In 1996, Microsoft had nothing resembling a games console, Nintendo was still using cartridges, and SEGA was getting its butt kicked by upstart Sony and its PlayStation console. Needing a 3-D title that would show its Saturn console could compete, SEGA's Sonic Team produced NiGHTS into dreams…. This concept platform game allowed players to fly smoothly through levels with previously unseen fluidity. It even came bundled with an analog controller, since the traditional digital d-pad didn't do it justice. While it didn't save the console, it did capture the hearts of many gamers.
About four and a half years ago, SEGA's China studio ported NiGHTS to the PlayStation 2. That version of the game was Japanese exclusive, but it now forms the basis for the current-generation remake. Rather than port the original Saturn game to the Xbox 360, SEGA opted to bring over the PS2 version. This was likely done for technical reasons, given the architecture differences between the Saturn and current-generation consoles, but in doing so, some of the magic was lost. Specifically, the buttery smooth control is no more.
More than any other game, NiGHTS was built around the Saturn analog controller. It could function in digital mode and was playable, but it didn't really shine until you plugged in the analog controller. With a full 360 degrees of movement, racing through a level was akin to a finely honed ballet. A small nudge of the controller is all that was needed to adjust your path, and performing loops was as simple as making a circle with your thumb. Unfortunately, the port appears to be stuck firmly in digital mode.
The Xbox 360 version of NiGHTS allows you to use the analog stick, but the game doesn't appear to treat it as an analog control. Instead, it seems to be recognizing the analog stick as an eight-way joystick. As a result, movement has a subtle jerkiness to it. Small adjustments can sometimes result in major movements on screen, and loops are often more like ovals than circles.
To ensure the effect wasn't simply one of rose-colored glasses, we hooked up the Saturn and fired up an original copy of NiGHTS. Doing an A/B test between the two was night and day. Although the Saturn version was lower resolution, on-screen movement was noticeably smoother when in analog mode. Playing on the Xbox 360 was like playing the Saturn version with a digital controller. It's not quite the same game.
Aside from the control limitations, most of the original game content appears to be here. The CGI movies are presented in a higher resolution than the original, and the sound is intact. All seven worlds are here, with three unique to Claris and three specific to Elliot. The final world is shared between the two. You must master the first three levels of each character before the final world is made available.
Because NiGHTS comes from an era before games were heavy on story, fighting the bosses is going to be something of a blank slate if you're a new player. Unlike modern games, NiGHTS doesn't tell you what you're supposed to do. Instead, it just throws you into the fray and expects you to figure it out. If you fail, the game displays a tip on how to defeat the boss, but it doesn't just let you try again. Dying during a boss fight means restarting a world from the very beginning.
Once you have discovered the optimal path through a level, as well as the most efficient way to fight each boss nightmare, NiGHTS becomes a score attack game. Mastering a level is all about hitting targets consecutively in order to build up a large score. Defeating a boss as quickly as possible grants you a score multiplier, which serves as a final bonus. Leaderboard integration makes it easy to see how your skills stack up to others.
Oddly, the new version of NiGHTS doesn't appear to have the two-player versus mode that was present in the Saturn version. Instead, it has some of the limited-edition Christmas NiGHTS content.
Christmas NiGHTS is well known among Saturn fans as a demo disc that is more collectible than the original game. Produced as a special edition and then given away as a magazine cover mount, Christmas NiGHTS included a single world from the full game. During most of the year, it played like a typical demo, but during the Christmas holiday, the game would automatically change to a corresponding theme. Graphics, music, characters — everything got a makeover.
The main Christmas NiGHTS demo level is available as an unlockable here, though the Sonic variant appears to be missing in action. The Saturn version allowed you to play through the demo level as SEGA's famous blue hedgehog. It also reskinned one of the bosses to look like Sonic's traditional nemesis, Doctor Robotnik.
In the end, the XBLA port of NiGHTS is basically a poor man's version of the original. While it's technically the same game, the lack of proper analog control makes the HD version a historical curiosity rather than a must-play experience. If you have the means, track down a Saturn copy along with the analog controller. You'll be glad you did.
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