It didn’t have the humor of Crash, and it couldn’t touch the innovation or duration of Mario 64. Yet, to say Nights was just two hours of collecting orbs and racing through levels is like saying Rez was nothing more than a shooter or Shadow of the Colossus was just a boss gauntlet. Through ethereal bursts of acrobatic finesse and aerial insanity, Sonic Team reached a plateau few other developers have dared to climb; their game wasn’t something you played, it was something you experienced. If videogames had souls, Nights‘ was as pure as gold.
Since then, Sonic Team’s work has gone from promising endeavors to unpolished disasters. Burning Rangers and Chu Chu Rocket were fine post-Nights efforts, but then Sonic Adventure started a tail spin from which they have yet to recover. That’s actually putting it nicely; it would be more appropriate to say they repeatedly set their autopilot to self destruct and eviscerate themselves further into oblivion with each new title. I actually purchased and played completely through both Sonic Heroes and Shadow the Hedgehog, and each left a stain as the worst game I played that particular year. Now, once again in the shadow of Mario, Nights has finally made a triumphant return as NiGHTS:Journey of Dreams on Nintendo’s Wii. Is it another nightmare from Sega, or does it reach for the stars of its predecessor?
The original Nights wasn’t exactly an easy game to pick up and play; your first try usually resulted in spending as much time skimming the ground as it did flying through rings. Thankfully Journey of Dreams alleviates this problem from the get go. After selecting Will or Helen the first thing you do is receive an overly basic tutorial from your new best friend, a talking owl. Mr. Owl winds up holding your hand (often unnecessarily) throughout the entire game, but at least he initially makes it clear how to play. For those still not in the know, the basic concept behind Nights is this: You’re a purple jester flying on a two dimensional plane in a three dimensional world. Your flight path is kept on rails and, though your goals change, the overlying concept is to complete a course in as little time as possible.
Yes, time still is the key. If you boil it down to its core, Nights is more of a racing game than a platformer. The original gameplay, which consisted of you scouring a course for a set number of blue orbs, has received a minor facelift. This time around, you’re charged with the task of catching up to giant birds and stealing their key. Speed isn’t everything, as the best way to close in on these birds is to mock their flight route. Enemies, called Nightmaren, and other obstacles try to hamper your pace of the bird’s tail, but your drill dash (which also doubles as a speed boost) can make quick work of any adversary. Once you reclaim the key, a new part of the course opens and the process is repeated. After three courses, it’s off to fight the level’s boss.
After a trial run at the end of a chase stage, the bosses later receive their own mission to close out a world. While most of the normal levels are by no means meager, the bosses in Journey of Dreams are some of the most wildly imaginative and formidable foes in gaming this year. I’m serious, the exclusive landscape of Nights‘ gameplay easily lends itself to unique encounters, but Sonic Team has gone the extra mile and crafted an arsenal of foes that are truly epic. Donobalon, while paying homage to Puffy, is one of the most insanely challenging adversaries of this generation; trying to hurl his massive visage through obstacle littered vertical corridors is a task I’ve never before done in a videogame. Another, Chamelan, hides behind a screen filling curtain, which needs to be hacked away with paraloops to reveal his location. Girania’s massive size and scale is entrancing almost to the point of distraction, and the method behind his destruction is equally mesmerizing. Some others aren’t quite as avant-garde, but are still light years ahead of the cookie cutter crap populating regular platformer/action games.