When I first heard about Christmas Nights Into Dreams, just 12 months after the release of the original Nights, I remember thinking: “What a swizz”. This was in an age before I, or most of the developed world (if you can call Liverpool that, anyway), were using the internet regularly – a time when magazines and word of mouth were all we had.
With that in mind it makes sense, then, that when I first heard about Christmas Nights it was already out. What an even bigger swizz: a surprise, snap release just before the holidays without warning. I’d need to get a paper round to be able to fit that onto my already packed Saturn itinerary for the Christmas of 1997 that included Sonic R, Resident Evil (over a year after its PS debut, much to my chagrin), and some catch-up purchases like Fighters Megamix and A.M.O.K. (I know. I was young and not so discerning, okay?). At least I’d be saving a few shillings by not having to buy a magazine to drool over the press shots ahead of its release.
Then: a Christmas miracle. Buying a magazine was all I had to do to own it. Sega – a big, powerful player – was being generous. It was doing what no other big, powerful player had ever done to my recollection, at least not since Dickens was around: it was giving at Christmas. Giving merrily and wealthily to its followers and fans.
Christmas Nights is imbued with the joy of giving. It’s a freebie without a hidden motive, a standalone title bursting with content, as free-wheeling and carefree as its jester hero and as innocent as its two young dreamers. Essentially two short levels, replay value is added with extras that range from a playable Sonic The Hedgehog to a music mixing tool. More than a re-skinning of stages lifted from the original game with bells and whistles (literally) jangling about, Christmas Nights is an earnest celebration of seasonal gaming. Drenched in Christmas cheer and iconography, it uses the festive trimmings of the real word at its cheeriest to decorate its warped playground of side-scrolling time-attack acrobatics.
How appropriate that a game all about time and transformation – level arrangements and challenges change as you fulfil the collectible quota for each run around the “tracks” of a stage – should itself be transformed into a winter wonderland to match the one outside our windows. This is a gift that keeps giving beyond its winter windoq, making use of the Saturn’s internal clock to add further seasonal flavours throughout the year.
It may keep pace with the seasons, but Christmas Nights is also what I consider to be a snapshot of Yuji Naka’s once incomparable Sonic Team at the peak of its powers and influence in the platforming genre. It’s the product of a time when Sega was confident and ambitious enough to bundle a brand new peripheral in with the game and one, at that, which could double as a plate, frisbee or, rather appropriately, a small sled. It’s a game that oozes the sort of bombast and ingenuity that would fall by the wayside as the team moved into the new millennium and key staff jumped ship. Just as Nights encompasses many of Sonic Team’s previous design triumphs and trademarks (the time-attack, collect ‘em up nature and flowing, dynamic pace) as well as some of its weaknesses (frustrating, convoluted boss encounters) traces of Nights’ DNA are evident in the Sonic The Hedgehog titles that followed, most notably in the shifting perspectives and 2.5D layouts. The shame is that Sonic Team never bettered the Nights formula, or even found it again, struggling to ever come close to such spectacle, such an avant garde and outlandish personality that marries style with hidden depth and substance.
Christmas Nights is no mere refresh or re-run of Nights’ great design, either: it shows Sonic Team iterating on its own template. Christmas Nights trims some of the fat that weighed down the initial release, condensing its pleasures into two sumptuous stages that heighten the magical sense of place that made the game a mainstay in my own home console (which remains the most reliable black box in my hardware armoury. Well, the hardware armoury in my attic).
With Christmas Nights – which, by the way, is included in the recently released Nights Into Dreams HD, albeit slightly cut down – Sonic Team effectively gave the console crowd an early taste of free, post-launch support and DLC. It raised the profile of Nights Into Dreams and Sega itself – an abject lesson in how giving can, by default and without need for expectation of recompense, lead to many happy returns. A valuable lesson both for the industry today and the rest of the world this Christmas.