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Beat the Backlog: NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams

Special thanks to Wolfman for offering edits and commentary, and PushDustIn and Nirbion for moral support.  

Disclaimer: for my own convenience, I will be referring to NiGHTS as a “she” throughout this article. Check out my dissertation on NiGHTS’ character if you’re wondering why I interpret her as female.

Upon its launch in 1996, NiGHTS into Dreams… was overlooked commercially, failing to capture the success Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot garnered. Regardless, Sonic Team’s flagship title for the SEGA Saturn endured as a timeless score attack spectacle and an artistic achievement; its impact can be felt in many of the studio’s subsequent titles, from the Sonic series adopting its ranking and A-LIFE components to NiGHTS herself cameoing in many of the hedgehog’s titles.

NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams title screen

Were our dreams for a NiGHTS sequel truly fulfilled? (Image: SEGA)

Fans consistently expressed demand for a sequel, and one eventually materialized in 2007 as NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams for the Wii. Mirroring the prelude to Shadow the Hedgehog’s dumbfounding announcement, NiGHTS’ comeback was foreshadowed by a poll where SEGA asked which neglected IP they should revisit. While I was intrigued, I ultimately couldn’t convince myself to purchase Journey of Dreams. People familiar with my work are well-aware that I’m a fan of NiGHTS’ blue forebear, but Sonic Team‘s output at the time wasn’t exactly a prosperous string of high-quality titles. Conventional wisdom told me it wasn’t encouraging that Takashi Iizuka, the man who helmed Shadow, was spearheading the new NiGHTS.

A blogger later identified as former SEGA Europe employee Ben Andac contributed to my skepticism with his doleful account of Sonic Team’s morale and the circumstances concerning Journey of Dreams’ development. Allegedly, Sonic Team yearned for a reprieve from the oppressive release schedule their namesake mammal demanded. Iizuka pitched a new NiGHTS for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but SEGA’s management, lacking faith in it, later demoted Journey of Dreams to the less powerful Wii without granting adequate resources to accommodate the hardware shift. Iizuka later denied the project commenced on the HD consoles, but Andac’s blatant teasing of Sonic Unleashed certainly lends credence to his tale.

NiGHTS into Dreams... screenshot Nirbion

NiGHTS into Dreams… understands what its strengths are. (Image: SEGA)

NiGHTS into Dreams… is predominantly set along a 2D plane. Our purple friend gracefully flies through rings and collects blue orbs and golden stars, creating a chain of “Links.” Her primary maneuver is the Drill Dash, which grants her a finite speed boost. Her other technique, the Paraloop, is employed when NiGHTS circles around and closes the trail of stardust following her, creating a portal that strikes enemies or collects items. You always left NiGHTS’ graceful airborne ballet wanting one more round, as you could always improve upon your run.

NiGHTS’ marquee Saturn adventure was intricately designed around its controls and her midair maneuverability, so much so that a new Saturn controller launched alongside the game. Journey of Dreams, in contrast, offers four separate control options, with the GameCube controller proving itself as the most reliable one. As the game was programed for the Wii, the Wii Remote’s motion controls can be used to guide the jester. It’s superficially fun for casual play, but you’ll depend on a traditional controller if you care at all about deploying precise Paraloops. Sadly, regardless of your controller preference, NiGHTS herself does not move with the delicate finesse she demonstrated in her Saturn debut, rendering Journey of Dreams an objectively worse experience right out of the gate.

Thankfully, NiGHTS’ skillset is intact otherwise. A mandatory tutorial confronts you when you start either kid’s story, explaining NiGHTS’ basic actions and controls. The inclusion of a tutorial is welcomed – speaking as someone who volunteers at a retro gaming convention, I’ve seen plenty of children lack the patience to learn NiGHTS into Dreams… – but this one is repeatedly halted by the intrusive commentary of Owl, Journey of Dreams’ fuddy-duddy guide. NiGHTS’ Persona masks, which are earned by finishing the kids’ first three Dreams, are Iizuka’s attempt to mechanically advance the NiGHTS formula. They transform NiGHTS into one of three forms – dolphin, rocket, or dragon – and adjust her movement capabilities accordingly, sometimes letting you stumble upon an alternate path. I didn’t mind them and they were certainly less pesky than the Wisps in contemporary Sonic games, but I generally stuck with NiGHTS’ base form unless circumstances dictated I switch.

NiGHTS and Owl Chat With Helen in NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams

I started with Helen’s story, making this vaguely unnerving exchange one of the first things I witnessed in Journey of Dreams. (Image: SEGA)

Journey of Dreams’ six main Dreams are evenly split between its two human leads, Helen Cartwright and William Taylor. All six of the Dreams sport five missions each, the first of which is always the most enjoyable. The introductory task in each environment carries on the gameplay of the original, letting you fly as NiGHTS above colorful wonderlands and closes by pitting you against a boss. These Dreams are more sizable and less lively than their Saturn counterparts, but the same spirit is present. Octopaw’s “Link Challenges” similarly purvey classic NiGHTS gameplay, albeit simplified into an easy to meet Link quota. If Sonic Team honed these missions, Journey of Dreams would’ve been much tighter.

Sonic Team’s strength was in creating games that were short yet highly replayable, from learning optimal routes to achieving high scores. Iizuka and his crew periodically fail to understand this, often forcing questionable gameplay styles into their work. Whereas nothing here is as egregious as Sonic Unleashed‘s Werehog, the supplemental missions are poorly designed. NiGHTS habitually is forced to fly (or swim) through nettlesome scenarios like saving drowning people, disarming submerged bombs, or pushing spheres composed of water together. Most Dreams also feature a 3D platforming mission where you awkwardly stumble around as the kids, which are collectively Journey of Dream’s lowest points. NiGHTS’ fifth mission is a rematch with the Dream’s boss, none of which ramp up the difficulty per se; instead they simply take longer to defeat. Upon clearing all three of either kid’s Dreams, you unlock the final Dream, where you soar across Bellbridge and confront Wizeman. It strongly parallels the original’s Twin Seeds (so much so that Wizeman unabashedly rehashes his strategies), but it channels neither the intimacy nor sincerity. We’re not permitted to take a bold, poignant leap of faith ourselves, we listen to our leads ramble about their threadbear character development.

Reala at Bellbridge in NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams

Reala, whose presence in the game was mostly squandered, challenges you to a rematch above the city’s Big Ben analog if you’ve met certain conditions. (Image: SEGA)

Along with its other troubled aspects, Journey of Dreams falls into another pitfall characteristic of the present-day Sonic Team: cinematics. Exposition in the manual and a few cutscenes notwithstanding, NiGHTS into Dreams… understood less was more for the world and themes it was conveying. It boasted confidence in itself, foregoing overt exposition in favor of letting the audience contemplate its finer points. While there admittedly are details in its narrative I like, Journey of Dreams, conversely, seems desperate to have its wit noticed; the symbolism of Will’s and Helen’s personal Nightopias are candidly explained, leaving nothing to the imagination. A lexicon that labels series terminology, including phrases like “Dualize” and “Visitor,” further diminishes the mystical aura Nightopia once held. Cutscenes are imposed at the start of every mission, none of which are skippable or well-directed.

And the cutscenes are further marred by how Journey of Dreams isn’t nice looking. It’s graphically serviceable at times and the environmental aesthetics are pleasant, but character animations can be heinously clunky. I’ve been writing about games since 2014 and I believe I’ve grown competent at it, but seeing one of my favorite characters jerking up and down as a misshapen, anthropomorphized roller coaster car is dissatisfying in ways I’m unable to articulate.

I felt somewhat remorseful upon finishing my last “Beat the Backlog” installment, mulling over if I was too harsh on what was, by all accounts, a perfectly competent side-scroller. With the long-awaited NiGHTS sequel, however, I feel no guilt over my dreary demeanor. Thing is, even in its weakest moments, Journey of Dreams is functional, automatically placing it a tier or two above Sonic Heroes, Shadow, or that nameless anniversary game. There is legitimate fun to be found here.

Iizuka attested Sonic Team was “very happy” with Journey of Dreams, though that pride isn’t reflective of the general consensus; it received a lukewarm reception critically and from NiGHTS’ own fanbase. While I am sympathetic to the unfortunate happenings that kneecapped Sonic Team’s chance to interject some variety into their routine, it doesn’t alter the truth that Journey of Dream’s eleven-year-old predecessor is the superior product in all facets of design. NiGHTS into Dreams… has withstood the test of time, still as replayable and pure as it ever was. I have no desire to touch Journey of Dreams again.

NiGHTS in NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams' ending

Goodnight, friend. May our next meeting inspire higher spirits. (Image: SEGA)

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Cart Boy

Cart Boy wants to be the very best. Like no one ever was. He also occasionally contributes an article here when the stars align properly, and he helps out with editing and Source Gaming’s Facebook page.
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