a lenient time limit. Rather, stage design in NiGHTS focuses on what you want.

Most courses are wide open with plenty of space to fly and a very small supply of obstacles. The path you decide to take through a level will be determined by the placement of items. Instead of trying to dodge enemies or get around obstacles, you’ll find yourself chasing down the next item in an effort to start or maintain a chain. It’s a system that challenges the player without using punishment.

It comes intuitively, too, since the trail of items will lead you from one ring to the next, from one blue chip to the next. Your play will rely heavily on this intuition, since the screen is zoomed in pretty close. It’s nice that the graphics are big and clear, but it also means that you can’t see far beyond the immediate area around NiGHTS.

It lends a sense of speed to the game, since you won’t have much time to react to new things as they appear onscreen. On the other hand, if you lose the trail of items, it can be awkward to track it down again. Worse yet is when the game plops you in a new section of a level without any direction to the next series of items. When I let myself grow unfamiliar with the game, I find myself getting lost every now and then.

That spiky green thing on the right is Gillwing, one of the game’s first bosses.

Additionally, bosses can pose some frustration. Bosses are timed, just like the stages. If a boss hits you, you lose time, and if your timer reaches 0, you have to play that entire world over again. It’s not like it takes forever to get back to the boss, since you’re looking at 8 minutes tops—and that’s if you use every one of the 120 seconds you get in each stage. It’s more that each play of a NiGHTS stage requires a special kind of focus; pulling off a good run can be gratifying, but losing it because you lost to a boss is a drag. Granted, this won’t happen more than once. Bosses, while fun and engaging, are simple and easy to figure out.

But those are small prices to pay for an experience that’s simple, graceful, and deep. I can’t challenge NiGHTS’ reputation here. It’s simply one of those games.

Pros:

  • Simple gameplay.
  • Feels great to fly around.
  • Link chain system inspires repeat gameplay and encourages better gameplay.

Cons:

  • While the link chain system affords NiGHTS some depth, the core gameplay is still very simple. If you don’t find the flying engaging in and of itself, there’s not much to draw you back in.
  • Zoomed in screen can make it hard to tell where to go.
  • The HD version comes with Christmas NiGHTS. Back in my day, we had to go to eBay for Christmas NiGHTS, and we liked it.
  • I never really got why one of my friends thought Ideya Captures looked like the elephants from Goemon.

Verdict: 95%

NiGHTS into Dreams has very interesting things to say, and there’s nothing that gets in the way of its ideas.

Purchased new in 2004 for $29.99.

I’d purchase it at $50.00. You uh, you won’t need to shell out that much for the new HD version.