Sega may have struggled to recapture its glorious past in recent years, but it's been doing a marvellous job of restoring it. Reissues and glistening revisits of Jet Set Radio, Daytona and Sonic prove that while its contemporary output lacks the sky-blue spark of old, that back catalogue's never looked better.
Now it's the turn of NiGHTS, the first of Sonic Team's mid-'90s purple patch that saw them take a brief and fruitful respite from their hedgehog overlord. Released in the immediate aftermath of Super Mario 64's 3D revolution and just prior to Lara Croft's first adventure, NiGHTS Into Dreams was the developer at its most daring, creative, and eccentric; 16 years on, the first thing that strikes you is that NiGHTS is an incredibly odd game.
Equal parts racing game and platformer - as well as a precursor to the extreme sports genre that Tony Hawk's would go on to define some three years later - this is that rare, brilliant thing: a video game that's truly and utterly unique. You play as two children, Claris and Elliot, who are whisked away into the colourful and surreal world of Nightopia where they join forces with the lithe, androgynous Nights. Levels, of which there are seven, are made up of loops you can break out of once you collect 20 blue orbs, deposit them in a capture point and then cross the finish line. There are four loops to the levels, each one taking the player on a slightly different path through the world.
There's nothing quite like it, which sadly means that NiGHTS is still destined to be misunderstood by many. Its case isn't helped by a complete refusal to explain its own strange ways, and playing NiGHTS for the first time is an exercise in confusion. It's also, however, beholden to a brand of delicate enigma that's largely been lost in contemporary games. NiGHTS is unashamedly peculiar, and it's up to you to decipher the waking dream of its play.
"This is a game about flying, about the giddy thrill of perpetual motion and the sticky challenge of maintaining it."
It becomes clear soon enough that, in essence, this is a game about flying, about the giddy thrill of perpetual motion and the sticky challenge of maintaining it. Levels start off on foot, and it's there you'll be banished should you fall foul of the ticking clock - which is NiGHTS' real arch-enemy. There's a pointedly overstated contrast between clumsily strolling around and taking to the air. When you do head up into the blue, NiGHTS truly soars.
Capturing the blue orbs provides a slight thread to an ethereal experience; spinning hoops, innocuous enemies and yellow gateways form a well-defined racing line that allows you to build up links and chains that send the score rocketing alongside you.
It's often said that the Sonic games are, at heart, racing games, which is of course nonsense. They're games about running, jumping and hitting things, albeit all done with a characterful burst of speed. You can claim that NiGHTs is a racing game with a much straighter face, though - this really is about keeping momentum, finding the right entry and exit points and learning how to exploit the boundaries of the space you've been given.
Viewed through the prism of a racing game, NiGHTS has exquisite handling. If Sonic's an F1 car and Mario's a flawlessly engineered family sedan, then NiGHTS is a sprightly sports car, perfectly responsive and always able to usher you gently towards your own personal limits.
"NiGHTS isn't a racing game, and nor is it a platformer. It is something else entirely, and its distinctiveness is something to be celebrated."
But NiGHTS isn't a racing game, and nor is it a platformer. It is something else entirely, and its distinctiveness is something to be celebrated. Sega's done that well enough with this HD repackaging, though it's not quite as assured as previous remasters. It's certainly exhaustive - there are galleries of artwork to flick through, interviews to ponder and the touchingly festive Christmas NiGHTS is also bundled in - but the core game loses a little in translation.
'Brand New Dreams', as it's excitedly referred to in the menu, isn't particularly new, instead being an HD upscaling of the 2008 PS2 remake that never found its way out of Japan. It's a faithful remake that fleshes out some of the character models and smooths out some of the textures, but it's not without some odd decisions of its own; in the process of getting the game to fill out a 16:9 screen there appears to be an inverse cut and shut, whereby the action is claustrophobically zoomed in.
The Saturn original is also an option in the HD package, though again, something's been lost. It's not just in the sharp edges and garish hues that occur whenever a standard definition game is torn away from a CRT TV - the Saturn emulation seems ham-fisted, missing some of the characterful byproducts of the artful hacking Sonic Team undertook to get NiGHTS running on a notoriously awkward piece of hardware.
A little fidelity's been lost in the control, too - though that's probably to be expected given that the original boasted a controller that was pretty much bespoke. Thankfully none of that's enough to dim NiGHTS' sparkle. 16 years on, it's apparent that this is a little more than a cult favourite for the Saturn. Get reacquainted and it's easy to convince yourself that perhaps NiGHTS is Sonic Team's real masterpiece.