Nights into Dreams HD review

Sonic Team’s Nights into Dreams was a revelation when it graced the ill-fated Sega Saturn in 1996. With a free-floating hero traipsing beautifully-rendered dreamscapes, the critically-acclaimed title became an iconic game for Sega’s console. After a modestly received Wii sequel in 2007, the original game has gotten a high-definition re-rub. Nights into Dreams HD is still a magically fun romp that’s worth diving (or floating) into.

Nights’ premise plays into the magic of dreams. Human dreams take place on two planes: Nightopia and Nightmare. The rule of Nightmare, the evil Wizeman the Wicked, wants to take over Nightopia by draining peoples’ dream energy. The game puts you into the role of two youth, Claris and Elliot. They traverse Nightopia with the help of Nights, a flying jester-like creature who helps them to subvert Wizeman’s plans.

Here’s a clip of gameplay from Nights into Dreams HD

Nights HD revamps the formula with a few basic additions, including enhanced visuals (not unlike Sega’s 2008 Japan-only PS2 release) and online leaderboards. Fortunately, the formula feels stout, 16 years later. Although the game was touted in its heyday as a revelatory 3D experience, at its core, it’s a sidescroller that shifts perspectives from level to level to evoke the sensation of floating around a dream world. And years later, it’s a fun and entertaining mechanic. You’ve likely played many other games since 1996 that have put a sinking feeling in your gut as you soar around levels, but Nights HD still has a quaint charm that’s engaging to play.

At the start of each level, the children free Nights from a chamber and you take control for a limited time. As Nights, you soar between skyward hoops to collect stars and orbs, the latter of which are used to destroy Ideya catchers. The catchers are claw-like mechanisms that serve as gatekeepers to the next section of a stage. Since you’re playing on a timer, it’s imperative to collect as many items as quickly and efficiently as possible. If time runs out, you return to controlling one of the children–which is rather clunky and awkward–until you can return to Nights’ chamber to liberate it. At the end of each stage, you’ll battle against one of Wizeman’s minions, called Nightmaren. The boss battles apply the right balance of pressure and puzzle, since your time limits are rather tight for figuring out enemy weak points and exploiting them. It’s a rather simple-minded affair–soar, collect, unlock gateways, fight boss, lather, rinse, repeat–but there’s a real allure to Sonic Team’s design that speaks to a timeless charm. It’s a game that speaks to an era of speed runs and improvement through repetition.

Take a look at this Nights into Dreams HD demo from PAX Prime 2012

Nights HD offers up a visually enhanced experience for newer consoles, as well as a 4:3 ratio Saturn original for purists. The HD version really enhances the vividness of the dream world, and the colors pop. It’s a rather handsome redux. The menus are bland–a few video vignettes and unlockable character art are pretty much what you get–but the core gameplay looks great.

Nights into Dreams HD is a great entry point for gamers who’ve read about the series over the years, but might be curious what all the fuss is about. In some regards, it comes off as a tad simplistic, but it’s easy to see where the qualities of the game lie, and why it gained such a cult following over the sixteen years. If you’ve never experienced this Sega classic, it’s a fun and imaginative romp that’s worth checking out.

This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.

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