Night into Dreams is one of those games that I always wish I had played, and have planned for years to buy a SEGA Saturn in order to experience. Now, I don’t have to. After being hooked on the Genesis and biting on the Sega CD and the 32X, which I still have, assembled into the monstrosity into which they combine, I was enticed by the PlayStation, and missed out on the last two SEGA consoles. Someday, I may remedy that oversight, but in the meantime, HD remakes of classics such as Nights into Dreams provide an easily accessible opportunity to experience those gems that I missed.
Nights into Dreams was made by Sonic Team at SEGA, released in 1996, and retains many of the aspects that were so appealing in their 16 bit Sonic the Hedgehog offerings. The initial color scheme in Nights has a very Emerald Hill Zone feel to it with vibrant greens and blues, and your character zips through the stages near the cusp of being out of control, much like a good run through a Sonic level. Nights feels like an evolution of the Sonic ideals with a more whimsical backstory and less ‘tude.
The story in Nights has the two main characters, teenagers Elliot and Claris, entering and exploring a dream world, sort of like a mashup of Folklore and LittleBigPlanet. This dream world exists in two parts, Nightopia and Nightmare. The evil ruler of Nightmare is trying to steal dream energy from people, in the form of “Ideyas,” by sending out minions known as Nightmaren to take them. Your guide through the dreamworld is Nights, an androgynous Nightmaren who has defected, and is now trying to stop the evil ruler, Wizeman the Wicked. Together, the three of you are out to foil Wizeman and prevent Nightopia from being overrun.
Even considering the strange premise, Nights HD is a confusing game. When you start the game, there is little instruction about what you are supposed to do. After being plopped down into this colorful world, you have just enough time to get your bearings and look around before a roving squad of these Nightmaren assault you, knocking you on your back. In doing so, they have stolen your Ideya, which you must recover through the four passes of each level. It’s a strange way to start each level if you are unfamiliar with the backstory, but it sets up the narrative, inasmuch as there is one. After getting up, you walk over to the gazebo that is the prison of Nights, “dualize” with and take control of Nights, and begin the level proper. In each of the four passes through the level, called “mares,” you must collect 20 blue orbs, and then crash into the Ideya capture unit to release one of the four Ideyas that were taken from you. After that, you have to head back to the gazebo to finish the mare and start the next one. None of that is really spelled out for you though. It becomes second nature as you play, but at first, you just sort of wander lackadaisically through these levels until you realize or stumble upon what you have to do.
Nights is comprised of seven levels in total: Three for Elliot, three for Claris, and an identical final level for both that is playable once a score of C or better is achieved in each of the character’s previous three stages. This sets up a bit of a dichotomy as the levels are pretty quick to get through, consisting of just 4 mares and a boss fight, but it takes a fair bit of practice to increase the scores enough to reach the 4th level for each character. This requirement increases the longevity of the game, but comes with the tradeoff of increased repetition. I would have preferred at least twice as many levels without the required backtracking. In the context of Sonic’s level structure, it is comparable to there being only one level per zone, instead of the usual three that the Hedgehog received. It’s not unforgivable, but it does keep the game on the shorter end overall.
Once you get into Nights HD though, the underlying charm really starts to show through. The game, especially with its HD makeover, is bright and colorful, with big cartoony characters and comical baddies. The levels and characters both feel very much in line with Sonic Team’s previous work. Not having played the game before now, in my mind the game was a free roaming 3D world that you could explore. This is not really the case. The game is essentially a 2.5D game where you travel in a flat plane with many 3D aspects. Reminiscent of games like Pandemonium!, the 2D plane that you are traveling on twists and turns through the level, making the four passes that you take through each level much less repetitive than you might imagine. Combining these different routes with the numerous occasions that the perspective wholly shifts within levels really gives the game an unexpected somewhat wild feel where you are continually wondering what is next. Between the aesthetics and the level design, it’s hard not to enjoy Nights when you are in the thick of it.
Beyond the basic gameplay required to get through each level, both speed and high scores are required to up your level grade to at least a C in order to unlock the final level. Your score for a level is a combination of your scores from each of the four mares and the boss battle. Nights rewards efficient play. By flying quickly, and linking together scoring opportunities such as flying through rings or rapidly collecting items, your score gets a multiplier, which is essential to boosting your score. There are also triggers that stream a ribbon out behind Nights as he/she flies around which opens up the opportunity of stringing together tricks, by pressing the left and right bumper, or L1 and R1, within the limited time frame for bonus points. There is no Tony Hawk or SSX level of complexity to these moves, but they provide a nice little distraction that feeds directly into your score chasing.
Similarly, the boss fight of each level can take up to two minutes to complete, but the faster you defeat them the higher the multiplier which gets applied to your total combined score in the end. It can be interesting to figure out how to beat the bosses, but the only real hint comes after you lose, forcing you to replay the whole level again to get back to them. One of the key balances of the game that never really comes across is how to implement this score chasing when the timer at the top of the screen suggests you should finish as quickly as possible. To get the best grade in a level, you really need to spend the extra time you have to bolster those scores and aim to finish the level with the highest score, not the shortest time. That is, except for the bosses, where speed is key. It is one of the many things not explained in Nights, and it’s a shame because a near perfect speed run through these levels ends up a waste of time.
Rounding out the package is a fairly decent gallery of pictures and cinematics from the game, which are given their own menu options for easy access. If you have fond memories of Nights, this is a great way to rekindle that, with large iconic pictures and memorable poses. There is also the original Sega Saturn version of Nights into Dreams that is playable under the heading “Sega Saturn Dreams” instead of “Brand New Dreams.” Rounding out the playable portion is the Christmas Nights content that was made available after the game initially launched and is unlockable here. Additionally, there are leaderboards to check to compare your scores with others. All in all, there is a fair amount of content packaged into this Nights HD rerelease.
At the current price, there is really no reason not to try Nights HD. It’s not the most complete game in existence, being somewhat short, repetitive, and confusing, but it is charming, absolutely unique, very SEGA-y and carves out a nice little piece of history. It also demands a certain level of skill in order to raise those scores to get to the end of the game, so it can be enjoyed for more than just its good looks. Nights HD may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the good outweighs the bad, and I’m glad I finally got a chance to see what all the fuss was about. The flaws that are present in this game are inherent to the original Nights, not this HD version. If you want to see what Nights is like, or revisit this SEGA classic, this seems like a perfect way to do so.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.