Definitely what I call a good dream
It's been made very clear over the years that Sonic Team, those extraordinaires that created their namesake hedgehog, is really, really proud of NiGHTS Into Dreams...-or Nights Into Dreams, if you prefer your titles without silly stylization. In every game the studio has made since the 1996 production - including Burning Rangers, Sonic Adventure, Sonic Adventure 2, Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, and, obviously, the game's 2007 sequel, NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams - the mysterious jester star of the game has made some sort of appearance, be it as a secret character or a background cameo. But since the original NiGHTS was only available on its native Sega Saturn for a full 12 years, until its Japan-only rerelease on PS2 in 2008, only a select few people in the Western world have actually played it.
So, now that it's out on PSN and XBLA for the world to see: does it live up to the decade and a half of hype? Lord no. Is it still a good game? Lord yes!
The story of NiGHTS is mere background dressing to the gameplay (and, for the most part, was clearly created mainly as an explanation of all the mechanics), but it revolves around two teenagers, Claris and Elliot, who tumble into the world known as Nightopia one night, as everyone does when they dream. Nightopia, it turns out, is under attack by the evil Wizeman the Wicked, a sorcerer who is using his devious Nightmarens to steal the Ideya - little balls of power that are created by one's personality traits - of dreamers, leaving them trapped in Nightopia. Claris and Elliot, however, possess the rare Red Ideya, which is created from Courage- and Wizeman can't steal it. Thus, it falls on them to save Nightopia, aided by NiGHTS, a Nightmaren that's rebelled against Wizeman.
The player enters every level controlling Claris/Elliot, and immediately, some Nightmarens steal four of their five Ideya. You need to get them back, and the only way to do that is to bond with NiGHTS, who, without you, is trapped inside a small gazebo. After becoming NiGHTS, you have to collect at least 20 blue spheres in order to open a capsule containing an Ideya, then fly back to the gazebo to move on to the next area ("mare"). You're going to want to switch to NiGHTS as soon as humanly possible- not just because there is no point whatsoever in using the kids (there isn't- everything they can do, so can NiGHTS), but also because controlling them is an utter chore. They move at the speed of molasses goin' uphill in January (on crutches), and their controls are clunky and unresponsive.
Luckily, the minute you gain control of NiGHTS, the stiltedness melts away. Controlling them is, well... a dream. Every movement they make is perfectly timed and contorted according to the movements you make on the controller. Not a single mistake isn't your fault, and not a single success is a happy accident. The game moves entirely according to your skill, and it feels fantastic.
The level design is wonderful, too. The game's heritage of Sonic the Hedgehog developers is clear: everything moves at a breakneck pace, having you make dizzying loops, turns, and spins as fast as you possibly can- otherwise, you lose points. The use of "Links" is genius- every maneuver you pull off, be it collecting an item, flying through a ring, or performing a trick, is combined together into a single chain, and the higher chain you get, the more points you receive. It's a blast to try and get the highest Link possible. The game is also prone to suddenly changing camera angles or play styles, such as having you suddenly being launched through the air by a cannon, swimming through an underwater tunnel, or riding on a bobsled. Though this is always surprising, it is never crippling- after the first time such a thing happens, you get the hang of it, and it's great fun.
Every level ends with a boss fight, and what great boss fights they are. They all take fantastic advantage of the game's central mechanics, and none of them make any indication as to how they're beaten- you have to figure it out for yourself. One boss has you making loops around it to defeat it; another has you pushing it through an obstacle course until you reach its endpoint; and another has you defusing bombs while evading the boss' attacks. They're all accompanied by catchy, exhilarating musical tracks.
In fact, the whole music score is wonderful. The sound staff is the same as the brilliant team behind the Japanese soundtrack to Sonic CD, and NiGHTS' music is just as catchy and lovable. It sounds otherworldly and wispy, using a lot of synthesizers and bells. The ending theme, a romantic ballad called "Dreams Dreams", is both catchy and beautiful- and it comes in two flavors: one sung by adults, and the other by children. I especially appreciate the music of the bonus mode, Christmas NiGHTS- which features classic Christmas songs like "Ode to Joy" or "Jingle Bells", rendered in the game's inimitable musical style- as well as a wonderful a cappela recording of "Dreams Dreams". The mode has an adorably earnest look to it, as well: Ideya capsules are now Christmas trees, Stars are bells, everything is covered in snow, and rings are covered with holly and mistletoe. It really gets me into the Christmas spirit... even though it's October.
Unfortunately, with all this great design and creativity, there is one thing that absolutely sinks this game: length. NiGHTS Into Dreams... is absurdly short. There are only seven levels - there seems to be eight at first , but Claris and Elliot have an identical fourth level - and this is the sort of game that has you blowing through them very quickly. There is a ranking system, which ranges from F (lowest) to A (highest), but this doesn't add as much difficulty as you'd expect, either. Unless you're really bad at fast-paced games or flying games (or both), it's extremely unlikely that you will achieve anything lower than a C on your first runthrough, and once you get the hang of it, you'll be scoring perfect A ranks on every level within a short time.
The re-release, at least, tries to up the replay value by adding leaderboards and achievements. The achievements are still very easy to get, but the leaderboards really do add a bit more fun. Trying to one-up both strangers and your friends is always lots of fun. But both these features are, of course, only included in the new version- so original Saturn players are out of luck.
NiGHTS is undeniably well worth your time. It's a watershed moment in gaming history, for sure, and it really is an utter blast to play. Just be prepared for a very short experience.