Before playing Nights into Dreams for the Sega Saturn, I did not know much about it. If anything, I knew the game had a cult following. Quotes such as â€œOMG THIS IS THE BEST GAME EVERâ€ and â€œWords simply cannot describe how awesome this game is.â€ come to mind. While not every critic out there quite worshiped Nights into Dreams to this extent, I knew that most did indeed regard the game as being quite fun. On the other hand, I also knew there were a few critics who thought Nights into Dreams was overrated. A few even didn't care for it. Opinions aside, I knew factually that Nights into Dreams was a relatively inexpensive game, and I understood that, for the most part, Nights was supposed to be a pretty good Saturn game. Judging from word on the street, it seemed that if you had a Sega Saturn, Nights into Dreams was a good thing to have along with it.
When I bought this game from Ebay, I wasn't going by much else other than â€œword on the street.â€ I hadn't managed to stumble across any review that really gave me a crisp mental image of what the game was supposed to be like; just attempted descriptions and such. There was a lot of open-endedness to my first impressions of Nights. I didn't really know what I was in for.
So, what did I think of Nights on playing it for the very first time?
Try to make yourself imagine some really popular video game of recent. Mario, Zelda, or Sonic are good examples. Let's choose Mario. Think of â€œSuper Mario Worldâ€ for the Super Nintendo. Great game. Everyone remembers it. Heck, even non-gamers love Mario. Except now, lets imagine something different â€“ an alternate history, if you will. Imagine that Super Mario World came out and no one paid any attention to it. Imagine that Mario never becomes a star â€“ he comes out, and no one notices (please disregard NES Mario, history buffs.) Some odd fourteen years pass. It's 2006 now, and you're looking for good Super Nintendo games. Suddenly, you find this obscure looking cartridge. The label reads â€œSuper Mario Worldâ€ You buy the game. You take it home and put it in your SNES, not sure what to think. You start playing.
The resulting inquiry that will inevitably follow, shouted aloud in mingled delight and incredulity, captures perfectly my reaction to Nights into Dreams.
[i]â€œWhy on earth have I not heard of this game before??â€[/i]
Nights into Dreams is a game released for the Sega Saturn in 1996. The graphics are 3D, rendered with texture mapped polygons. It would be nice if I could say â€œthis game is a platformerâ€ or â€œthis game is a racing gameâ€, but Nights really defies any sort of conventional categorization. I try ever-so-hard to make my reviews short and concise, but I'm afraid this one just isn't going to make it. Bear with me!
Nights' gameplay puts you under control of a whimsical, purple jester-like character by the name of Nights. Nights is a flying fellow, gliding around in defiance of gravity around various locations. However, while Nights into Dreams graphics are in 3D, the purple flying jester's movement is constrained to a 2-dimensional plane. You can fly up, down, left, and right, but not forward and back. It's sort of like a side scroller. While flying around, your goal as Nights is to collect a certain number of blue, orbular â€œchipsâ€ found in the 3D level. You must then return these chips to a large, evil-looking machine somewhere in the level (it's a floating spidery looking thing.) When you collect twenty chips and take them to the machine, the arachnid automaton explodes in a series of garbled particle effects and jerky mesh collapsing, yielding a bright, shiny orb. Nights the flying jester then takes this newly achieved orb back to the â€œstarting pointâ€ from whence he came, returning it to a shrine-like structure. A brief victory dance ensues. The level then reassigns your constrained flight path to another sector of the 3D level, letting you fly around some other places and obligating you to destroy the next ominous floating spider machine and regain the next orb. You have to destroy four floating machine contraptions and collect four orbs. After this, the level ends, and you fight a boss.
There are two main goals: completing the level, and getting a high score in the meantime. Aside from the aforementioned â€œchipsâ€, there are also ring-like loops that you can fly through and floating stars you can pick up. You can trigger multiplying point bonuses by going through loops and picking up stars in rapid succession, and rings, stars, and chips are all frequently arranged in ways to challenge you to try to get such combos. You get graded on your score (think A, B, C, D... etc) and the Saturn's backup battery will save your high scores. There are other power ups too, and plenty of evil enemies are present. You can make Nights â€œboostâ€ forward by pressing â€œAâ€, greatly increasing your velocity and killing any enemies you hit, but your maneuverability is greatly lost (you can't turn as sharply.) One of the techniques I absolutely must mention is making Nights fly around in a loop-the-loop, which will trigger a sort of brief â€œimplosionâ€ that attracts power ups to you within the radius of the loop you drew and kills enemies caught inside the loop.
I like how Nights doesn't actually have â€œhealthâ€, or lose a â€œheartâ€ or piece of some â€œenergy barâ€ when he gets damaged by an enemy; your time limit [i]is[/i] your health! That's right; you have a time limit for how long you can maintain existence as the purple, airborne jester. The timer starts somewhere around 110 seconds, and if your time runs out, you transform into a mundane, landbound kid, fall to the ground below, lose all your chips (and accumulated score), and have to make it on foot back to the shrine-like starting point so you can resume status as Nights. Making lethal contact with enemies results in five seconds being subtracted from your time limit.
The ingenuity of Nights into Dreams lies in the emergent situations and strategies it yields from its own premise. The plane of movement, for example, will sometimes â€œbendâ€ and â€œwarpâ€ around objects in the 3D level. For instance, there's one herbaceous level where your flight path reaches a big tree. When you reach the tree, however, rather than just going past it, you start encircling its trunk, flying in several impressive-looking loops before being â€œreleasedâ€ and continuing on your way. There are oh-so-many instances of this â€“ oftentimes with multiple â€œwrap aroundsâ€ and â€œorbitsâ€ around various obstacles, sometimes entailing Nights to get blasted out of his present flight path and onto a new plane of movement.
Sometimes there will be chips and stars that are enticingly close to you, but they're â€œout ofâ€ your plane of movement â€“ maybe a little inwards or outwards, in a direction you can't travel. Well, by doing a loop-the-loop and triggering a powerful implosion, you can â€œdraw inâ€ these barely-out-of-reach power ups to yourself. It's very neat and clever.
For almost each level there's a part where the camera angle will go out of the ordinary side-view and initiate some sort of third-person, over-your-shoulder view. For example, there's this one winter/snow themed level, and when you reach a certain part of the level, Nights will stop flying and settle down on a snow-sled, blazing down a half pipe riddled with stars, chips, and enticing power ups. After this little spice-up, Nights will blast off of the sled up a steep ramp and resume his conventional flightpath, leaving the player wide-eyed and rather impressed.
The graphics, while showing dated pixelation and bothersome pop-up, are made with considerable skill. The use of color, detail, masterful texture mapping, and just plain clever art direction and concept design results in some very vibrant-looking levels and boss stages. The usage of particle effects is particularly commendable. While the in-game landscape does â€œpop into existenceâ€ over a painfully short distance (an aggravating blemish of most Saturn games), Nights' gameplay is not based around any sort of long-range negotiation; focus is drawn to Night's immediate proximity, with all the loops, chips, and obstacles to consider.
The in game musical score is all quite appropriate â€“ jazzy, dreamy, mystical, and sometimes even majestic. The pleasant-sounding sound effects are all great. I love the sound of rings and stars being soared through, increasing in pitch as combo after combo is racked up.
All in all, the essential visual and interactive experience of this game comes across as being both dynamic and majestic. The game is charming, innovative, fun, and profoundly clever. There are lots of things in this game that will simply impress you no matter what technological generation you are used to. The â€œsoft museumâ€ level comes to mind; a level where the ground actually â€œsquishesâ€ and â€œwarpsâ€ when you get close to it. Actually, there are a substantial amount of things in this game I haven't even been able to mention â€“ just little details, special effects, and visual tricks â€“ because it would take up too much space to try to write it. Also, a lot of the stuff in this game is hard to describe. I know what those zealots meant when they said, â€œWords simply cannot describe how awesome this game is.â€ - although, I will admit, they [i]were[/i] being just a bit overzealous.
I've heard a lot of people say this game is overrated. Let me just say this: when I bought this game, I had no idea what to expect. I had no preconceived notions of biases. I just put the disc in, turned on the Saturn, and started playing. This review is what resulted shortly thereafter. Honestly, I haven't enjoyed my Sega Saturn this much since getting Nights (thanks a lot for the yucky 3 games-in-one pack-in, Sega!) If anything, I'm going to have to say this game is [i]underrated[/i]. Playing this game is like finding some obscure cartridge reading â€œSuper Mario Worldâ€, having no idea what it is, playing it, and wondering why on earth it isn't mainstream, or why we aren't all playing â€œNights into Dreams 5â€ by now.
In conclusion, this game is a true gem. There's eight levels on the disc, and I relish each of them and almost never grow tired of replaying. So, concerning Nights into Dreams and you: is this game worth getting? Well, if you don't have a Sega Saturn, I must admit that I am slightly reluctant to impose that you absolutely must buy a Saturn just to own Nights. If you don't already have a Saturn, you may or may not feel adventurous enough to buy one just for this game. I seriously doubt you would regret the endeavor, but again, I leave this choice to you. However, I will say this: if you already own a Sega Saturn, and you don't have Nights into Dreams, there is absolutely no excuse for what you're missing out on.
Oh yes, and one more thing, do yourself a favor and get the 3D controller. There was a special analog control pad made for this game (I don't have it, sadly.) I've played the game this far and managed to enjoy it to this extent (I've even gotten all â€œA'sâ€ on a few levels), but the game really was designed for an analog joystick. In the words of my younger brother, â€œ[with the digital pad] you feel like you can't 'move' fast enough.â€ If you get this game without a 3D controller, I guarantee you will end up buying one shortly thereafter. The game is that good.
Final Grade: A