Naka is the head of Sonic Team, one of the finest videogame studios
to emerge in the past two decades. Breaking through in 1991 with
Sonic the Hedgehog, Naka created
the first truly classic platform game to break away from the slavish
Mario mold. This spirit of creativity carried through the 16-bit
era (Sonic CD, Sonic
2, Sonic 3 & Knuckles),
up to today, with brilliant, original works like Chu Chu Rocket!,
Samba De Amigo, and Phantasy Star Online. Naka's
crowning achievement is as well-loved as any Sonic Team classic.
That game is NiGHTS: Into Dreams, and it is, without question,
among the greatest videogames ever made.
appeared on the struggling Saturn in 1996, just when Nintendo had
unveiled Super Mario 64, Eidos Interactive introduced Tomb
Raider, and Naughty Dog released Crash Bandicoot.
This was a heady, revolutionary time, as the rules and conventions
of the 3D videogame were being mapped out. Shigeru Miyamoto, of
course, would win the day with Mario, as he had so many times before,
but because NiGHTS was released on the less-successful
Saturn, Sonic Team's efforts were largely overlooked, except by
the Sega faithful and diehard gamers.
you invested the time, you would discover a game that was, in its
own quirky way, very nearly as innovative and forward-thinking as
Mario. The challenge was how to take the traditional 2D
videogame experience, and bring it into a three-dimensional world.
While Mario 64 created a whole new experience while keeping
the spirit of the old Super Mario, NiGHTS struck
a balance between the old and new, a game world that weaves between
2D and 3D.
tells the story of two children, Claris and Elliott, who have never
met, but come together in shared lucid dreaming. They encounter
an androgynous jester (who vaguely resembles Prince), who flies,
twirls, and loops around surreal fantasy worlds, featuring clock
gardens, dark forests, icy snowcaps, and
well, it doesn't really
make much sense.
level, err, "dream," begins with one of the children walking
around a fully 3D environment. When the gem they are carrying is
stolen, they run towards a gazebo, where NiGHTS awaits. You then
take control of our hero, who flies along a set 2D path that loops
and curves around the area, collecting blue spheres in a set time-limit.
Imagine Sonic blazing through loops and vaults, but without the
makes NiGHTS play so brilliantly is that the character
is always centered on the screen. This is a common convention in
2D, but it is easily lost in 3D. The worst thing Sonic Team did
in Sonic Adventure (1999) was to pan the camera away from
Sonic as he jumped the loop-de-loops. The viewer is taken out of
the action, which kills the fun; the joy of these games comes from
being flung across the screen with the hero. That roller-coaster
thrill, that old Sonic rush, NiGHTS delivers it
in spades. Add in an ever-turning camera (this is still a 3D world),
and you have a game that is as fast, possibly faster, than anything
is a masterpiece of subtlety. At first glance, you see a game that
feels more 2D than 3D. But over time, and repeated playing, the
many layers emerge. The children, for instance, can avoid the gazebo
and wander around, discovering many surprises. There are surprise
pathways; surprise bonuses hidden on the air tracks; surprises that
seem minor, but enhance the enchanted feel of the world (like leading
a car back to its garage).
greatest surprise of this game has to be the Nightopians. This feature
is so subtle that it may be overlooked for the first few hours,
but it is no throwaway. Pians are, in fact, one of the pioneering
Artificial Life experiments, which became hugely popular with Tamagotchi.
In NiGHTS, Pians are little creatures who populate the
landscape, flying about, building things, taking naps. They will
also mate and lay eggs, which can be hatched by NiGHTS or the children.
Your behavior also has an effect. Pians can be (accidentally?) killed,
or scared away, which affects the music. But kind treatment of the
Pians will have its rewards, which I will leave for you to discover.
sense of flying is wonderful. That mix of improvisation and racing
is simply unmatched. NiGHTS can perform two dozen different stunts
when flying; there are several places where this can be done for
bonus points, but most of the time, this is just an opportunity
for the players to improvise. The act of flying in this game is
not unlike abstract painting, with its swift, sweeping movements
and colorful accents.
of the Saturn's hardware difficulties, Sonic Team achieved a stunning
level of beauty in NiGHTS; confident, colorful, and bristling
with life. Everything just looks wonderful: the rush of the waterfalls,
the crunch of snowballs, the whole psychedelic craziness of it all.
This is without question the most tripped out videogame ever made.
The best example is the "Soft Museum," a dream sequence
involving a world where the ground literally bends and warps when
walked on. Sonic Team also delivers a wonderful musical score, one
that is at times epic and theatrical, but also laid-back and casual.
Everything just fits together so perfectly.
is the sort of videogame that requires one to examine everything
else in a new light. Just what kind of game is this? Is it a platformer,
like Sonic? An old-school arcade game? Is it a racing game,
a virtual pet, or an adventure? Perhaps it is a computer simulation
of an acid trip. That's probably the best explanation I could offer.