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In defense of Nights...
by Christian Nutt on 10/03/12 06:54:00 pm   Editor Blog   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Last night I downloaded Sonic Team’s Nights from PlayStation Network and began to play it. During the day I’d heard rumblings on Twitter that suggested people don’t think the game stacks up to its reputation -- that it hasn’t aged well, that it was overrated to begin with.

This is a bunch of horseshit.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t able to actually bring myself to read, for example, the Polygon review of Nights, because the subhead -- “Sega shows a loved classic plenty of respect in this remaster, but Nights doesn't stand the test of time” -- told me everything I cared to know about it. I quickly realized didn’t want to hear about why. I wanted to experience it for myself.

So I downloaded the brand-spanking new, HD port of Nights on PlayStation 3, curious to see if this was true. I’d loved the game in 1996, but things have changed a lot since then -- or so I thought, anyway. In some ways they sure have, but playing Nights reminded me that in many important ways, they have not.


I remember getting this in the mail in 1996.

I can barely describe my feelings when I first booted up the game. It was a tsunami. I was awash in nostalgia while dreading the idea that the critics might be right, and just plain tired and stressed from work and life.

A couple of hours later, I liked Nights better than I did at the time, and for what I would call more salient reasons.

To love Nights, you really have to understand its design. I was about to write that “you can say that about any game” but these days, that’s not actually true. So many of today’s games are designed to be experiences that people progress through once, and that’s the end. Understanding a game is something only its most hardcore fans can be expected to even consider.

Developers talk of signposting things for players, making things easier for them. In Nights, you can’t access the game’s final level until you get at least a C ranking on the rest of them -- something that’s not going to happen until you begin to understand the game.

At the time, people scratched their heads at the game because it wasn’t a linear platformer -- because that’s what they expected from Sonic Team, the creators of the Sonic franchise (which, back then, had only ever been presented in 2D.) If anything, I think things are even worse now, because Nights is in a real no man’s land of game design. While platformers don’t have the currency they once did, today’s mainstream games are either tightly controlled and linear or total sandboxes.

Nights is a game about risk and reward: trying to score as many points as possible by learning the best routes through its stages and using every possible second of its constantly ticking timer to your advantage. It’s a very lean, very clever design, and also an inventive one. It takes key ideas from Sonic -- speed, maneuverability, collection -- and amps them up, stripping away the rest (so much so that it’s, at first blush, confusing.)

It’s a game that grades you based on your performance, as I mentioned. If you’re not into the idea of getting better at a game that you’re playing -- practicing and improving -- well, you’re not going to be into Nights. But that’s your problem, not Nights’.

Not every game is, or should be, an endless parade of new content, and Nights only shares its secrets with you if you can figure out how to find them. Nights is a game about flow -- getting into the groove, learning to play the game, learning to get better at the game, and not wanting to do anything else.

I had to tear myself away from the controller to go to bed.

 
Nights also stands out simply because of how joyful it is. It's purely a game about wonder, excitement, and feeling good: beautiful dreams of flying. Aesthetically, it's unified around this, from the visuals to the music. The game also constantly tries to surprise the player, with clever and amusing ideas -- rings you can only see in a mirror, for example -- sprinkled through the levels to add pique.

Watch this video.  

This game came from an era when we weren’t spoiled by the capabilities of our consoles, and developers did the best they could with what they had. So while I’m no longer amazed by the realtime environmental deformation in the Soft Museum level nor dismayed by the faked transparencies in Splash Garden, I’m still astounded at what a cohesive, evocative aesthetic package this game offers. Last night, I felt better after playing Nights than I did before playing Nights.

In fact, Nights is unique, in the true sense of the word. You hear that word a lot these days -- usually paired with an adverb, such as “very unique” or “somewhat unique”. This usually means something is very slightly inventive.

Those constructions water down the word’s primary meaning: the only one of its kind. And there is no other game like Nights. I also don’t like what they imply about creativity. There is no other game that feels like Nights, looks and sounds like Nights, or plays like Nights. For that reason alone, I think it deserves recognition and respect -- in the age of clones and endless riffs on whatever’s working this year.

If you can’t play and enjoy Nights, well, I’m sorry for you. Because it’s a taut and beautiful game -- not a flawless one, of course, but one that goes for a design you can’t find in any other game and does it extraordinarily well. It’s part of video games’ canon, and should be thought of that way, not as a quirky old game that just doesn’t make sense anymore. Its design is as solid as it was in 1996, and it still has things to teach us if we just keep our minds open.


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Comments


Peter Karimeddini
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Thank you for the great article. I won't deny that certain aspects of my favorite game of all time haven't aged well, but I agree that the experience is still intact. I do find it funny how reviewers tend to completely ignore the fact that they're reviewing a retro game just because it has been graphically updated. It seems as if they expect it to have modern game design. In many ways, the "exploratory" or experiential aspect of NiGHTS is its greatest strength, but leaving the player to figure out such things by himself is generally frowned upon nowadays (and Nights will even give you a tip if you fail a level/boss).

And that's not even going into how NiGHTS is still the only game I've ever seen that truly emulates the freedom of flight.

Jake Shapiro
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Great piece. The very shallow, basic look of the game has always turned me off. But now I think I'll have to try it.

Bryson Whiteman
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Whenever I think of this game, I remember being sold on it by the NiGHTS issue of Gamefan. New Saturn game from the creators of Sonic and all the colorful screenshots. No question about it! :)

Even though I loved it well before I even played it... I actually enjoyed playing it! I swear my thumb grew at least a few mm thicker because of the calluses I developed while playing, even with the analog pad. I rushed through it my first time playing but at some point I started to really understand that the game was all about replaying and perfecting your playthrough. It's kinda like how I learned later on in Gran Turismo that there's an ideal path through every stage. A lot of the fun is mastering that.

The art and the music are cohesive. I don't think that's saying much, but I don't have a better way of explaining how well everything blends together. Creative environments, chill soundtrack. Can't go wrong with that.

The biggest problem I had with NiGHTS was that it was so friggin short. Which was pretty much the case with Sega on Saturn, with all the arcade ports. I wished there was more, but at the same time I'm glad they didn't dilute what was there.

What I loved about NiGHTS back then was that there was nothing else like it. That's what Sega was about to me. And I guess even till today, there's nothing really like it.

I've played some early stages on an emulator recently, but I'm looking forward to checking out the new remake!

Great write-up Christian!!!

Mike Griffin
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Hey Bryson -- I was actually writing in-house at Gamefan when the NiGHTS issue came out.
That makes me feel very old!
Almost everyone in the office loved it, though.

What people forget, probably because history isn't kind to the Saturn, is that at the time this was a very Sega vs. Nintendo / NiGHTS vs. Mario 64 scenario -- with Mario 64 releasing in June and then NiGHTS in July ('96).

It was a real point of contention to compare the two games in press. Nintendo's champion vs. Sega's bid for a new mascot/franchise.

Anyway, I adore NiGHTS. It was my game of the year that year, and one of the games of my life. I play it every year.

We obsessed over it at the time, scouring the latest Famitsu for Time Attack tips and best times, attempting to shatter Japanese records. But it wasn't just the super tight level design and racing elements. It was also the amazingly coherent presentation, from colors and tones, to models and sprites, and that joyous, ever-changing music.

The music pseudo-streamed on Saturn, incidentally. Pretty impressive for the time: Streaming in a new music mix, different stems added procedurally, as you modified the A-Life behavior while in a given stage.

Hardcore fans no doubt remember how disappointing the original NiGHTS OST release was, featuring oddly sterile mastered versions of the tunes using different instruments, not the source material's hybrid chip tunes pumped out of the Saturn's outstanding -- but memory limited -- Yamaha sound chip, via Cybersound instruments and MIDI.

A proper OST would finally appear some time later featuring the original game tracks -- including some superb 8 to 9 minute tracks which include a back-to-back mix of each stage's various A-Life altered music. Awesome.

Back in the day all the editors would sit around NiGHTS and Mario 64, dazzled by Mario's transformation to full 3D, but just as hypnotized by the unique spectacle of NiGHTS -- also quite the technical wonder at the time, considering the Saturn's well-known polygonal weaknesses.

A real beauty of a game, and one of the last honest-to-goodness Sonic Team games from an era when Sonic Team was still actually Sonic Team: Sega's 16-bit conquerors and lead console studio, Yuji Naka's hand-picked elite, taking a pause from Sonic to try something completely new on Saturn.

Something that will never be duplicated.

Christian Nutt
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Wow, what a great comment, Mike. I avoided talking about the context of the original release because it didn't add to my argument, but I certainly thought about it, a lot. People are still carrying the "it's not as good as Mario 64" torch, all this time later. It's apples and oranges. And hearing about the Gamefan offices' reaction like this is really cool, and validates the strength of the design.

Alan Rimkeit
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This sounds a lot like playing all versions of Wipeout. Every race has an optimal path and the only way to master them is repeated hours of game time. Not everyone wants to play the same level or race over and over again. I love that kind of thing! I never played the original game back in the day except for maybe on a kiosk at Toys R Us. Great write up! It really made me want to play Nights. Now I will have to get this game off of the PSN.

ray G
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Dont expect the speed of Wipe out, but great fluid control. It really feels like you are ice skating in the sky which feels better then it sounds :P

Jeremy Alessi
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I think you just sold me on a PSN purchase tonight!

ray G
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Just keep in mind, its rhythm and flow...

Greg Wondra
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Nights is one of my all-time favorites......for all the reasons mentioned here

Hasan Almaci
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I had an indie game store when Nights launched, sold a ton of em by playing the game for weeks and showing people what it was instead of what it wasnt(the comparisons with Mario 64)

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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I only got to try this briefly at release, and was confounded by I. I think I may give it another shot.

Alan Williamson
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It really is one of the best games ever made. The Polygon review read like it was from an alternate universe.

Todd Ciolek
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It's very easy to feel sorry for NiGHTS. In its own time it was ignored because it wasn't Sonic, and now it's lambasted (mostly) because it's not in tune with modern trends.

That said, I think NiGHTS falls short in two areas. For one, the level design is never all that compelling. It's a good showcase for the flying mechanics, but nothing about the stage layouts really pushes you to go back and replay them. I certainly don't remember any part of NiGHTS as well as I do, say, the jettison tubes of Sonic 2 or the girder-tightrope walk of Burning Rangers.

Secondly, NiGHTS never finds the personality it so obviously wants. It's an appealing game, but that appeal comes from the controls, the colors, and most of the music. The actual characters and setting are banal and forgettable--Nights and the two kids look like they were transplanted from some dreadful public-TV children's cartoon. Compared to a genuinely charming game like Monster World IV (also available on PSN and Xbox Live!), NiGHTS is empty. Sure is fun, though.

ray G
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Unorthodox! in symphony. One of the most innovative games of all times. Anyone could have
seen the next plat-former coming out and more then likely knew what they were in for when it came to 3D
but with Naka's strong sense of design and innovative know how, Sonic Team shot out a great,
well thought-out
design that no one saw coming. Nights is a great GRADE A example
of what Sonic Team is about and how it separates itself
from other developers through their great understanding of rhythm and flow! that is a design concept Naka has always had
a nak for. The concept of analytical pacing is a newer one, the concept of "rhythm and flow" is an even more missed element of design most struggle with, and many don't have any clue of.

Sega could have easily re-hashed Sonic again and chances are if it would have been in 2D it would have been a monster on the Saturn, but they didn't. Sonic team at this point really started incubating their design culture and with lasting results.

The control: very responsive mechanics, but its not just about response, it has to feel right even now. It still feels really solid and fluid. Going towards a projected path feels at it should and still holds to this day. I played games like Warhawk
back when they came out and was blown away with the control. Now that control feels very sluggish and washed. Nights still moves and responds well.

Pacing and rhythm: These guys set the bench mark with Sonic and did it again with Nights.

Game Design: Everyone saw Sonic and Mario and knew what to sorta expect from these two in that era. No one would have ever thought to make something like this, very original. Might even say they pioneered a hybrid of 2d/3d game play along with control and cohesive camera shifting when it goes to back view.

Presentation: Inspired by Cirque du Soleil with a the fine Japanese touch. Has spawned many psychedelic jokes. I guess you can say that's a very good thing. The sound track and sound design still hold up so well.


In the end, a lot of the time "a good game" is subjective, but hands down the only crowds I know hail this game are many of the hardcore and even great developers, that says a lot.


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