NiGHTS into Dreams HD is a port of a port, an HD version of the PS2 version of the original 1996 Sega Saturn game, and even for those with the sharpest of nostalgia-tinted glasses, it’s a tough sell. As a curio, though, it’s worth checking out, as there’s nothing quite like it. The positive: The game’s seven dreams are neatly divided into appealingly short four-course sections, each of which is set to a somewhat strict two-minute timer; fail and an alarm will go off, waking you up and forcing you to walk, slowly, to the end. Then again, the reason this is so welcome is because it’s a nightmare—pun intended—to navigate through any of the courses. Beyond the fact that the game has no tutorial and doesn’t provide you with a digital copy of the original instruction manual, it takes a lot of trial and error even to figure out that you have to collect the various blue orbs strewn across each area, let alone to then do so, especially as the timer discourages free-roaming. This goes doubly for the bosses: Weak points are never obvious (and sometimes only pixels away from things that will “damage” you—i.e., take time off the clock) and life bars are absent. Failing to defeat a boss in time will end the dream, and though a hint may appear on the loading screen, you’ll have to replay the dream’s four courses to try again.
And yet, the gameplay is bizarrely fluid and enticing—even more so when you choose the original Sega Saturn version, which is windowed within the game, or the “Christmas Nights” mode, which reskins each character’s first level with jolly-red and green objects. Zone of the Enders comes to mind, though NiGHTS into Dreams is more about chaining acrobatic loops through a series of rings in the sky. (Talk about literally jumping through hoops.) Beating each course is a joke, but clearing it with a satisfactory ranking requires precision and speed; in fact, much like a racing game, you can view the map of each route before setting out—though, sadly, there’s no mini-map or in-game radar. In these circuitous courses, then, the question isn’t whether you can finish in time, but how many times you can finish, racking up bonus points for each additional orb and star you collect beyond those needed. Of course, there’s another downside: This central design revolves around essentially repeating the same laps over and over again. Appealing to NASCAR enthusiasts, perhaps, but not your average gamer.
This isn’t just a matter of NiGHTS into Dreams showing its age; it has more to do with the inconsistency of the title itself. Certain objects, like the distortion fields and rubber walls of the Soft Museum, or the tight corridors and upward climb of a rocket tower in Stick Canyon, are full of surprises and welcome challenges. Others, like the breakable blocks found in Frozen Bell and the ruins of the Mystic Forest, or the on-rails underwater sequence in Splash Garden, seem unfair and needlessly annoying to maneuver through. You can also crack open the various Nightopian and Mepian eggs found scattered through each dream and view this collection through the main menu, but it’s unclear as to what purpose, if any, this serves. Considering the lack of an intelligible story (though the primitive cut scenes are endearingly bad) and the flawed navigation, the same can be said for NiGHTS into Dreams itself: You can post your high scores to an online leaderboard, but it’s unclear as to why you’d want to.