Early descriptions had declared it a fusion of Yuji Naka’s other blue blur, Sonic The Hedgehog, and Appaloosa’s Ecco The Dolphin, but Nights is primarily a game about the joy of freeform flight. Yet the beauty of the game is that, after you’ve seen all of the worlds and banished the Nightmaren into the swirling vortex of your paraloop, it stands as one of the finest score-attack games ever crafted.
But let’s look at the game in context. Back in the tail-end of 1996, several of the most defining games of the generation were being released. Tomb Raider was breaking new ground in 3D exploration, while Super Mario 64 was being hailed as the greatest videogame ever made. Nights, however, wasn’t as forward-thinking as many expected it to be.
Its originality was never in dispute; no one could quite pin it to a genre. It was a platformer without any platforms. A shoot ’em up without any bullets.
But by embracing the possibilities of 3D while retaining the tight control of 16bit gameplay via a 2D track through 3D environs, Sonic Team managed to maintain directorial control of the game without stifling it. With no Z-axis to think about in flight, the game is a pure test of analogue control, made possible by the 3D Control Pad that was specifically designed for the game.
Nights’ levels are split into four laps (Mares), in which the player must collect a coloured orb (Ideya) representing aspects of the child’s personality – purity, wisdom, hope and intelligence. Each dream begins with the orbs being snatched from Claris or Elliot, leaving only a red Ideya. This signifies bravery – the only form of dream energy the evil Wiseman cannot steal. Nights is attracted to red dream energy. His existence is always an enigma – is he a spirit? Or a memory? It’s never made clear. But he leads the children to gather the scattered Ideya, before facing Wizeman’s henchmen and, ultimately, the special effects-laden Wizeman himself.
Graphically, the entire game is a landmark achievement, utilising every drop of power from the architecturally complex Saturn hardware. Where other developers strangled the Saturn’s core CPU with a barrage of multi-instruction code, Sonic Team used the hardware as it was designed to be used. The 3D environments were drawn by one processor, while another handled the 2D enemies, hoops and trees, melding them seamlessly to create a smooth, surprisingly fast-moving game that still looks striking today. The flat background’s colour palette blends into the comparatively myopic draw-distance of the 3D, cleverly disguising hardware shortcomings and delivering a truly dreamlike assault of movement and colour.
But visual impact seldom lasts forever. And so attention turns to that scoring system. Bewildering at first, it soon reveals immense challenge and possibility. The start of each Mare becomes a race to gather 20 blue chips and place them in the Ideya capture before the player is rewarded with a 2x multiplier on everything scored for the remainder of the Mare. Flying over Nights’ palace begins a new lap (instead of ending the Mare in it) and every item and hoop is reset. Gameplay becomes an intense, trance-like chain of scoring, before slamming home as the clock hits zero, just before Nights turns back into Claris/Elliot, decimating the score.
But that’s not all. Two other major factors affect score. Each item and hoop gives you one second in which to score again, before your ‘link’ is dropped. Racking up links means every hoop and chip’s value is multiplied. But the genius twist is that achievement in the Mares means nothing if you lose your cool in the boss battles. A further multiplier of between 1.0 and 2.0 is awarded to the entire level’s score depending on boss completion time. This one-shot test of skill is what keeps Nights players coming back, years after the game’s release. Scoring anything less than an ‘A’ rank on any Mare in any level feels like failure indeed. And the level design is so expertly weighted, you’ll always find ways to improve.
Nights’s appeal is not based on one facet. Flying through a waterfall in azure Saturn skies is a simply a delight. Throwing Puffy through walls is an act of vandalous glee. Combining the children’s strength to break Wizeman’s final defences is an iconic scene of unity and defiance. And seeing Claris’s performance gown fade away to reveal her everyday shorts and T-shirt on that sunny hillside is an image that has stayed with all who played the game.
If only the Wii sequel had come close to this game, it would have immediately eased itself in among the ranks of the console’s best titles.