Editor’s note: Join us over the next two weeks as we look back at the most outstanding and influential games of 1996.
1996 saw instant classics like Super Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot, and Pokemon Red and Green release and immediately become legend. While Sony’s PlayStation launched into the stratosphere and Nintendo waved farewell to the SNES, SEGA’s collapse was imminent. The Saturn, despite featuring a surprisingly decent game lineup, was buried beneath Nintendo’s reputation and PlayStation’s incredible success.
Still, in the summer of 1996, SEGA released a game that stands right next to, and holds up better than, those classics: NiGHTS Into Dreams. While not the Sonic game SEGA fans were hoping for, NiGHTS may in fact be Sonic Team’s greatest creation. The game takes place in the world of dreams, where players control Claris and Elliot as they battle their inner demons with help from NiGHTS.
The actual gameplay of NiGHTS, a high speed race through the sky to score points, is incredibly fun, but it’s not what makes this game so special. NiGHTS crosses the line between reality and fiction, bonding the player to its universe in a special way.
NiGHTS herself has a lot to do with that. The way players receive the character, like a dream, is entirely based on their own reality. NiGHTS doesn’t have a set gender, an intentional decision by Sonic Team to allow the player to interpret the character however they like. Personally, I view NiGHTS as a “she”, but “he” or “it” or whatever else you want to call NiGHTS is perfectly correct.
Much of NiGHTS’s personality is up to the player to determine as well. She may seem like a selfless hero, working with the kids to help them overcome their insecurities, but there’s far more to it than that. NiGHTS needs the children to break her free of prisons the villains trap her in. The kids merge, or dualize, with her, giving her the power to fly and live free as she wishes. In return she helps show them their inner strength. Selfish isn’t the perfect word to describe her though, as she does make sacrifices for those who dualize with her. Still, at the end of the day NiGHTS just wants to have fun flying through the sky and getting into childish mischief.
The game captures that childish feeling of freedom and adventure so well that its easy to forget you’re actually confined to a 2D plane in each level’s 3D landscape. There’s something so liberating about flying through the skies, and for players the only way to experience that freedom in the real world is through their dreams. NiGHTS Into Dreams replicates that sense of weightlessness most dreamers have experienced at one time or another, giving each race through Nightopia a surreal vibe.
Environments capture childhood whimsies brilliantly. The world of Nightopia, the lighter side of the dream world, is filled with landscapes packed with fun and adventure. The simple Spring Valley has players flying through upside down trees, zipping down a mountain side, and splashing through giant balls of water that float in the air. Add hoops to fly through and stars to collect and you’ve got a paradise of a dreamscape. Other levels have NiGHTS bobsledding through a winter wonderland, exploring a house of mirrors, and even riding a rollercoaster through a construction zone. Each world feels like an authentic dream, nonsensical but beautiful and free.
Boss battles travel to the darker part of the Dreamworld, Nightmare. There, cartoony monsters cause havoc. Gillwig, the boss of Spring Valley, has the wings of a bat, the body of a tadpole, and the tail of a dragon. Another features a possessed bouncy doll that players must push through giant rooms. Then, there’s Reala, NiGHTS’ darker sibling. If NiGHTS is the embodiment of the player’s free will, Reala represents their desire for order. Every character in the world of NiGHTS says little to nothing, but each bursts with personality and enhances the environment.
When all of these pieces come together, players truly feel like they are a part of NiGHTS’ world. You feel the joy of flying through these incredible dreamscapes as though you were truly flying through them yourself, a feeling that creates a sense of both thrill and bliss. When developing NiGHTS, Takashi Iizuka hoped to create a bond so strong that players could actually visit the character for real in their own dreams. For people who experience that, NiGHTS further transcends the video game universe she was created in and becomes as close as a character can to existing in reality.
Since her 1996 Sega Saturn debut, NiGHTS has made several cameo appearances and is playable in SEGA All-Stars games. NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams for the Nintendo Wii came out in 2008, and it’s still the only sequel to the original masterpiece. While Journey of Dreams managed to recapture most of the old school NiGHTS magic, a few really bad design choices stopped it from being the perfect comeback the series deserves.
Despite being a 1996 game with just about no dialogue and minimal cut scenes, NiGHTS still somehow manages to feel like one of the smartest and most creative games ever made. There’s so much more to the character and the world she lives in, but reading about it won’t do the experience justice. NiGHTS Into Dreams is a classic worth playing through all these years later, and in my experience is the most special game released in 1996.