"Sublime Sonic Team subconcious score attack strangeness."

When it was first released, it was never going to rival Nintendo's Mario 64 masterpiece in terms of commercial success, but in the years since then NiGHTS Into Dreams has generated a level of devotion from its fans that's rarely seen. And with good reason - it's one of the most enjoyable titles I've had the pleasure of experiencing.

All is not well in the dream realm of Nightopia. An evil being of nightmares, Wizeman the Wicked, is attempting to steal the 'Ideya' (dream energy) possessed by sleepers and use their power to replace Nightopia with his own twisted nightmare world. However, one of Wizeman's minions, a being known only as NiGHTS, rebels against the evil nightmare ruler and seeks help to prevent Wizeman's terrible scheme from succeeding. NiGHTS finds it in the form of two courageous children, Claris and Elliot, and it is here that the player takes over.

By controlling either Claris, Elliot or NiGHTS, players explore a beautifully surreal and imaginative world of the subconscious mind, collecting enough Ideya to battle one of Wizeman's henchmen and progress to the next stage. Each themed environment begins with the theft of four of your character's Ideya. But the kids retain one Ideya: the red type, representing courage. NiGHTS is always located in an obvious spot in font of your starting point, where he has been imprisoned by Wizeman as punishment for his defiance. The children can merge with NiGHTS by simply touching the dream being, and from then on the gameplay takes a turn for the... magical.

NiGHTS is a purple-garbed jester, designed by Sonic creator Naoto Ohshima, who has the power to fly. Controlling him is great fun, apparently even more so if you own the Saturn 3D controller (which I sadly don't). Despite what the 3D graphics might suggest, when playing as NiGHTS apart from certain sections of the game you can only move vertically and horizontally in a 2D plane. That's no bad thing, though; the game mechanics ensure that you rarely feel that your freedom is restricted. Movement is precise enough for you to know exactly what you're going to do with NiGHTS from one moment to the next, yet fluid and loose enough to give that dream-like feeling. Each bizarre dreamscape (including imaginative twists on the obligatory snow and lush forest levels at which Sonic Team excel) consists of four 'Mares', and a Mare is completed by collecting 20 blue orbs, using them to retrieve a particular Ideya located somewhere in the level, then bringing this Ideya back to the starting point before moving on to the next Mare. When you've obtained all four Ideyas, you're transported to Nightmare to battle one of Wizeman's henchmen.

Some players were bemused and perplexed at first by this gameplay: what exactly was the point of performing these basic and repetitive actions? But once you play through the (admittedly rather short) game once, you realise that what makes the game so much fun is its incredibly addictive scoring system. If you can compare the gameplay to anything, it would be Crazy Taxi. Both Hitmaker's and Sonic Team's titles consist of locating an object (passengers/blue chips) and delivering them to a location (destinations/Ideya Captures) as quickly as possible, along the way boosting the score by doing ''combo'' tricks. In this case, combos are known as links, and are performed by collecting two or more items in quick succession. The more links you successfully make, the higher your score when you reach the boss at the end of the level. Your score can then be doubled, remain the same or anything in between depending upon how quickly you beat whatever imposing figure Wizeman has sent to deal with you.

Being primarily a score attack game, if you're the kind of player who just likes to rush through games as quickly as possible and the prospect of replaying levels over and over doesn't appeal to you, you probably won't get the most out of NiGHTS. If you're just playing for completion it's a very short and pretty easy title to finish. But for those that do get it... well, let's just say that with the possible exception of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, going for high scores in this game is just about one of the most addictive and invigorating videogame experiences around. The marvellous feeling of performing an incredibly stylish and high-scoring link... the tension as you battle that dream's boss, hoping that you're not going to mess up... that nerve-racking moment as you wait for the final figure to be calculated... the exhilaration as the message proclaiming a new high-score flashes up... it's just wonderful!

As you progress through the game, you'll come across some inspired set-pieces and great little touches. Take the moments when NiGHTS dives into water - his legs morph together into a mermaid tail, allowing your high score antics to continue smoothly. This is just one of the many glorious details in the game, some obvious, some not. I don't want to spoil it for you, but there's one section of the Stick Canyon level that's ridiculously weird and truly amazing at the same time...

As you fly, you'll hear some of the best videogame tunes around. I'm not that keen on the one lyrical song in the game - ''Dreams, Dreams'' - but the rest of the pieces, which are all instrumental, are a joy to hear. But that isn't the most interesting thing about the music.

The game contains a unique 'A-Life' system, whereby the moods of the inhabitants of Nightopia affect the game in various ways. Most noticeably, the happier the Nightopians are, the more upbeat and complex the levels' music becomes (the emotions of the 'Pians can be examined using one of the options in Christmas NiGHTS, the game's intriguing sister title). Decide to be evil and kill 'em all and they'll be very angry with you, making the music lower and sadder. But no matter what changes are made, the music always recognisably belongs to that level. I'd assume that the only way Sonic Team were able to cram all the various musical combinations onto the disc would be through the use of ''on the fly'' synthesis, adjusting individual aspects of the tunes as required, but even so it's amazing that they were able to make the quality so high that it sounds almost pre-recorded!

As well as affecting the excellent music, the A-Life system used in NiGHTS is a primitive forerunner of the enhanced version later used by Sonic Team in their Sonic Adventure games. I've never really experimented with any of the other aspects of A-Life (apparently it's possible to merge the Nightopians with the game's enemies to form a ''Mepian'', but I've never managed this), but some players seem to enjoy it, and it's there to provide an extra layer to the game if you so desire.

Still, no matter how good it is, each game you play will inevitably have at least one feature that you'd add in order to make it just right and NiGHTS is no exception. Of course, its special companion disc Christmas NiGHTS added a lot of bonuses, such as basic time and link attack options, a huge art gallery and an inspired Hedgehoggy twist on the NiGHTS gameplay, but there are still perhaps more things that could have been done with the stand-alone game. A boss attack mode would be nice. It would be good to have slightly more emphasis on NiGHTS' aerobatic tricks; at the moment there are only limited periods in the level when they add to your score. The mini time attack mode in Christmas NiGHTS is great, and I for one would love to be able to experience it with every Mare in the main game. On the other hand, perhaps it's preferable that most of NiGHTS' flaws come not from things that the game does badly, but rather those things it doesn't include at all. Personally I'd rather have the sleek pure core of a game such as this instead of a bloated one crammed with redundant, half-realised extra ''enhancements'' (Tony Hawk's Underground take note)!

But there are a few problems with what is present, too. Although great and widely praised for the Saturn at the time, the graphics are very dated by today's standards. The framerate remains reasonably constant (except when a great number of Nightopians are on screen at once, causing a certain amount of slowdown), but unfortunately it's not a particularly high constant compared to what we see these days. Many objects in the game world are flat scaled sprites rather than true 3D models, and overall the draw distance isn't too good (although Sonic Team did an admirable job of smoothly blending the foreground environment with the distant 2D background image). Perhaps this is down to the Saturn hardware's proficiency with 2D graphics but deficiencies when it comes to 3D. Also, it could be argued that the colours, intended to convey a dreamlike feel, are rather garish. It may seem unfair that I'm picking on the graphics of a game from eight years and a hardware generation ago, but it has to be said that occasionally the execution of the visuals isn't as beautiful as the concept behind them. Fortunately, these minor graphical problems don't really negatively impact the gameplay in any way. The pop up isn't so bad that objects appear too close for you to react to them, and if anything the faults are actually more apparent in reduced still screenshots (where it's rarely possible to see what's going on) than in the fast movement of the actual game, where you'll be so absorbed in the genius of the gameplay itself, you should have few problems keeping track of things.

But even NiGHTS' otherwise outstanding score attack gameplay can be frustrating. Each level takes about ten minutes to complete (if you're going right down to the wire with the time limits in order to cram in as many combos as possible), and if you then make a mistake on the boss, that's the entire run ruined. Perhaps an option to play the Mares individually and use this mode to set scores for each of them in turn would have been more addictive; after all, the two most addictive score and time attack games I've played - Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 and GoldenEye - for the most part have only short runs through levels, which makes it much less frustrating when you mess up at the very end. But this is really an incredibly minor and nit-picky complaint from me, and could be applied to most score attack games (the length of play time for a run certainly isn't as long as in, say, the excellent Tempest 2000 or the world record sessions for many classic arcade games), so if you can ignore this problem in other games with lengthy score attack sessions, it won't bother you at all here.

When NiGHTS was first experienced by early Saturn owners, looking for that one killer game that would show worryingly successful newcomers Sony who was boss, perhaps many of them were surprised, even disappointed, by that fact NiGHTS was not what they expected. An on-rails score attack game in a 2D plane? Set in a dream? Where enemies take off time rather than health? NiGHTS definitely isn't for everyone, especially - dare I say it - ''mainstream'' gamers. And it certainly has its flaws, particularly graphically if you compare it to today's standards. But if you can overlook its relatively minor faults and concentrate instead on the passion with which this beautiful game has been crafted, you'll find a deep, rewarding and hugely entertaining experience there waiting for you.

Gameplay - 5/5
While the sections where you control the children are perhaps somewhat pointless, controlling NiGHTS is a dream (sorry!). The satisfaction you feel when you pull off an amazing link is second to none, and the varied boss strategies are interesting.

Graphics - 3/5
They're definitely dated by today's standards - average framerate, bad draw distance and contrasting gaudy colours that are quite hard on the eyes. However, the character designs by Naoto Ohshima and Kazuyuki Hoshino are marvellous.

Sound - 5/5
The main ''Dreams, Dreams'' theme song might not be to my taste, but all the instrumental tunes are of outstanding quality - one of the best videogame soundtracks I've ever heard. Impressively, the A-Life system allows the melodies to vary while keeping the quality high, too!

Value - 5/5
Playing through the levels again in search of that elusive high score is an incredibly addictive experience - I've had the game since 1998, and still play it quite frequently. But if you're not into that, you should lower the score by several marks, as the main game is pretty short and easy.

Overall - Nine out of ten.
Whether stand-alone or combined with its Christmas sister disc, in NiGHTS we have one of the most beautifully pure gaming experiences available. Pleasant dreams!

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 04/06/04

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