I Want To See You Smile Again…And Again, And Again
There was a time when the Sonic Team knew how to make universally loved games. None of them involved leveling up, or some wonky RPG system where new moves are equipped, and cutscenes were at a minimum.
The original NiGHTS in 1996, one game that easily falls into this category, was the first Sonic Team game to really begin utilizing cutscenes as part of the overall storyline. Claris and Elliot, the two main protagonists in the game, play out their shortcomings in the city of Twin Seeds. In the night, while asleep, the two assimilate with NiGHTS to free Nightopia’s grip of Wizeman. They also learn they possess the Red Ideya of Courage, the one that, upon completion of the game, allow both children to overcome their own fears The Sonic Team of the 90s told this story through an overwhelmingly fun mix of 2D and 3D flight gameplay, and not an overload of storytelling. It was heralded as an instant niche classic–gaining near perfect scores at the time from much of the press, but not finding an audience against the competing platformer Super Mario 64, which was, at the time, completely perfect.
The Sega fan base got their wishes for a true sequel over a decade later, with lukewarm press reception given to NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams. But shortly after the original’s release, a special disc circulated to coincide with the Holiday season. Most of the world saw Christmas NiGHTS packed with major gaming magazines in 1996. The UK saw it the following year. Japan’s release came with a special Sega Saturn bundle.
The Saturn title itself could be best classified as a demo, but it had a plot, and the same magical gameplay. Claris and Elliot noticed the Christmas star missing from the top of the tree at the Twin Seeds town center. They search for it in a winterized Nightopia. It’s short, simple, and to the point. We could only hope for the same today.
The problem is, for most of the year, all you explore is the Spring Valley stage from the original. It’s in the Winter months, and especially during December, that this title’s true spirit comes to life, in part thanks to the Sega Saturn’s built-in clock. The entire stage is decked out with Holiday flair. Snow coats the ground and continues to fall. Nightopians are dressed like elves. Christmas presents are scattered everywhere. Even Gillwing sports a red cap. Bells ring. Bows adorn the route. Scenery changes from day to night. You can’t help but feel an intense rush of spirit while making links; it’s almost like the feeling you had as a child meeting Santa for the first time, or barely falling asleep Christmas eve, anxious to see what the morning would bring for you, yours, and the world at large.
NiGHTS has always been an escape for me; a way to relive an ideal childhood, and leave my worries behind, at least for a little while. While it can be argued that NiGHTS only accomplished this marginally in terms of storyline, and Journey of Dreams turns the level up to “overkill,” Christmas NiGHTS has the perfect amount of mix between gameplay and story–incredible for just a demo. The art that moves the game along lacks the big budgets and big names that most cutscenes in games today hold dear. But anytime CG FMV has been replaced with hand-drawn stills, it is evident care and effort was put into this demo on the story direction alone.
Christmas NiGHTS doesn’t stop at just the core. There are plenty of extras to keep you entertained all through the Holiday season. The Sonic Team jammed in a ton of unlockable features–“Presents,” as they are called–and they range from the standard to the incredible. Time attack and link attacks are a feature, as is the NiGHTS Museum, a large, multi-part collection of mostly CG art. You can also take a look at various NiGHTS merchandise through the NiGHTS Goods section. But it gets better from there. One present allows you to sing along to a Karaoke edition of Dreams Dreams, the series’ long standing theme. Another gift allows you to sync A-Life emotion with your in-game experience. Movies from the game’s initial debut are available.
But all of that pales in comparison to Sonic into Dreams–truly a thank you directly from Naka and Oshima to the fans. The hedgehog’s first true 3D debut exists in Christmas NiGHTS, as he runs around Spring Valley, makes you wonder what could have been, had Sega stuck with the Saturn for long enough. Would we have seen a true 3D Sonic in that generation? Would Sonic X-Treme have come to fruition? Would more effort have been put into offshoots Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic R? In many ways, Sonic into Dreams felt like an advance apology for the X-Treme debacle–the game was eventually cancelled after missing a target launch, interestingly, of the 1996 holiday season–and Eggman’s appearance as Puffy as the hedgehog’s boss felt like ice cream meant to numb the salt wound. With it would come a remixed edition of Final Fever, and for those not Internet-savvy in America at the time, it would be the first real domestic exposure to the magnificent import soundtrack to Sonic CD.
And speaking of the music, every Winterized tune in the game complements the game’s spirit like a river’s ebb and flow. Even more than a decade later, I still find The Dragon Gave a Loud Scream ~In Holy Night~ as the best video game music for the Holidays. Not too far behind is the a capella rendition of Dreams Dreams. For the longest time I thought Boyz II Men handled this theme–that should show you how much I pay attention to credits. They did not, to my surprise. In no way does that degrade the quality of the rendition. In fact, Sega probably would have done well for itself to release the song as a standalone CD single.
The amount of perfection that exists in Christmas NiGHTS and the game’s ability to withstand the test of time among Sonic fans young and old shows just how much the Sonic Team cared about its product and its fans in the “good old days.” In many ways, I would advise veteran Sonic fans to not bring out the Saturn and boot up the game this year, because it might make them cry in disbelief. In the days since Christmas NiGHTS and Sonic Adventure, Sega doesn’t appear to have the drive to meet these standards in a demo, much less a game. That burden cannot, apparently, be met just for the fans, but for themselves. Adding insult to injury was the inclusion of Christmas NiGHTS into the recent re-release of the original classic in Japan on the Playstation 2–a release that apparently will never see the light of day outside that country. If you have never played this demo, find it and find any means to play it. If you own a copy and can stomach what was versus what is, give it a traditional holiday whirl. Christmas NiGHTS will continue to bring a tear of joy to your eye.