For instance, at top speed, the only really useful application for your airbrakes (mapped to the left and right triggers) is performing tighter paraloops. But at lower speeds, they make you perform elegant pirouettes. It has no impact on the game itself, but feels sublime.
The one time these little twists and turns do affect the game is when you pick up the stunt ribbon. We named the stunt ribbon one of our 101 greatest gaming moments years ago, but I still think it's up there with the Sonic Adventure killer whale or the Psycho Mantis fight as one of gaming's most memorable moments. You get ten seconds to perform as many tricks as possible with a golden ribbon in your wake.
Above: A genuine 'wow' moment when you first see it. Stunt Ribbon FTW
It's absolutely priceless when used properly, although its effect is spoiled by a bug that lets you scrappily rub against the scenery tapping L and R, cutting tricks short but still getting the score, as seen in the last video back there.
The game is full of innovations, many of which have never been seen since. The A-Life system, where the inhabitants of the levels (Nightopians) evolve as you mate them with enemies by crashing them into each other. The soundtrack changes depending on how happy the A-Life is in the level you're in. The flowery clock in the Splash Garden level tells the actual time, as it's set in your Saturn's internal clock.
Accidentally killing a Nightopian makes the bonus fella with the star board at the end go away so you can't cash in your stars on the final mare. Again, it's the game's universe reacting to your actions and giving you tangible results that affect your score as well as your heartstrings.
Then there's the sheer technical achievement. The game uses the Saturn's 2D and 3D processors in tandem to produce fluid, yet intricately detailed game worlds at 30fps - something the advertisements at the time picked up on. The PSone only has one processor, so while it may have been a little naive to say it couldn't do 3D flight ("fly, PlayThing, fly"), PSone would genuinely have struggled to run NiGHTS due to its heavy use of the Saturn's extra 2D processor.
Some boss stages even feature true transparency effects, which the Saturn simply shouldn't be able to produce. And the old print advert that said 'Puffy the Opera Singer delivers a deadly aria only to head backwards through a wall (only in your wildest dreams)' is spot-on. It's still one of the best boss fights on any system and truly a dream moment for the 3D generation.
Even on the limited hardware, it was as though anything was possible when Puffy was bouncing around in that 3D room, brilliantly spherical and singing at you with CD quality sound. Even the music stands up to scrutiny in its own right, and fits the astonishing aesthetic perfectly.
In contrast, the Wii version's retread with the Gonbalon boss fight was typical of that game's lack of forward-thinking - always imitating the first game, but never improving on the old formula. Rubbish by comparison, yet impressive enough in isolation. It's easy to look impressive when you're standing on the shoulders of a giant.
1996 - year of Mario 64?
I don't think Sonic Team was right to bow to the pressure of Super Mario 64 and allow you to explore the levels on foot as the children. The NiGHTS 3D engine uses many small polygons with a severely short draw distance to create its scenery - fine when NiGHTS is in the air and the camera is pointing at what the designers want you to see, but on foot, when the draw distance doesn't even fill up to the edge of the screen in front of you, it frankly looks a mess.
This video is from Christmas NiGHTS where you get to play as Sonic, but it's the best example I can find of how awful the game is when you're running around it instead of flying:
That's the only time this wondrous game really shows its age and looks like... well, a Saturn game. The PS2 version is better, sure, but that version doesn't quite feel the same as the classic original. Nothing does.
I finished the original version again recently from start to finish on my Saturn, with the 3D pad - and it's still as magical as it was when I was poring over the previews in Sega Saturn Magazine, imagining what it would be like to own a Saturn and play this amazing game. Now I know it like the back of my hand, you'd think it would be boring, wouldn't you? But it isn't. And when that final scene in the theatre dissolves into Claris and Elliot standing alone on the hill in Spring Valley, I'm still utterly captivated. It's pure innocence.
Above: I don't think the 1990s were necessarily a more innocent time, but I can't imagine this being the end sequence for a game now
NiGHTS into Dreams is 15 years old now...but fresher than ever. And if ever a video could make you realise just how good NiGHTS could be on 360 or PS3, check out this HD-upscaled video of the Japanese-only PS2 version (emulated on PC).
Given to the right team, a new NiGHTS could be incredible. But until then, we'll always have the original. If you've never played it, do seek it out. As I say, it's better than Sonic.
01 Sep, 2011
Appreciation Section: Sega Rally
Officially awesome since 1995
Appreciation Section: Panzer Dragoon Zwei
One of about two good dragon games ever
Appreciation Section: Sonic The Hedgehog
Kicking off our new regular feature on Sonic's 20th birthday