An action score-attack game with enough love in its setting and presentation to actually warrant a spoiler warning.
This doesn’t look like a good dream. The music, usually carefree and chipper, has a spirally ominousness about it. The land beneath my feet is but a small island floating in the air, a stark contrast to dream worlds where even the sky had its own ceiling. Before me, my ticket to flight is unreachable, locked away in a fantastical cage. Beneath me, I think, is the city that I inhabit in my waking hours.
It’s a black night. So much for all of those otherworldly, vibrantly coloured dreamscapes. Furthermore, the unwritten gameplay routine has been broken. I tilt the stubby analogue stick forward and my character is flung far into the distance and lands with a bounce on an even smaller island. The diameter is only a matter of footsteps and there is but one streetlight for company. The music continues its threatening loop as her low polygon, young teenage form circles the small mass of land floating above a web of cloud that itself leads to Twin Seeds city. There is no indication as to how I should approach the situation, no button prompt or subtle environmental animation or chirpy audio cue.
Eventually, exasperated and a little bit frustrated, I press the jump button and have my character leap off of the small island edge. She falls, hopelessly, almost glitch-like, and all audio fades from the game.
My teenage mind races in circles as this happens. NiGHTS is not a game about falling. It is very literally a game about flying. Its mechanical core is about the freedom of movement through a 2.5D space; what may be its key joy is found in a streamlining and refinement of what it actually was that made the earlier Sonic games good: continuous, unbroken motion.
Let’s hammer on this a bit. NiGHTS is, in many ways, a game about the very things that made Sonic fun, notably the things that gave Sonic games their replayability. It’s all of these, freed from the shackles of gravity, unhampered by the traction of grass and dirt and concrete. Perhaps most importantly, it is beholden to no genre. NiGHTS is, when distilled down to its mechanical essence, almost perfect, held back only slightly by uneven boss difficulty. Outside of more powerful hardware allowing for things like pulling back the camera and fixing the occasional depth perception problems that come with using sprites in place of polygons on some objects, it’s hard to imagine it being meaningfully better.
When all of the trimmings have been peeled away, with NiGHTS Sonic Team delivered a masterclass in how to build a game around a score loop. NiGHTS is a game where you go fast, where you never stop moving. It’s also one where you do so for as long as possible. You have a limited amount of time, and you want to squeeze it dry, to collect as many shiny silver orbs as these limited seconds allow. Actually, scratch that, you want to get twenty of those silver ones as efficiently as you can, deliver them, and then use the bonus time to chain together as many of the now gold orbs as possible. They're recreated with each successive lap.
This simple chaining system has a monumental impact on scoring and effectively allows the game to force players to balance careful precision with furious haste. The then-novel analogue controls are borderline essential, and the joys of the gameplay only increase as players grow more daring, more confident, discover that looping a series of items will suck them into an all-you-can-eat vortex, perform flight acrobatics for both score and aesthetic gain, and push timing down to literally the last second at the risk of the number zero bringing about an explosion of orbs and a guaranteed F grade as either one of the two children at the heart of the narrative lose their connection with NiGHTS and much clumsily foot it before waking up.
What is breathtaking is how, by freeing itself from the established restraints of the platforming genre, NiGHTS is literally able to maintain truly unbroken movement if you want it to. Even when the game screen stills for a couple of seconds at the end of a stage lap to tally that A-F grade, NiGHTS and either Claris or Eliot uncouple, link arms, and swing, effectively keeping the sense of momentum alive and propelling themselves towards the next course.
Being stopped – usually due to flying carelessly into a nightmare creature – is jarring in a way that could fairly be described as physical. Not that NiGHTS always needs to avoid these critters. The standard speed-boosting corkscrew move will deal with many, and others can be caught in the carnage of a wind vortex should you swiftly circle them; as can, it should be noted, the little egg-headed Nightopians that occupy each stage.
NiGHTS may well be great without the need for trimmings. It’s a fantastic gameplay loop, easily repayable for a hundred hours once it gets its teeth in. But it probably wouldn’t be as special. My personal favourite games tend to be flawed gems – I love what many may consider the pointless level of detail in Shenmue, I still find Jet Set Radio playable today, The Darkness is my favourite FPS of the previous generation and not because of how the shooting felt. Even factoring in that cat hair puzzle, I love Gabriel Knight 3 unconditionally. What makes NiGHTS stand out, is that it has those eccentricities, but has wrapped them around a generally tighter overall package.
The ultimate eccentricity? Maybe the Nightopians. The friendly residents of the gamewold can be hatched from eggs that litter the stages (though doing so will bring NiGHTS to a gentle, but still troubling, stop). They can also be murdred in a swirling air vortex of death just as easily as a nightmare critter can. And they give out high-pitched death wails when it happens. It’s one thing to mess up a high-scoring run; it’s another to have your heart break a bit in the process.
But it’s the Nightopian voices that bring the most to the game. The music in NiGHTS has a mood, and while that mood is almost always chipper, there is more variation to its chirpiness than you could possibly anticipate going in. Essentially, it reflects how the little Pians are feeling. The effect is mostly invisible, too. Unless you had Christmas NiGHTS (specifically, the original Saturn disc; the polished up re-releases that would eventually follow would include the two Christmas-themed stages but skimp on what was a generous helping of extra goodies), in which case it was possible to unlock not only the game’s soundtrack, but also to the select the mood for each bar of the music.
Oh, Christmas NiGHTS! Stay well clear if you’re not one for festivities, for the snow-frosted stages and Jingle Bells background music are all in on the season. It’s not subtle, but it is joyous and incredibly replayable.
It’s also worth noting that it fits. Visually, NiGHTS was a feat for the Saturn hardware, and while wide palates of vibrant colours were much more common in the mid ‘90s than they have since become, there is a unique and definitely dream-like quality to NiGHTS’s visual design. The obvious comparison, post-release at least, is Cirque du Soleil. This is clearest in the creature design, as well as NiGHTS’s own, genderless form.
Perhaps in partial thanks to the circus inspiration, and perhaps even more to a surprising amount of research done on dream-states, the stages in NiGHTS – from idyllic beaches to rocky canyons with metal grafts and greenery-filled gallerys with surfaces that are soft to the touch – are strange, but coherent within the game. It’s a feast of imagination filled to such a bursting point that Yuji Naka once commented that Shigero Miyamoto himself had inquired about a sequel.
The stumbles that the eventual sequel (NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams, 2008) did make aren’t enough to damage the core legacy of the game that is. While that game became mired in misguided Wii remote controls, dialogue and undercooked platforming sections, the original remains laser-focused on its core gameplay and leaves all of the story complications to its manual.
To be fair, the background details of the story are kind of convoluted. They are also, however, unnecessary. You get enough without them – short, wordless cinematics of the two teens stumbling, losing their sense of confidence and getting sucked into nightmares – and you get payoff as well. Perhaps it’s all a bit twee, but the execution is enough to look past the young boy’s anime ‘burning passion’-eqsue message.
This platform. This tiny little platform.
This has to be a glitch. There have to be other platforms that I can jump on.
Or something. Something I’ve not considered. Some way to get back to NiGHTS.
This entire game is built around flying as that purple critter, for crying out loud.
To heck with it, I’ll just jump into the abyss and restart or something, I guess.
Yup, there goes the music. Nuts to this.
Up until this point, through simple mechanical learning and routine gameplay, NiGHTS has trained its players to expect one simple thing: with NiGHTS, you can fly; without NiGHTS, you’re kind of powerless and may well be forcefully woken before you can complete your task. The entire time, this has been echoing the failings of the children from the two opening cutscenes.
In the end, it’s so simple you can probably choose between smiling and facepalming. Or feel free to go ahead and do both. Personally, as the audio didn’t actually drain from the stage so much as make space for something far more fast-paced and empowering, as Claris shot back up into the night sky, flying, now, completely of her own violation, I went with a smile. That entire final stage may represent the most empowered a game has made me feel. There would be a boss fight to contend with afterwards, but in this moment even the game itself actively seemed to be cheering me on. Of course the closing cinematics revolve around Claris and Eliot regaining their confidence. Of course they do.
Honestly, there was never any doubt of that from the moment the game started. But what was unexpected is just how earned it all felt by the time the short experience was done with.
I’m perhaps too old and cynical to completely buy into this you-need-only-believe-in-yourself gospel any longer, but I’ll be damned if I ever get to the point where I don’t at least want to believe.