On this very day, July 5, 2016, NiGHTS into Dreams… turns 20. Twenty! I can hardly believe it has been that long since the rebellious jester first flew into our dreams. There have been so many big anniversaries for video games this year but this one is near and dear to my heart. After all, I have ceaselessly gushed about its brilliance and reveled in the acquisition of a statue of NiGHTS that sits on my nighttable (or should I say, NiGHTStable?). 😉
This, however, leaves me in a quandary. If I’ve already spoken about NiGHTS into Dreams… and the First4Figures statue I have, what else can I talk about on this special day? Well, I suppose there is one other thing, leering at me from my bookshelf, and no, I’m not talking about the ill-fated Archie comics adaptation, hilarious though that might be. No, I speak of the sequel/remake/reboot known as NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams.
The thing to know about JOD (and I don’t mean judgment of divorce, oh ho ho, because lawyer humor is hilarious) is that this was something everyone both wanted and also did not specifically want. To clarify, people had clamored for years to see a new NiGHTS game. In fact, it took eleven years. NiGHTS was the flagship title of the Sega Saturn, but that was rather like being the captain of the Hindenberg. In those eleven years, two generations of video game consoles had passed and Sega had exited the console market. It was a very different world than when Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, two of the three brilliant minds behind Sonic the Hedgehog, first released their Jungian magnum opus. In 1996, Naka and Ohshima had decided to experiment with an idea Naka had since around the time of the release of Sonic 2 back in 1992. Remember, while they were putting together something legendary, a bunch of Americans were struggling to churn out the star-crossed Sonic X-Treme in time for Christmas, and their appropriation of Naka’s code for the NiGHTS boss engine was met lukewarmly (actually, he threatened to quit because nobody asked him for the code). So on the one hand, NiGHTS might be partially to blame for the Saturn never reaching the soaring heights of its 16-bit predecessor because it caused the planned Sonic X-Treme never to see the light of day. On the other hand, NiGHTS is such a good game that it can be forgiven for a tenuous causation like that. After that, though, silence. Nothing happened for NiGHTS for over a decade.
Now to be fair, NiGHTS itself popped up in a bunch of places, like in one of the Casinopolis stages of Sonic Adventure and on Radical Highway in Sonic Adventure 2, but these homages were…quaint, let us say. The reason I say this is that Naka reportedly said in 2000 he had zero interest in making another NiGHTS, comparable to the way Steven Spielberg would never do E.T. again. I’m pretty sure Spielberg would be happy to avoid talking about E.T. to video gamers, but that is a separate issue. The point is that Naka said this before NiGHTS had its face appear in Sonic Adventure 2, so either he did not care what anyone else thought or the developers of SA2 did not get the memo.
Speaking of whom, the SA2 development team was Sonic Team USA, headed by Takashi Iizuka. I have had a low opinion of his imagination, as he is responsible for such blights as Shadow the Hedgehog and the game of the same name. Indeed, I hold him accountable for a large part of the Sonic series’s painful decline from Sonic Adventure 2 until Sonic Unleashed. Sonic Team USA developed four games before being reintegrated into Sega’s corporate structure: Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic Heroes, Shadow the Hedgehog, and NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams. Considering the pedigree of Sonic Team USA’s other three productions, one can imagine how receptive I was to the news that these guys were about to take hold of the most inspirational video game character I have ever seen. Still, I remember being excited about this when the news finally hit in mid-2007 that a new NiGHTS was forthcoming. All that had ever been said after 1996 was a brief concept of something called Air NiGHTS and then a title called Christmas NiGHTS, what would today be considered an expansion pack to the original game. Fans had waited 11 years for this. Surely it would be good no matter what, right?
By 2003, Naka had come around to perceiving NiGHTS as a license rather than a standalone work of art. Chatter amped up in 2006 when unfounded rumors emerged that Naka’s decision to quit Sega and found his own game production company meant he was going to work on a NiGHTS sequel (coincidentally, this would mark the second time that NiGHTS could be associated with dealing a critical blow to a Sonic game, as Naka’s departure adversely affected production of Sonic 2006). After Sega announced the new game, then known as NiGHTS: Bedtime Story, the hype was real. NiGHTS appeared on the cover “Official Nintendo Magazine” and fans went gaga for it. Several podcasts anticipating the game’s release were recorded by DiGi Valentine and Trippy of Nightsintodreams.com, the Internet’s premier fansite for NiGHTS since 2001. Even then, though, red flags appeared that the game was either being rushed, content was being cut, or both. No matter what was happening behind the scenes, NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams landed just in time for Christmas 2007 in Japan and the Americas, with the PAL region receiving it a month later.
On the surface, JOD was what we fans had wanted: a new NiGHTS game. I was so excited, I bought the game before I even had a Wii! Conversely, the game was very quirky for a number of reasons. For one, being on the Wii inherently meant the game had motion controls shoehorned in, which were unnecessary. They were not dreadful, but they did little to enhance the gameplay. Another matter was that the story was a retread of the original game’s; two children with issues concerning their parents escape to their dreams where NiGHTS is leading a rebellion against Wizeman the Wicked. Since technology had improved in 11 years, there was more opportunity to develop the story in cutscenes, and this meant characters talking. The voice acting was not terrible, and indeed the voice actor for Reala oozed an odious charm in his performance, but the child actors were…not the greatest. Speaking of Reala, his role in the game was enhanced, acting as Wizeman’s irritable puppet and taunting older brother of sorts to NiGHTS. However, unlike the wild paralooping fight with him like at the end of the first game, Reala squares off with NiGHTS as the penultimate boss in JOD and the two hurl balls at each other. I’m dead serious. Coupled with an excessive focus on the children characters, including two escort-platforming missions, this game seemed not to grasp fully what was the appeal of the first game. Then again, this is Takashi Iizuka we’re talking about, who was responsible for a hackneyed fan-fiction script in Sonic Adventure 2. Plus, there was just a creepy vibe to the dialogue, as if it were written by someone who could not be allowed in the same room as children (e.g., Reala says to the boy dreamer, “Oh how I’ve waited for this moment! The opportunity to get you all alone, dear visitor! Now, how exactly should I go about getting what I want? Hmm?”) and the weird, trenchant stare of the father of one of the dreamer characters.
That face. YOU HAVE SEEN IT. YOU CAN’T UNSEE IT.
On the other hand, this game had an excellent score, provided by Tomoko Sasaki, Naofumi Hataya, and Fumie Kumatani, all veteran composers for Sonic games who had also scored the first game. The “Sweet Snow” version of the signature theme, “Dreams, Dreams” was performed by Jasmine Ann Allen, who was the voice actress for the girl dreamer in the original game 11 years prior (absolutely guaranteed tear-jerker performance). There are also exceptional violin performances of Sonatines for Two Violins at the end of the girl dreamer’s story, the charming Sky Concert iteration of “Dreams, Dreams” that the player has to play with vocal accompaniment by the Nightopians, and the powerful revival theme “Cruisin’ Together” for the ultimate in feel good music. If sentimentality is not your thing, you can always rock out to the discordant boss themes, my favorites being the updated, jazzier “NiGHTS and Reala” and “Queen Bella’s Ball.” Hands down, the soundtrack hit every note just right for this game and easily was the most polished part of the final product. The game was also faithful to the tone of the original, knowing how to hit you squarely in the feels with a story about love, courage, and hope. In fact, in writing this, I find it flummoxing that NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams could perfectly recreate the magical, dreamy atmosphere of its predecessor in every way but in actual gameplay (then again, Takashi Iizuka directed this game and was lead game designer, but did not write the scenario, so there’s that). Truly, NiGHTS was and always should be a game about passion and emotion, and on that front JOD did not fail to deliver. Still, a video game has to be judged on how well it plays, and for that reason, reception was mixed. In 2010, Iizuka said he was open to making a third NiGHTS game. My impulse is to run screaming for the hills, but since it has been six years since he said that and already nine years since Journey of Dreams, it sadly does not appear that a third NiGHTS is forthcoming anytime soon.
In taking a refreshed look at Journey of Dreams, I find that it was not nearly the shameful cash-in I thought it was nearly a decade ago. In fact, I played JOD before the original, and while I will always hold up the original as the superior product, I do acknowledge that JOD did present the fantasy and the whimsy of Nightopia with no less gusto than the original. The spirit and wonder really make me feel like I am flying, and that is so uplifting when contrasted with the grit and grimness of contemporary AAA video games. As an ardent fan of NiGHTS, I found it was a dream come true to see its return after so many years. JOD also arguably brought NiGHTS back into the video gamers’ consciousness from being merely a cult classic on that one video game system nobody bought, paving the way for the original to be released on Steam. Journey of Dreams is a sentimental love letter to the original game, and though it surprises me to say this, it is a game that deserves a second look. NiGHTS lives on in all of our dreams, so crank up the Wii you fought tooth and nail to steal out of an elderly woman’s hands at Christmas ten years ago, pop in your JOD disc, and know that I want to see you standing there because you’re the one I’ve waited for.