Friday, March 29, 2013

Ignorant American Gaming: Nights into Dreams

Availability: Was originally released for the Sega Saturn in 1996. It was re-released on the Playstation 2 in 2008 exclusive to Japan but is now available with an HD face-lift on PSN, XBLA, and Steam.

Version I played: Digital download PS3 port off the PSN.

Review: Despite poor reception in the states I actually have a lot of very fond memories of the Sega Saturn. I got it not too terribly long after it launched and attribute a lot of my best gaming memories of the mid 90s to it. I played countless hours of Virtua Fighter, Sonic Jam, Panzer Dragoon, and also the game I want to touch on in this post, Nights into Dreams. The Saturn is another one of those consoles I wish I never got rid of. I do wish I still had it but if I ever want to achieve my goal of getting a complete Dreamcast collection I need to remain focused. Maybe I can use the credits I earn from making purchases on Game of Japan over time to purchase a Japanese one. That way I can get the best out of the system with the best products released on it. Gotta use the credits for something, right? Sadly I won't be reviewing the Sega Saturn version. However this isn't entirely a disappointment. What I will be reviewing is the port that I got for the PS3. One of those things that I immediately purchased without thinking after seeing it available. So this review will be part review of the game itself, and part review of the port.

One thing that is unfortunate is that the Sega Saturn was really hard to program for. This is due to the way the hardware was put together. A modern example of this is the Playstation 3. This means that there were plenty of dropped deals and games because it was too much of a hassle to port over or to program from scratch for third party developers. And when the transfer did happen sometimes the Saturn version was considered the lesser. Sadly this has transitioned to porting Saturn games over to modern consoles for re-releases. Transitioning from the Saturn is just as difficult because of the bizarre programming. Because of this Saturn fans like myself have gotten very few re-releases of Saturn games over the years. And plenty of times it is ported over from the PC version of said game because it's less of a hassle. I have a feeling if there wasn't this technical roadblock we would have more Saturn re-releases these days (like Panzer Dragoon Saga, aka one of the rarest games for the Saturn, at least the American copy). But I am glad to see they've been able to get out some of the essentials. Obviously I'll be talking about Nights. But also they've re-released Daytona USA, Virtua Fighter, Fighting Vipers, and Panzer Dragoon just to name a few. Here's hoping that one day we'll get a port of Fighters Megamix. That's my favorite fighting game of all time.

So they were able to bring over Nights. Pretty freaking awesome. This was one of the most popular games for the Saturn back in the day. It was released both on it's own and with a special controller that was designed so you could play through this game with ease instead of being rigid to the d-pad. It looked like a shitty first attempt at a Dreamcast controller but it wasn't bad for the time. Just wouldn't want to use it now. Basically the "joystick" which is more of an inverted nipple gives you the ability to free-flow around and around as you're flying through each level. Since this game scored you not only on time to complete but in how you do it. So things like flips and swirls were essential to beating the game proper. Also since it can get really fast paced it's good to know that you could fly away pretty easily if needed. In the end the game got a ton of praise and also had a special Christmas version of the game (more like DLC if you look at it in a modern perspective, it was sold on a separate disc but didn't contain all the levels). The original Saturn version is a classic and if I were to ever get a Saturn again it would easily be one of the first games I would get.
Now there is a port of it available making it much easier to pick up. The version I played as previously stated is the Playstation 3 version. Since this is a game that didn't originate on a Playstation console it isn't just a straight port. It's been reprogrammed as it's own application and has a new menu and features built in. The most noticeable addition is the option to choose between the original version of the game and a graphically updated version of the game. Being the purist that I am I went directly for the original version. I knew from the start that I wouldn't play the updated version unless I had to.

But before we get to the game let's get to the story. The story and how it plays out it both simple and vague. There is no dialogue whether spoken or written in a dialogue box. The story presented is about a boy and a girl, both with something of their own hurdles to get over. The girl Claris is having trouble building the courage to go into an audition without it completely falling apart. And the boy Elliot is having trouble being any good at Basketball against the big kids. These are communicated through dreams each of them are having that quickly turn into nightmares. This is the basic setup of the game. And while nothing is communicated to you outside of visuals the rest of the plot is left to you interpreting it. But basically what can be taken from the rest of the game is that in your dreams you take form of Nights and try and restore the dream world from the nightmare it is becoming. So essentially the cliche that it was all a dream isn't a twist or punchline in this, it's the actual story.
This is then executed through four stages for each character. All are different with the exception of one, the final level. Both Claris and Elliot play out the same last stage and fight the same final boss, but there's a reason for that and it involves them fighting together in the dream (Inception?). Otherwise every level is different and unique and every boss is also unique. However, fighting is something you actually do very little of in this game. The main objective in each level is pretty simplistic. Basically four of these diamond-like bubble things have been stolen from you and you need to get them back. They're being held in these giant contraptions that can be destroyed by collecting these blue pearl-looking items and then planting them in the contraption to get back your diamond thingy. Deliver the diamond bubble back to the start of the stage and then move onto gathering the next one. You do this four times a level and then you fight a boss. Now that I think about it saying what you do in the game sounds nowhere near as exciting as the real thing is. Watch this clip from the game to see what I'm talking about.
The game is actually very fun and exciting. One of the big thing that makes it so fun is the way your character flies around and how smooth the controls are. As I'm sure you can imagine I would only suggest playing with the joystick for this game. Using the d-pad will not be as good of an experience. Once you get going you will discover how easy and fun it is to cruise through each level. It's one of those games where you could have no idea what you're doing but it looks like it because the game handles itself just so well. Then during the boss fights, while simplistic, feels so graceful as you battle. And even though the boss fights are not hard they are still very satisfying when you finish. Seeing that boss literally explode while this peaceful music plays is just delightful. All in all it's such a wonderful experience. And an emotionally positive experience. You really can't help but smile when playing. This is because of the colorful imagery and fantastic music. Here's a link to the theme so you can hear what I mean. I don't even know how else to express how I feel about this game besides saying how much of a delight it is. And with the way I'm talking I should probably start ring shopping.

Although something I've come to notice that I didn't notice as a kid is how long it takes to complete some of these games from the past. The answer is not that long. If you tried to blaze through Nights just to see the endings it could easily be done in around an hour. This is attributed to a few factors. One is that there's only eight levels, one of which is a duplicate that you play through as each character. Another thing is that there is a time limit to each of these levels. Any level you select won't take longer than a few minutes even if you beat it by the skin of your teeth. Then the boss is another couple minutes at the longest as well. In a way it makes you wonder how a first party company could get away with such a short game and even bill it as one of their system seller games. Well, part of it is context of the time. This was released in the mid-90s before every other game had a promised 80 hours of content with another 40 hours of DLC to come out later. So it was more common to have a shorter game because the focus was more on re-playablity than releasing additional content later. Not to mention games in this era had a harder difficulty generally speaking instead of there being standout games as actually being difficult whereas many handhold through the whole game (a rant for another day). So to get the full experience from games you had to really work for it. This is why chances are some of your friends beat Sonic the Hedgehog 2 back on the Genesis but you know nobody who has gotten all seven emeralds. This is a similar thing with Nights.
Despite there being only eight levels and that it doesn't take too long to get through them it is still a challenge to get the full experience. Simply finishing the three levels for each character doesn't grant you immediate access to the final level. You actually need to get a grade of at least a C on each level before it to unlock it. Believe it or not that's harder said than done. It's not something you'll sweat over for hours but it still is tough. You'll really need to make sure you're going through each section pretty quickly while racking up a bunch of points in the process and get plenty of additional pearls. Then even when you think you've done it as well as anyone could you'll only wind up with a C rating. But whatever because that gets you another step forward. As a matter of fact the highest grade I've gotten on any of the levels was a B. And I worked my ass off for that! I can only imagine what it takes to get an A. This was and still is a fairly common thing in games developed by Sega. They have this grading system that is insanely strict on what you have to do to get a high grade. This isn't like Angry Birds rankings that are inconsistent, this is just outright difficult. I had an easier time playing through God of War III on hard than I did just trying to get an A in some of these levels.
What this challenge of needing to actually achieve something in this game to finish it off is what does provide it with some longevity with so little. Again if you're really trying it doesn't take long to get there but you will feel satisfied when you do. And that's something that this game provides that some games simply don't. Satisfaction. That's because it's quality over quantity. There isn't a lot packed in this game but it's so great in the time you're playing. It's unique, colorful, fast paced, easy to play, difficult to master, just so many great things about this game. So what that means in the end is that since it provides such a wonderful experience the first time around people wouldn't be opposed to playing through it again. It doesn't take very long so it's not a huge commitment. As usual with the modern examples this can be somewhat comparable to Portal. That game only takes a couple hours to complete. However it was wildly praised despite the length. That's because everything that needed to be there was there in one small package. And that's the thing, quality in small portions instead of bland in large portions. I know any day of the week I'd rather have a 6 pack of any New Glarus brew over a 24 pack of Busch Light despite they fact they wouldn't cost much different. It makes the re-playability of Nights into Dreams so much higher over other games. And I think that's one of the reasons I like to play it over so much. It has that appeal. It's the same reason you may play the old Sonic or Mario games so much. If you really concentrate on getting through the game it won't take that terribly long. But I can guarantee you've played through them a countless number of times. And why is that? Because they pack so much in so little that makes you want to revisit it.

Now getting to the port of the game. Easily one of the best features of the port is that the original version of the game was included. Something that's been happening since the HD age began is to do HD revamps of old games. These tend to have very mixed results, though. I know the 3D HD revamp of TMNT: Turtles in Time was not received well despite being damn near the same thing only with new visuals (I only played the demo and hated it. Something about it just felt off). But I have heard positive things about Bionic Commando: Rearmed and a few others. Now in terms of Nights into Dreams there is an option to play a visually revamped version of the game. It smooths out the graphics, adds more details, makes it much more crisp and clean. Fuck that. I want the original experience. I do understand why this was included. Graphics from this era of gaming does not age well. Come to think of it, it seems like polygon visuals don't age well at all no matter what. 2D seems timeless. But 3D? Good for about five years and then it looks stupid apparently. So if anything it was smart to include this feature for people who want something new and revamped even though it's the exact same game. But the inclusion of the original is excellent. It's even presented in it's original aspect ratio. However the rest of the screen was filled for those who don't like black bars on the left and right. Basically it's a purple border with some stars. Thankfully not a distracting image like some other ports release. As much as I like playing the original there is one part of the game that does require me to play through on the revamped graphics. And that's in a piece of bonus content.
One thing I was really happy to see included as a bonus for beating the game was Christmas Nights. This was something that was released in December of 1996. It wasn't a whole new game but rather only one level/boss from the previous game but changed to have a Christmas theme. However since the level is the first level of Claris' dream, when you play as Elliot the level is slightly altered for the change. But it's not the most noticeable. Essentially it was a little bonus for the holiday season. Also it wasn't a full price, stand alone game. It was given away in magazines and was also a bonus if you bought select Saturn games, such as Daytona USA Championship Circuit Edition. At least this is how it was in Japan. I'm not sure how far it extended in America but I do know it was available at Blockbuster. And then the UK didn't get it until Christmas 1997 a year later. Anyway, this previously exclusive disc is now available in this port. However it's only available in the revamped graphics. Something I wasn't too happy about but whatever. This is where I was able to confirm that it was simply a visual revamp. They did nothing to change the gameplay. It is still the same as I remembered it in the original game. So essentially this was a previously played stage that is now Christmas themed. I'm only bummed out that they didn't include an option to play the original version as it was released back in 1996.
In terms of other bonus content the rest is media related. A ton of different images including concept art, videos of all the cutscenes and other supplemental material, etc etc. Some pretty cool stuff I must say. Neat stuff for fans of the series. And as a matter of fact the whole thing feels like a few cards short of a full deck. But there are enough cards to make it a very satisfying package. For $10 you get everything the original game offered and more. Plenty cheaper than buying a Saturn and getting the disc version. If you were ever a fan of this game or a fan of Sega in general I highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend picking this one up. It's a great deal for a great game.

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