Retro Review: Nights into Dreams (Sega Saturn/PC) – Does It Hold Up?

Originally released for the Sega Saturn in 1996, Nights Into Dreams is an arcadey action game developed by Sonic Team in a bid to bring high quality 3-D action to the Sega Saturn. It follows a character named Nights, who teams up with two children as they fight the evil Wizeman, who is trying to destroy the dream world of Nightopia and, in turn, the real world that the children come from. 

While I didn’t play this game growing up, Nights Into Dreams (often referred to as simply Nights) was one of the few Sega Saturn games that was on my radar as a kid. When I was 5 or 6, I remember leafing through an older Archie digest while I was visiting my cousins in the Philippines. On the back of the digest was an ad for a comic based off of the game and I’ve found myself curious and transfixed with the character ever since. I don’t know what it is about the character that did it for me, but something about Night’s Jesterly design struck a chord with me and I spent most of my childhood wanting to play the game. I don’t even think I fully understood what a Sega Saturn was at the time, but I knew I had to play Nights on one. Unfortunately though, I never did.

In 2007, Nights was ported onto the Playstation 2 as a Japanese exclusive release by Sega. And in 2012, that version was then remastered in HD for the Xbox 360, the PS3, and PC. The Xbox 360 version was the way I played this game for the first time, and I remember feeling confused and kinda overstimulated by the gameplay before growing to enjoy the game for it’s fluidity, and addictiveness.
Over the years, Nights has garnered a reputation of being a bit of a cult classic. Fans of the game love the title for it’s colorful and psychedelic graphics, it’s incredible soundtrack, and it’s extremely fun and fast paced gameplay. And Sega knows how much we love Nights. The game and the it’s main character have been referenced and featured in everything from the Sega All-Stars games to Sonic Adventure, and the game even received a sequel for the Nintendo Wii back in the mid 2000’s.

For this review, I’m going to be playing the game over on Steam. I’m also going to be playing this game’s remastered mode for today’s review as it includes a few quality of life improvements that I feel will improve my experience with the game. It is worth mentioning that the original Saturn experience is preserved here though, in case you guys are looking for something a little more authentic. While I don’t personally own a Sega Saturn, I do really want one, and I anticipate picking this game up when I get one, along with it’s analog controller that was basically made for this game.

Gameplay

Nights into Dreams (Steam)

The central gameplay of Nights Into Dreams is pretty straight forward. Each level starts with one of the child characters being attacked by monsters that rob them of these things called Ideyas and place them in a cage. After this happens, you’ll need to navigate them over to a shrine of sorts to start playing as Nights and to retrieve them for the kids. Ideya’s are kind of an interesting concept as they represent the characters emotions and sense of hope, intelligence, wisdom and purity. Because the game takes place in a dream world and the opponents you face in this game are nightmares, the entire game is loaded with awesome surrealist touches like this that give the game a strong sense of wanderlust and nostalgia, as well as the theme of personal growth and self-actualization.They also reflect the influence that psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung had on the development of this game and it’s world. It is worth noting though that most of these details and lore aren’t an actual part of the game.  I honestly can’t tell if I’m looking into things too deeply here or if my own sense of nostalgia for the game, or this generation of gaming in general is clouding my judgement here, but the game feels incredibly wholesome and uplifting. Again, that could just be me reminiscing about my childhood and holding this game up on a pedestal because of its impact on me as a kid, but I seriously have so much affection for this game. 

Anyway, once you actually start playing as Nights, you’re tasked with flying around and picking up these blue orbs while you fly through rings and avoid the few monsters that are on each level. While you can technically attack and use them to help you switch directions and fly in loops, combat isn’t really this games focus, which is probably for the better. The cages keeping the kids Ideya’s away from them require 20 blue orbs in order to be broken and free Ideya. From there, it’s as simple as flying back to the shrine that you started at in order to start the next section of the level and eventually take on a boss. If you take too long to complete a part of the stage and run out of time, Nights is suddenly transformed back into one of the child characters, who then has to run back to the shrine and re-transform into Nights. There’s also this clock that’ll spawn and chase you around. Letting it catch you wakes your character up, which means that they’ll never reacquire their Ideyas and that well, you lose and have to restart the level. 

You can control the direction Nights flies in with the analog stick and can also attack or perform a boost by hitting the A or X button, depending on whether you’re using an Xbox or Playstation controller to play this remaster. It’s also worth mentioning that you do have a meter for your boost, which needs to be refilled by flying through rings. The controls themselves feel pretty good; things are as responsive as they need to be and, while I do think the analog controls are a bit too sensitive for my liking, I never feel totally out of control of my character. Plus, this could just be due to this game being the first Saturn game to support analog control and have nothing to do with the remaster itself. Either way, it’s pretty easy to get used to and is, in no way, that bad, especially with how simple the gameplay itself is.

As far as difficulty goes, the game is pretty easy to beat and can be done in just an hour or so due to it only having 7 levels. But even though the game is relatively short and easy, it’s also extremely addictive. This is due to the games extremely fluid controls, as well as the game having a ranking system not too dissimilar from the one in, say, Sonic Adventure 2. Because of it, you’ll find yourself coming back to this game over and over again in order to try and get a higher rank on each of it’s levels, which is great because these levels are a blast to play through and explore. Plus, in order to unlock the games final two levels, you’ll actually need to get a C rank on each character’s three main stages, which will also likely result in newer players needing to play through each level one or two more times in order to learn the optimaI routes to use. I wouldn’t call this an issue though as the levels themselves are fairly short and all stand out from each other.

Each level revolves around a different theme and also features a different level gimmick that keep things fresh. The gimmicks range from controlling Nights from behind, sorta like you’re flying an Arwing in Star Fox, to controlling her from above, swimming through an underwater cave, or doing something else like sledding. These gimmicks don’t do anything to change up the actual objective of the level, but provide a brief respite from the game’s main 2.5d gameplay.

Despite being designed as a showcase for the Saturn’s 3D graphics prowess, most of the game actually plays in 2D. While there are 3D sections in the game, the majority of this title features dreamy and psychedelic level design that’s clearly intended to be played from a side scrolling perspective and honestly, the game’s a lot better for it, as the 3D sections aren’t the best. They aren’t terrible by any stretch of the word, but have to admit that they do feel a little cumbersome and have aged a little poorly in the controls department. The 2D gameplay on the other hand has aged much better and actually feels really fresh, especially when stacked up against a lot of early 3D titles from the era.

These sections fill me with such a deep sense of whimsy; while I wouldn’t call these levels the easiest to navigate in terms of how intuitive their layouts are, there’s no denying how fun these level designs are to fly through. And I think this is in part due to the actual implementation of the levels themselves; due to the games collectathon nature, the levels are extremely linear and operate more like tracks for you to learn and time trial through.
While I am playing this game’s HD remaster, the original release of Nights earned a lot of praise for its smooth framerate and heaps of animation. And thankfully, both of these qualities have made it into the game’s modern port and hold up really well today, much like the next thing I’d like to talk about, this games soundtrack.

Music

It’s almost a running gag at this point that Sonic games have a good soundtrack but despite that, I’d still like to extend that joke to include other Sonic Team titles like Nights. Because wow. This game’s soundtrack is incredible. If I had to compare it to any other Sonic soundtrack in terms of it’s sheer quality, I’d honestly put it up there with something like Sonic CD for how heart-poundingly fun and playful it is. I don’t know what genre I’d describe the Nights soundtrack as, other than dance or something, but it’s extremely catchy and full of 90’s synths and pulsing beats. The first time I played this game, I remember becoming obsessed with the soundtrack and, as dorky as it probably sounds, remember ripping it onto my iPod Touch to listen to while I’d go running in my high school gym class. It’s really better off heard than it is described.

Visuals

Visually, Nights Into Dreams looks great. Despite being originally released on the Sega Saturn, which has a bit of an honestly unwarranted reputation of being a joke when it came to 3D games, Nights looked really good for a game released in 1996. Similarly, the HD remaster also looks pretty great on a modern display. I played through the game in 1440p on a large monitor, and while I could definitely see muddily upscale HUD textures and sprites in the game, especially when they’re juxtaposed against higher quality polygonal assets, I wasn’t really bothered by them. Plus this was fairly par for the course on remasters, especially remasters from nearly ten years ago, and I actually kinda like how it looks on a thematic level. Because Nights revolves around dreams and does a great job of conjuring warm nostalgic feelings for me, the upscaled textures and, admittedly pretty dated 90s 3D graphics kinda enhance the games psychedelic and otherworldly quality. It’s kinda similar to Squares upscale jobs on their Final Fantasy remasters, in that way. While I love stuff like the Mogari Mod for Final Fantasy IX, which takes the games backgrounds and AI upscales them to perfection, there’s also a lot of charm in at least kinda preserving the way the game looked back in the day. Plus, in the case of something like Nights, it’s nowhere near as jarring as it is on the Final Fantasy rereleases.

Closing

So does Nights into Dreams hold up? Um… yeah! While the game certainly isn’t perfect and does feature sensitive analog control and is a little on the short side, I kinda think that those qualities are part of the games nostalgic charm. And even if you do find these qualities more aggravating than you do endearing, the games strong presentation and incredible soundtrack are sure to help tide things over for you. Nights is a game best played frequently in short bursts, and thanks to how readily available and affordable this remaster is, there’s honestly no better time to buy it than the present. It’s one of my go-to games for when I have 10-15 minutes to kill and have already done all my tasks in Animal Crossing or challenges in Tetris 99 for the day. It’s just a great game to veg out and play somewhat vacantly. I actually had some technical difficulties recording for this video that forced me to play through this game almost three times, and I honestly didn’t get bored doing so. Nights Into Dreams can be picked up on Steam for just $7.99 and can easily run on just about any modern computer, so you owe it to yourself to pick this gem of a game up if you’re ever looking for a fun 90s adventure. 

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