Sonic Team's main man at the time, Yuji Naka, wanted this to be a momentous occasion, and it truly is. He wanted people to say "NiGHTS is here! He can fly!" And, thanks to the Saturn Analog Controller, flying as NiGHTS felt like nothing else on Saturn or any other console. The circular directional input allows NiGHTS to arc through the skies and even to join up the trail of stars in his wake, creating a paraloop that sucks anything within it into a powerful vortex, killing enemies and collecting pick-ups.
It's at this point that everything - the plot, the game world and the controller - come together to produce some of the finest videogame mechanics ever seen. The larger the loop, the greater the vortex it creates, even sucking in blue chips and enemies from outside its confines if it's big enough.
Above: NiGHTS bursts away from a paraloop. Notice there are about 200 sprites on the screen
Some enemies 'snip' your trail of stars to stop you completing paraloops, dropping your 'link'. Oh goodness, now I have to try and explain everything, don't I? OK then, briefly:
Each level consists of four 'mares', which are looped like a track through the 3D environments. NiGHTS is stuck to these tracks, meaning the game looks 3D, but it's actually played like a 2D game for the most part, a bit like Ecco the Dolphin, only faster, more spectacular and with a sense of joyous, airy freedom as opposed to claustrophobia and suffocation.
Above: Look - Ecco's trying to talk to NiGHTS. Probably asking for some chips to go with his fish
Ah yes, chips. Your initial task in each Mare is to collect 20 blue chips (little round collectibles) and deposit them in the 'ideya capture', which is where your ideya are being held. Once retrieved, you carry the ideya round the rest of the level back to where you found NiGHTS. Place the ideya on NiGHTS' podium by flying through it and then move onto the next level. Four of those and you're whisked away to fight a boss where, depending how quickly you defeat it, you can multiply your score for all of the above by up to 2x.
The bosses are some of the most imaginative and spectacular in gaming. From the frog-like winged beast Gillwing to the evil Wizeman (who brings a whole new meaning to the term 'hand/eye co-ordination' as he literally has eyes in his hands), each one has a weakness that can be exploited in mega-quick time if you're good enough.
For instance, Gillwing's head can be grabbed by NiGHTS and then thrown from his segmented body, a new head regrowing with each segment until he's all gone. But if you're good enough, you can paraloop the last part of his tail, killing him in one go. It's very difficult, but makes you look the absolute business when you get it right.
This is one of the last AAA quality games ever to place huge importance on score, but it does so with a superlative combo system. When you collect a chip or a star, you get one second to collect another. If you do, your score multiplier increases slightly. Drop the 'link' and it gets reset. Therefore, your aim is to collect as much as possible without ever going a full second of doing nothing. That makes every single second a challenge - if you want it to be.
Above: A link of two - so join up your trail of stars and you'll have a link of 5. Simple!
And the level design is set up to reward precision and route-planning. Yuji Naka's sublime character movement (I always maintain it's his greatest trademark) allows for amazingly precise control over your character. If you find a cluster of chips, you can collect one at the top, swing back round under and up, collecting those on the periphery as you go, before boosting off towards the next cluster. The paraloop you create around the chips in the middle sucks them towards you as you fly off, keeping your link going as they reach you, and bridging the gap between clusters. No games right now are doing anything like that.
Want to see the scoring system taken to its logical extreme? Watch this guy:
Sometimes I wish I didn't have that competitive OCD that makes me want to get a new hi-score every time I load it up (although I don't think I'll be beating the above any time soon). Because there's a completely different yet equally satisfying experience to be had from just taking it slow.
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