This review originally appeared in E36, October 1996.
Sonic the Hedgehog sold the Mega Drive to a whole generation of gamers. However lucky Sega was to break into a freshly dormant European videogames market, its mascot character helped lodge the company in the public consciousness and personified the blue half of the battle against Nintendo.
Sonic Twosday is now but a memory, though. With the Saturn, Sega has been fighting the new enemy, Sony, and up until now the battle has been notable by the absence of mascots. Nights may be an attempt to bolster the public perception of its new(ish) machine, and provide a firm selling handle for the console in its continuing struggle against the PlayStation. Additionally (in Europe at least), Sega has nine months before Nintendo re-enters the fray. An older, established user-base was the advantage Sega held in the days of Sonic, and it's what it really has got to aim for now.
But is Nights a good enough game to accomplish all that Sega hopes to achieve with it? The answer is, unsurprisingly, not a simple one. There can be no doubt that the game is easily the most original and (with the posslble except|on of VF2 and Sega Rally) visually dazzling title seen on the Saturn to date. Set in a selection of 'dream worlds' the player can either walk ground based characters around with complete freedom or fly with impressive speed over four set routes per level. The combination of low-clipping 3D terrain (all impressively texture mapped), speed (unrivalled in a platform game on any of the next generation consoles) and some almost drug-induced moments, has the heads of even the most cynical turning to have a look.
The story behind the game is intrinsic to the structure of the title. Two children, Elliot Edwards and Claris Sinclair are having nightmares. In their dreams they get transported to worlds, partly created by them, to have their wisdom, hope, intelligence and purity stolen by the head of the evil world, Wizeman. With the help of Nights (one of Wizeman's rebellious evil spirits) they must get these four attributes back, travel through the dream worlds and flnally defeat Wizeman.
The basic idea of play is to collect the blue Ideya balls scattered throughout the level and return them to Ideya collection points. This is malnly achieved by using the NiGHTS character to fly around the four set routes on each level. Freedom of movement is restricted to two dimensions when flying – Nights can backtrack and fly up and down within the route, but he can't fly 'into' the level (although the game is displayed in such a way as to fool casual observers into believing this is possible). If his time runs out. N|GHTS will fall to earth and resume the identity of one of the children (the one that the player opted to play at the begmmng of the game). On the ground, the children have complete freedom of movement but are vulnerable to attack by a floating alarm clock, something which ends the game.
Although Nights has superficially simple 'collecting things' gameplay. in reality it's more complicated. Each child has only four dream worlds to complete, with a boss at the end and Wizeman as the finale to the fourth. At the end of each stage, the player is given a grade from A to F, a score dependent upon a number of factors, including the time taken to complete the level, the number of extra Ideya balls collected and, most importantly. 'links'. A link occurs when Nights flies over or loops around a consecutive series of game objects. These include floating rings, stars and Ideya balls. Completing levels with an average mark below C (including the grade for defeating the boss) will not allow the next level to be played immediately – the player can access it but must restart the game from that point to play.
It does not take long to get access to all areas in what all honesty must be called a fairly small game. However Edge had difficulty in consistently earning scores above C, suggesting strong replay value. The game also bears repetition because the player rarely feels that he has conquered any particular part of it – partly because the levels move so fast and partly because of the number of sub-levels and secret areas. NiGHTS also boasts an A-life system that is supposed to evolve the levels in subtle ways, although Edge has seen little sign of this. Strong Internet rumours persist that the game has a twoplayer splitscreen option hidden towards the end although again no proof has been seen.
Sega's analogue pad makes a debut wlth nights and. although the game doesn't really need analogue control, the pad is an excellent addition to the Saturn's range of peripherals. Although not as striking as the N64's, the design is reasonably comfortable and easy to use. It is also compatible with existing software, adding a new dimension to games such as Sega Rally.
Nights is a disappointment in some respects, however. The two children, whose complete freedom of ground movement was so vaunted by Sega, appear to take little real part in the game (if Nights runs out of time and falls to earth as one of the children, the grade for that stage is automatically given an F), making comparisons with Mario 64, in effect, rather spurious. Similarly, although the seven levels (the children share the same fourth level) are well designed and graphically unrivalled, it does seem a rather low number to include on a system supposedly unencumbered by storage space problems (Mario 64 boasts 15 levels with a vast amount of extras).
Sonic was a very focused game a clear aim, making it easy to pick up and play. By contrast, a lot of the time Nights feels as if its gameplay has been made to fit within a set of technological displays of competence, with good 3D, excellent texture mapping, total freedom of movement for characters, fast polygon movement – selling points for the Saturn around which a game has been framed. Nights is an enigmatic game that the public might take to their hearts or might reject out of hand. Either way, it's not quite good enough to be a all-time classic.