Deja Review: Nights into Dreams

We're of the firm opinion that your time is too precious, too valuable to be spent reading a full review for a game that was already reviewed many, many years ago. What's the point of applying a score to a game that's old enough to be enrolled in the sixth grade? That's why we invented Deja Review: A quick look at the new features and relative agelessness of remade, revived and re-released games.
Back in 1996, a war was raging between Sega and Sony. Whilst Sony told consumers that they were not "e" for its fantastic PlayStation, Sega tried to find a killer app for its Saturn, which simply didn't have the 3D chops to compete (2D ... well, that's an entirely different article). One of the volleys Sega aimed directly at the PlayStation was Sonic Team's Nights into Dreams, a 3D game that allowed players to fly with complete freedom.

Okay, so it was actually confined to a predefined, mostly two-dimensional plane, but that didn't keep Nights from being a hallmark experience for anyone who happened to have a Saturn.%Gallery-159788% What's new this time around?

The obvious change is a significant overhaul to the visuals. For this XBLA, PSN and PC release, character models and bosses have been filled out with more polygons, giving them a much smoother appearance than their jagged, original counterparts. Enemies are now rendered in full 3D, while the sprites used for background objects (chips, gates, trees, etc.) as well as the background textures themselves have been significantly sharpened.

You can also opt to play the "original" version, which scrunches everything back into a standard 4:3 ratio and reintroduces the old, boxy character models, screen-door sprites and muddy textures. Even so, while all the assets may be original, modern resolutions still drastically improve their appearance. Just try to play a boxed copy of the Saturn version on an HDTV (I did), and the difference is readily apparent.

Sega has also stuffed the HD remaster with image galleries and a theater mode. The theater mode is particularly nice, as it allows you to review the game's aged yet still charming CG cutscenes once you've unlocked them in-game. (You should watch the character introductions, by the way, or the ending won't make much sense.) The theater also has a video interview with Takashi Iizuka, lead designer of the original Nights and current head of Sonic Team, a nice bonus for fans.

Finally, while it's not technically new, the game also includes Christmas Nights, which was originally a standalone demo disc only available with certain magazines or through other special promotions. Christmas Nights is a holiday-themed side-story, covering one of the game's levels with decorations and even festooning one of the bosses with festive cheer. Unfortunately, most of the bonuses featured in the original Christmas Nights (including a playable Sonic the Hedgehog) seem to be absent. The two-player versus mode from the original Nights has also been removed, though honestly I'd forgotten it existed before I started researching this review.

How's it hold up?

First, if it's not already obvious, you should know that I view the Sega Saturn through some especially rosy lenses, and I have an even rosier pair reserved just for Nights. That said, the game holds up surprisingly well. While it was promoted as a flying game, the truth is that it's essentially a racer.

As Nights, a citizen of the dream world, your goal is to collect 20 blue orbs (chips) and deposit them in the "Ideya Capture," a floating, evil bubble of sorts. Once that's accomplished, you're free to fly the course as many times as you want to increase your score before time runs out. Score is gained by performing stunts, collecting trinkets and flying through loops. Doing this in rapid succession rewards you with "links" that dramatically boost your score.

Thus, Nights becomes a game about flying quickly and accurately, trying to link together as many loops, chips and stars as you can and return to the starting point before time runs out. Much like a racing game, each level is divided into four courses, each with a different layout. The first time through can be rough, but eventually you learn the layouts, and all that's left are reflexes and muscle memory.

You're graded for your score on each course, and presented with an overall grade once a level is complete. After that, it's off to a boss fight which, depending on your performance, can multiply your overall score by up to two times. You'll need good grades, by the way, as at least a passing "C" is required to reach the final level.

I can see new players becoming frustrated with a general lack of direction. Nights comes from an era before tutorials were guaranteed. Even with a new in-game manual, expect to go through some trial and error. Boss battles aren't always self-explanatory either, and it can sometimes be difficult to tell if you're doing damage or not.

Once you learn the ropes, however, it's thrilling to fly perfectly through a course, rack up links in a lovely musical crescendo and make it back to the start with only seconds to spare. Likewise, it's brutal to misjudge your time and watch all your hard-earned chips scatter and your score drop down to zero. Still, predefined paths or not, playing well does feel very much like flying.

Beyond the gameplay, the wonderful thing about Nights is the world itself. The spaces within it are literally dream spaces, and thus aren't bound by logic. Every surface is bright, colorful and occasionally nonsensical, from greenery-covered mountainsides to bizarre, bouncy, sideways museums. Bosses are equally strange, from a cat that fires mouse-shaped bottle rockets to a giant piranha that you can only defeat by launching yourself from fish cannons.

And there's Elliot and Claris, the young boy and girl around whom the story revolves. It's not a complicated story, and not one word is spoken, but that doesn't rob Nights of its one truly powerful moment. I don't know if that moment – which I won't spoil here – will carry the same weight with a new generation of players, but it still gave me goosebumps. Finally, everything is capped off with a simple, sweet and beautiful ending, one that still ranks among my all time favorites.

Sega put a surprising amount of effort into this project, probably more than it needed to. From little extras like the Takashi Iizuka interview to bigger inclusions like the hard-to-find Christmas Nights, it's clear that Sega really wanted to please its fans. Meanwhile, everyone else gets a fully-featured version of a fondly remembered classic. Maybe I'm a sap (okay, I probably am), but I think everyone should play Nights into Dreams at least once.
This Deja Review is based on a Xbox 360 download of Nights Into Dreams, provided by Sega.

Correction: The original Nights actually did have widescreen support, a rarity at the time.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.