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Nights into Dreams HD is too brutally difficult to overcome nostalgia (review)

Nostalgia for gaming’s “golden days” seems to be the driving force behind many rereleases with companies like Sega taking back-catalog games, cleaning them up to match the graphical power of more modern hardware, and stoking the fires inside gamers who played the originals. While I never played Nights into Dreams on the original Sega Saturn console, I do know that many times, a nostalgic filter can be a rosy one, covering over any awkward blemishes that might only show up with closer scrutiny.

This new HD version of Nights into Dreams brings contemporary graphical performance to an updated port of the original title, which came out in 1996. You can download Nights into Dreams HD for the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3 and relive the experience with upgraded graphics, a 16:9 screen ratio, and the knowledge that gaming has changed for the better since those early days. You can make this comparison even more clearly because the original game is included along with the package.

I have to be honest and say I sincerely dislike this game. I never played the original, so I have no memory of its potential greatness. Sadly, I loathe even thinking about Nights into Dreams and relish the thought of never having to touch it again. The colors, the music, the game mechanics, and the bad camera control all conspire to make a newer-school player like myself positively angry at having to attempt the precise completion needed to reach the final levels.

WHAT YOU’LL LIKE

Nights into Dreams HD

It’s an enhanced restoration of the original game
Nostalgia is the key here, along with a tolerance for older gaming mechanics. Replaying each level is essential, as the timed nature and grading system rewards memorization and expert-like fine motor control. Precise maneuvering will allow you to collect all the glowing blue energy balls to destroy the floating bubble platforms, avoid the floating sky-crab things, and grab point-earning stars. Along the way, you can enjoy the Saturn-era music, which ranges from jazzy to atmospheric, albeit of a decidedly 1994 vintage. Sega provides a way to play the soundtrack and sound effects through a menu as well, giving interested parties a chance to really dig into the experience of a game that is, aside from the visual upgrade, a loving restoration of a well-remembered title.

The classic-era play style
If you like bettering your scores and replaying the same tracks, like in a racing game, you’ll enjoy this game. I still liked finding hidden areas along the paths. The “Soft Museum,” for example, has a bouncy-house feel to it and is visually delightful. Nights is beautiful when soaring through the air, though controlling it around obstacles is frustrating. The colors are all bright and glowing as if the developers drew them with a neon-hot piece of sidewalk chalk. The look, especially during the boss fights, which each take place within a constrained circular area, remind me of the visual style from the older rides in Disneyland theme park’s Fantasyland area like Alice in Wonderland and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Flying is fun
Soaring through the air, either as Nights (or child protagonists Claris and Elliot during the final level) is actually very enjoyable. The animation is fluid, and it really captures the essence of flight. I can better see why this game is so beloved when I consider that this title released during a time where this flight sense was like nothing else. Like Sega’s famous blue hedgehog’s connection to speed, Nights’ titular character is all about flight. I would love a level where the only objective is to fly and explore, unfettered by a timing constraint or specific objectives.

WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE

Nights into Dreams Reala

It’s too confusing at first
The game’s storyline is unclear from the start, especially if you press start as the first title screen suggests. I did so, thereby missing the story’s setup, which is only available if players wait for a bit after viewing the introductory movie. If you’re patient, though, you’ll get Claris and Elliot’s story. Both characters are dealing with personal failures in their lives, and they must make it through various nightmares (seven in all, each with four sub-mares and a boss). These movies can be viewed later through the Presents section in the menu, along with various screenshots and artwork from the game. More story elements can be found in the Help & Options menu as well, but it’s too little, too late. I would have liked to know what was going on and why I was guiding a flying jester around levels, collecting blue orbs, flying through hoops, and destroying floating platforms much sooner. It might have helped temper my frustration early on.

It’s too hard for an average player
Nights’ brutal difficulty is its ultimate failure in my opinion. Reaching all the levels requires not only completion but the performance level that might only be available to the young or the quick … or the most willing to grind their way through memorization and muscle practice. This game style isn’t as prevalent as it used to be for a reason. The bosses are particularly difficult, needing a trial-and-error approach to figure out how best to avoid their idiosyncratic dangers. The issue here is that when the several trials occur, failure doesn’t just mean trying the boss again. You must replay the four sub-levels first to face the boss again. If you don’t figure out the specific tricks needed to defeat the boss nightmares, you’re in for significantly repetitive gameplay.

I get that the nightmare tracks are supposed to be disorienting since they are set in a dream landscape, but the continual bombardment with reminders of your own failure is a bit much. While some core players will find this to be a compelling feature, I personally do not. I have many more interesting things to do with my gaming time than continue to get bad grades, then falling just short of completing the levels at a seemingly arbitrary level of expertise. Seriously, if I wanted to do that, I’d go back and get another college degree.

The controls are inconsistent
One minute, you’re flying around, looping and soaring, fully in control. Then a sky crab grabs you or you get shoved into a fly swatter on a pole, and you’re unceremoniously dumped into another control scheme. When you get hit, whether by a boss or a random creature, you fall down or spin out of control, losing precious seconds. No amount of button pushing will right your course or get you back up faster. Perhaps I’m used to having control over my avatar at all times in modern games to embrace such a loss of precision, but I seriously found myself getting more and more angry each time it happened.

Getting grades is for school, not games
Not only is every bizarre, confusing level timed and jammed with obstacles, the sequences also grade you. The story hooked me enough to play through the six main levels and the end boss, which is bad enough. It took all my self control not to hurl the controller at the screen or shut down and quit my job writing about this game. The final, seventh level? You have to complete all the previous six levels with a C grade or better. My first playthrough of the initial six lands garnered me mostly D and F grades. I completed them, just not fast enough or with enough points to get a C grade. Even if I complete all four sub-stage nightmares with that C, I’ll have to restart from the beginning of the whole area if I fail the boss portion. I’m horrified at having to take on these levels more than once, let alone several times in a row.

CONCLUSION

Nights into Dreams Christmas

I don’t want to devalue Nights into Dreams as essential gaming history. Many people will like the repetitive challenge and the racing-styled, score-based progression. Others will enjoy playing a game from their past, reliving the sights and sounds of a revered, almost mythical console, the Saturn.

As a modern adult with a job and children of my own (whom I couldn’t get to even play through more than one nightmare, even with bribes), Nights into Dreams HD isn’t for me. Whether it’s worth the $10 admission price will more be up to your individual taste — and perhaps an interest in reliving your youth — than anything else.

Score: 60/100

Nights into Dreams HD released October 2, 2012 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The publisher provided GamesBeat with an Xbox 360 download code for the purpose of this review.

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