A fine line between dream and nightmare
NiGHTS: Into Dreams… was kind of a weird game for its time. Released in the same month as Super Mario 64, many people (perhaps mistakenly) saw NiGHTS as Sega’s response to Nintendo’s launch title behemoth. Whereas Super Mario 64 would go on to revolutionize 3D control in literally every action game to follow, NiGHTS was a far more understated experience. It focused on what Sega was best at: arcade-style gameplay, with a particular focus on achieving high scores and competing through leaderboards. It married this coin-op sensibility with dream-like art direction inspired by the works of psychologists like Carl Jung to create a unique experience that 15 years later has yet to be duplicated. Sonic Team was firing on all cylinders – NiGHTS was to be a better, more pure experience than Sonic the Hedgehog was. Unfortunately, the shadow cast by Super Mario 64 was simply too great to escape, and to some, NiGHTS was seen as a failure. Wrong place, wrong time – a summation of Sega itself, in a way.It certainly doesn’t help that the game only contains 8 stages (technically 7) and could be easily cleared in a little over an hour. But like a lot of arcade games, NiGHTS wasn’t really about getting to the end of its (extremely vague) story, it was about learning to play the game efficiently and knowing how to maximize your score. The rub being that the Sega Saturn was a game console – divorced from the atmosphere of a public arcade, all of NiGHTS‘ focus on getting high scores and ranking leaderboards seemed a little bit pointless. The experience was further marred by an oddity exclusive to the Saturn: save games. Unlike the Nintendo 64 and Playstation, which either saved game data to a microchip inside the cartridge or to a separate memory card, the Saturn contained a small amount of internal storage to game saves locally on the console itself. The problem: that internal storage depended on a battery that had to be physically replaced every year. Fail to change batteries, and all of your save games were erased. While there were separate Saturn memory cards that worked much like they did on the Playstation, those were rare, often expensive, and prone to a completely different kind of failure (the Saturn’s cartridge slot often breaks after extended use). No matter which way you looked at it, your NiGHTS high score data was basically worthless.
I suppose if you’ve never played it before, none of this tells you what NiGHTS actually is. It’s kind of a hard game to describe; but once it “clicks” with you, it becomes incredibly addictive. Your basic goal in the game is to collect “Ideya”, which are represented as five multicolored crystal spheres. You can only carry one Ideya at a time, and each one must be deposited at the Ideya Palace at the beginning of the level. Acquiring an Ideya crystal requires you to collect much smaller blue orbs called “chips” and spend them towards unlocking the Ideya for that section of level. After depositing each of the five Ideya, you are graded on your performance, based on how many points you can score without letting time run out – and after defeating a boss, you are awarded an overall score multiplier based on your speed and efficiency. And that’s basically it, really – your enjoyment of the game hinges on how much you are willing to push yourself to get good at playing it, which is where the whole leaderboard system would have been useful, if the Sega Saturn hadn’t been the completely wrong venue for such a concept.Thanks to the efforts of Microsoft and their Xbox Live Arcade, online leaderboards are thriving. Now more than ever is the time for NiGHTS: Into Dreams… to shine. Everything is right: as a $10 downloadable, it makes perfect sense, and stylistically, it should be able to rub elbows with the likes of Journey, Braid, and other “high concept” digital download games. This is the environment a game like NiGHTS was made for, and could prove that the game was perhaps a little ahead of its time. There’s one big problem: the controls. More than anything else, what helped set NiGHTS apart from many other games is the fluidity in its controls. The original concept for NiGHTS was to capture the grace of flight – something the original game manages to do very, very well. This concept was so important to the aesthetic of the game that the Sega Saturn version of NiGHTS came packaged with a special “3D Control Pad”. While the game could be played with a regular digital Saturn controller, to truly experience NiGHTS the way it was meant to be played, you had to use an analog stick. The Saturn’s 3D Control Pad would later serve as the basis for the Dreamcast controller, which in turn inspired the Xbox controller, which brings us to the modern-day Xbox 360 controller – an evolutionary legacy that started with the Saturn 3D control Pad. One would expect, then, that NiGHTS HD should control exactly like it did back on the Sega Saturn – but nothing could be further from the truth.
Perhaps in an effort to make the HD version’s controls more “user-friendly”, NiGHTS constantly snaps to specific angles, losing a significant range of motion in the process. It completely destroys the game’s sense of fluidity – in its place are controls that feel more like playing the game with a clunky digital d-pad rather than an analog stick. It just looks clumsy, requiring constant, jerky re-adjustments in place of smooth, graceful flight.
(Can’t see the video? Click here)
The good news (or bad news, depending on how much of the original game you’ve played) is that while the controls are wrong, the game itself is far from broken. The argument could be made that this HD version of NiGHTS is misrepresenting the game as it was originally intended to be played, and the changes in control most definitely erode at the game’s aesthetic foundation in fundamental ways. But if this is your first time playing NiGHTS, there’s a chance you might not even notice that anything is wrong.
If it wasn’t for its analog control oddities, this would actually be the definitive version of NiGHTS – included with this package is most of the relevant content from the Christmas NiGHTS bonus disc (minus Sonic into Dreams), in addition to revamped graphics, a few extra holiday costumes, online leaderboards, and even an (all-too-brief) “Making Of” video featurette. Everything about this release seems like it is primed to give NiGHTS the second chance it always deserved, but no matter how good the rest of the package is, it always comes down to the controls. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: controls are the single most important aspect of any video game. Everything you do in a game hinges on the controls working as intended, and the controls in NiGHTS HD just do not feel like they should. It may not be so bad as to ruin the game, but it’s a big enough issue that I don’t feel wholly comfortable recommending this version of NiGHTS – especially to veterans looking to replace their old Sega Saturn versions. Try the demo first and proceed with caution.
I was beginning to lose hope that there would ever be a patch for NiGHTS HD. It seemed clear that the game did not sell quite as well as, say, Sonic Adventure 2, so I figured Sega would shelve whatever patch they were cooking up in order to save a few bucks on development costs. And yet, here we are. This patch does improve things a bit, bringing this port more in line with the Japan-exclusive Playstation 2 version it is based off of, but I hesitate to refer to this as the “perfect” version of NiGHTS. This patch seems to be only geared towards fixing problems related to flying with the analog stick – other issues, like the cage in Stick Canyon, Elliot’s incorrect jump sound, and the missing visual effects in Christmas NiGHTS still persist. But, at the very least, the biggest issue has been fixed – and that’s more than I expected from a company notoriously blind to this kind of stuff. It may not be the end-all, be-all perfect version of NiGHTS that I’ve always dreamed about, but at least it is finally respectable. If you’ve been holding off on the game because of the control issues, there’s no better time to check out NiGHTS.