Last Updated on October 27, 2022
Freedom: we all want it, or at least to go on about it. In life, at work, down the biscuit aisle at your local whatever, even in games. And just like down the biscuit trail, you don’t actually always want infinite options. You just want some ginger nuts.
Of course you do.
And when playing a game, you don’t need infinite side quests in a bid to disguise the fact that there isn’t really anything going on. In 1996 that meant you didn’t want the factory-farmed illusions of Super Mario 64, you wanted Nights into Dreams and one of them wagon wheel control pads to go with it. No pretensions as to the actual full dimensions of flight but all efforts curled around the tactile joy of flying itself. Coming on like interactive Miyazaki this is the greatest game I have ever played.
But is it iconic?
Early in the nineties, when the SEGAs of Japan and America were cohabiting and congruent with one another, Sonic the Hedgehog shifted the space of gaming iconoclasm. Mario had been front and centre. That was that and there was nothing Donkey Kong could do about it for another few years. But out of the wide yonder came something alloyed from the heart of SEGA of Japan and the mind of SEGA of America. It wasn’t better than Mario but it was louder; loud with colours and loud with attitude.
Nights arrived to the bemusement of a public who did not know what this new specimen was, including SEGA of America who had not been invited to the creation at all this time around. In all ways, this would show and I am happy because of it.
SEGA Homebrew TM.
Nights into Dreams immediately seemed more curiosity than contender. For a start, it ran on the Saturn which meant that outside of Japan, the market was limited. Then journalists encountered the difficulty of how best to describe the dreamscape art style which skewed young but flickered with subtext, the gameplay in which you flew freely but were on rails, the score attack focus where the defeat of a level’s main enemy is where the level begins. Tough to pin down and in much the same way as a dream even your protagonist was odd.
Robed and crowned by SEGA to be their new mascot, Nights absolutely looked the part, sort of, but what did he represent and who was he in deadlock with? Was he even a he? Enigmas abound, which is a quality, albeit not one you would normally intend to hang your mascot on. Mario, he looked like fun. Sonic-packed attitude, but Nights? There was something of the twilight going on there. Like he might lead you into a woodland, only for you to disappear inside a fairy ring. Somehow, and at least to me, Nights appears wide-eyed for trouble and grinning while he was at it; a difficult quick sell, but absolutely on the button for a flying creature from the minds of SEGA of Japan’s Sonic Team. Just don’t go asking SEGA of America to translate what it all means.
At some point in playing this game though you stopped trying to understand what it was all about, if it was really 3-D or not, and you allowed the game to elucidate what it was. Then you were playing Nights. You knew it because you couldn’t explain it. Some of it came through that controller, and you knew they’d cribbed the idea from Nintendo.
It worked though and the controls were not tough to master. The analogue thumb for direction and all the main fascia buttons for spin speed. So it was a Sonic Team game. Of course it was, just look at the colours. Lurid pastels and high contrasts were the focus of the foreground, with Christmas tree-like effects blinking away from the edges and course-specific details like warping forest floors and beautifully patchy mist. If you could stop for a moment to take it in you would, but this was straight outta Sonic Team so the stopping never got started and you never really clocked the fidelity issues which bogged all the major machines of the time.
On this point, Mario 64 might have had better graphics than Nights but Nights looked better, especially in motion, or up until the point you were scuttling about on the ground as one of the child characters. Those occasional moments got a little closer to the fidelity than you’d like and are probably a greater misadventure of your time than an airport waiting lounge, where much like in the game you are grinding the time out until you get in the air. Let us fly.
As noted, flight direction is determined and follows one spiralling set piece after another, with you collecting enough blue orbs to take down the badnik of the course (?) before the time runs out. Once dealt with, you had the remainder of the clock to cycle the course and hoover up points by making links. Linking was the currency of the world and Nights had more link than Zelda, with almost any pirouetting action adding to them, until you were linking into the hundreds, ever reaching until you took just a half second too long to reach the next and the link was lost.
That sustained sensation was why you played and what kept you returning. Score attack was nothing new, especially to SEGA who could craft a score attack masterpiece out of an arcade gun game, and there was something very arcade-like about this; a thrill-for-five-minutes rollercoaster of turns, which could somehow widen its girth to accommodate the ever-expanding need to link and the joy of chasing that. You did not play Nights to complete it but to marvel in that chase across those bright, twilight worlds of technicolour gameplay. I am sorry that I cannot put it in more taxonomic terms but this is a game of fullness, of something already complete with or without you.
If you had had a friend in the mid-nineties with a SEGA Saturn and you told them that you had completed Nights they would have looked at you puzzled. Firstly, that you should need to point out you had finished the game, which required only marginally more effort than Ridge Racer, but secondly that you might be suggesting that you had completed the game, which was embarrassing.
But was it an icon? I think yes, at least to those who knew it and accepted Nights wasn’t on the main stasis. Instead and like a lot of the best icons, Nights into Dreams can be found upstairs in the corner beside the old kettle and above the pile of occasional chairs. If you should happen to be passing, go give it a dust and venerate.
John is a writer and gardener. He comes with various 90’s Sega attachments and is the author of The Meifod Claw and other works. His favorite tree is a copper beech and he would like his coffee black without sugar, thank you.