While I greatly enjoyed Outlast, it’s the kind of game that looks out of place amongst the topics we discuss here at Source Gaming, don’t you think? SEGA’s properties, however, fit in swimmingly, and there’s one I’ve been meaning to cover. And what better day to cover it than on its twenty-second anniversary?
Sonic Team’s most famous creation continues to run amok, headlining software that fluctuates in quality. But once upon a time, Sonic Team was known for a more diverse pool of franchises, many of which were of the same caliber as their mascot in his heyday. One in particular is heralded as one of SEGA’s masterpieces, a game that housed an imaginative hero unlike any other.
Yuji Naka and Sonic Team began their flight-themed game in 1994, following the release of Sonic & Knuckles. Six months were spent brainstorming concepts, with formal development of their new IP starting in April 1995. While an early concept for NiGHTS’ homeworld revolved around a rainbow as to not overlap with Sonic’s aesthetic, the idea evolved out of Naka’s desire to create a dimension people could plausibly enter themselves. As video games are indubitably fictional, a unique approach would need to be taken to achieve that. Thus, Sonic Team fitted NiGHTS with its dream motif.
In order to construct their new realm, Nightopia, Sonic Team researched the studies of Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Holtz, and Carl Gustav Jung. Jung’s dream archetypes were one source of inspiration, with NiGHTS’ character stemming from his “Shadow” archetype. Character designer Naoto Ohshima, meanwhile, aimed to devise a graceful, more emotive lead “similar to an angel” who could be seen as a foil to their anthropomorphic mammal. Sonic Team also observed the toy industry, a business that suggested purple is an unpopular color among children. Ohshima nevertheless optimistically noted that kids were responding favorably to NiGHTS’ violet veneer.
NiGHTS is officially classified as genderless. However, Sonic Team sought to make the character relatable and limn “everyone’s dreams.” In Takashi Iizuka’s words, the “impressions of the character with regards to gender are totally up to the player,” meaning however you want to interpret NiGHTS – male, female, both, or neither – is perfectly valid. While NiGHTS did emit an occasional high-pitched grunt when injured, the character was effectively presented as gender-neutral throughout the game. With that said, I’ll henceforth refer to NiGHTS with feminine pronouns.
The titular jester in NiGHTS into Dreams… is a Nightmaren, sinister entities built by Wizeman the Wicked to do his bidding. Along with her sibling Reala, NiGHTS is one of the two top-ranking Nightmaren. Wizeman sought to collect Ideya – five color-coded orbs composed of dream energy – in his transdimensional conquest, finally locating two kids who held the precious red-hued Ideya varieties. However, Wizeman blessed both of his first-class servants with free will, neglecting to account for the possibility that NiGHTS would disagree with his scheme. Wizeman reciprocated by imprisoning her in an Ideya Palace, but NiGHTS realized she could escape by merging with her new friends, Elliot Edwards and Claris Sinclair. The trio is ultimately victorious in their battle against the demonic oppressors, inspiring the kids to find their inner courage and an unbreakable bond in each other. NiGHTS, meanwhile, was freed, now able to fly wherever she wanted unfettered.
Wanting to provide potential buyers a taste of their flagship Saturn game, Sonic Team followed up on NiGHTS into Dreams… by releasing Christmas NiGHTS, a bonus-filled demo that was distributed in now-defunct magazines or with the Saturn itself depending on the territory. Twin Seeds, the metropolis Elliot and Clair reside in, was unusually cold this winter, with the populace distracted from the holiday. Even the city’s makeshift Christmas tree, the redecorated tower in the plaza center, was missing its star. That night, a ressurgant Gillwing was discovered to have absconded with the decoration. NiGHTS, donning a festive outfit, teamed up with the teenagers to reclaim it and restore Christmas spirit. In addition to Christmas NiGHTS, Archie Comics was commissioned for a NiGHTS into Dreams… comic book (and NiGHTS later reemerged for the 2015 “Worlds Unite” crossover between Archie’s Sonic and Mega Man publications), whereas Japan scored two one-off mangas as well as a storybook that elaborated on NiGHTS’ time with Reala and Elliot.
While NiGHTS was one of the “best-selling titles” for its system, it nonetheless failed to achieve mainstream success. A sequel was worked on in some capacity, but was quietly cancelled. Nevertheless, Sonic Team affectionately made homages to NiGHTS in several of their subsequent projects, ultimately giving her more appearances in the Sonic series than in her own. One of the more significant cameos includes Sonic Adventure (and its many re-releases), where the jester can be found dancing in a segment of Casinopolis’s NiGHTS-themed pinball machine. 2003’s Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg featured guests from other Sonic Team titles among its roster of helpers, NiGHTS accounted for. Furthermore, Billy Hatcher’s unlockable “NiGHTS Score Attack” minigame gave me my first opportunity to play as the anomalous acrobat.
Sonic Team, however, desired to properly return to NiGHTS, with Takashi Iizuka reverring it as “one of the most important properties” in their stable. He began plotting NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams in 2005 shortly after the launch of Shadow the Hedgehog, a recent pedigree that did not encourage confidence. Since Ohshima had long departed from SEGA, Kazuyuki Hoshino was tasked with redesigning NiGHTS. And as the cast regrettably became much chattier out of a misguided desire to deepen the gameplay, Julissa Aguirre assumed the role of the androgynous demon. Once again, Wizeman was searching for Ideya while NiGHTS met and befriended two younguns, William Taylor and Helen Cartwright. As with the previous escapade, NiGHTS and her friends were triumphant, letting the human duo resume their lives having grown during their time with NiGHTS while the enigmatic aerialist freely loomed over the peaceful city of Bellbridge.
Along with receiving imperfect re-releases of her Saturn debut, NiGHTS continues to live on through cameos. 2012’s Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is her most recent playable appearance, having previously performed flag-waving duties in its predecessor. SUMO Digital’s Steve Lycett explained she re-joined the roster due to fan demand and Transformed’s namesake gimmick lending itself well to NiGHTS’ abilities. As for Sonic Team’s own software, NiGHTS’ latest allusions occurred via a NiGHTS-themed DLC pack for Sonic Lost World and an Avatar costume in last year’s Sonic Forces. Iizuka, harboring unwavering passion for the character, promises she’ll continue to grace Sonic games. Who knows, maybe someday he will get to make a third NiGHTS.
So, what’re my thoughts on NiGHTS?
Sonic Adventure was my first exposure to NiGHTS, and what little of her lucid world was sampled therein intrigued me. I later grew to deeply appreciate the whimsical soul, admitting her into my list of industry-defining heroes.
NiGHTS’ design is fantastic, bearing a fashion sense that emitted a quaint, inviting aura. Her jester attire was strikingly novel; it gave her an immediately recognizable silhouette, and it synergized well with NiGHTS’ jovial, independent personality and freeform, flight-based gameplay. And when compared to her fellow Nightmaren, NiGHTS’ (former) place in their hierarchy is easy to ascertain given her humanoid figure. I can, however, speculate as to why she never caught on like her blue forebear did; Sonic’s image blended cartoon stalwarts like Felix the Cat with a dose of 90s attitude, establishing himself as the anti-Mario and providing SEGA exactly the kind of mascot they needed. NiGHTS, per Sonic Team’s intentions, is more mellow and nuanced. When compounded with her unorthodox, purple garb, all of the qualities I value in NiGHTS were probably off-putting to most.
And that’s a shame, since NiGHTS’ more minimalistic approach was one of its defining strengths. A core tenant of NiGHTS is how you can project your own experiences and identity into the character, and the more subtle storytelling utilized by her debut game facilitated this wonderfully. There was enough present in NiGHTS’ idle animations alone to showcase her personality, but some of the character’s finer details – such as her gender or how she’s arguably using naive kids – are up to the player to contemplate.
NiGHTS into Dreams… blurred the boundaries between the fantastical events on your screen and those in your dreams. Conversely, Journey of Dreams’ militant insistence on enriching NiGHTS with a narrative was wholly counterintuitive, preventing the immersion the original allowed and, in my experience, undoing it. Prior to playing the milquetoast continuation, I construed NiGHTS as a male. I don’t lament reinterpreting NiGHTS’ gender, Aguirre’s performance simply overrode my initial adjudgment as her voice is clearly that of a woman’s. SEGA and Sonic Team haven’t been a sterling beacon of consistency regarding NiGHTS’ gender, however; dialog in Journey of Dreams designates NiGHTS as a male, and Sonic Riders addresses her as both genders.
11 years have passed since NiGHTS last enjoyed the spotlight, yet our flamboyant purple friend is not stuck in limbo. Whether it’s thanks to the quality of her marquee Saturn title or her numerous guest spots, NiGHTS is still soaring and having fun. And NiGHTS, as the dream ambassador that she is, may even visit us during our dreams, ensuring she’ll be loved forever.
Congratulations, NiGHTS! In a dream I can see you’re not far away.
Yes, NiGHTS did indeed visit me in my own dreams. I guess I can say I’ve met two gaming celebrities now? Anyway, we’ve been expanding to a lot of unexplored franchises so far this year in my little column, NiGHTS being the latest. Next time, however, we’re going to revisit a series, one well-equipped to help us make new friends.
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