NiGHTS Into Dreams / Sega / PC
Under the reigns of Isao Okawa and Hayao Nakayama, Sega was the most experimental of the major game companies. After getting beat to the punch by Nintendo in the 8-bit era, they always made sure they were the first ones into the next console generations: 16-bit with the Genesis, 32-bit with the 32X (and then later the Saturn), CD-ROMs on consoles with the Sega CD, and 64-bit with the Dreamcast. They also weren't afraid to take chances on wild ideas with their games, sometimes even dumping huge amounts of money into them and making them flagship titles.
Of course, a few too many failed gambles of this nature eventually drove them out of the hardware business. The Saturn in general was one of these failures -- a perfectly fine system, but almost totally unmarketed outside of Japan, released at a weird time in favor of the dismally unpopular 32X, and for whatever reason struggled to attract quality third-party development.
NiGHTS is hardly the reason why the system failed, but it's a suitable poster child for both the Saturn and Sega's business decisions in this period in general. Instead of using a blockbuster new Sonic title to promote the system, Sega decided to make this its big-budget flagship mascot game instead. And it's all kinds of strange. It's got a strange androgyenous main character in a jester hat and purple tights. And the gameplay is vaguely reminiscent of Sonic (since a lot of the same team worked on it), but has all these weird little quirks that you can't fully grasp just through play and have to read the manual to understand. It turns out to be an arcade-style "time attack" game, which was extremely niche at the time and not the sort of thing you saw headlining a console's lineup.
The setup is that two teenagers are having White/Wealthy Asian Country People Problems at school and somehow this leads to them entering a dream world in their sleep where they bond with NiGHTS and set off on a journey to defeat some sort of evil dream world overlord. Which in turn will give them the confidence to be A+ #1 in class or whatever.
Each level starts you out as one of the kids, and you get mugged for your hopes and dreams by tropical fish. Then you have to go to the NiGHTS Station and turn into NiGHTS, who flies through repeating level segments called "loops" trying to collect 20 blue orbs and then crash into a Metroid-looking floating fortress to recover one of the sparkly balls you got mugged for. Once that's done you can complete the loop and move on to the next one. There's four loops in total, and after completing them all you move onto a boss battle.
The trouble is, the game explains absolutely none of this to you, and none of it is all that intuitive either, so unless you have a manual you're in for some initial frustration. Experimentation quickly reveals that the key to moving on is to get blue balls and take it out on the cyber-Metroid, but there's also rings and stars and little chirpy guys and all sorts of other shit that it turns out are just for bonus points and that you're actually supposed to mostly ignore until you've got all the balls. NiGHTS only gets so much time per loop to smash the flying Metroid, and if you run out you turn back into the kid who can only run around the level and jump, and have to finish the loop that way instead. The kid can walk up any terrain, but movement with them is slow, and there's this asshole alarm clock that will follow you around and Game Over your ass if it hits you with its tractor beam, plus seemingly arbitrary bits of the background will just punt you half a mile out of nowhere for walking into them sometimes.
And that's before you even get to the boss battles, which are visually impressive but even more arbitrary. Most are basically "puzzle bosses" in which there's some non-intuitive way to defeat them. For example, the first bosses of both the boy and girls route are most effectively beaten by flying up and grabbing them, which you'd initially think would just damage you. Later ones are even worse, playing constant keep-away and making you use the environment in some odd way with the quasi-3D making it even harder to line yourself up or even tell what's going on sometimes. And if you can't figure out a boss within the time limit, tough nuts, you have to play the whole stupid preceding stage again to give it another crack.
Is this good? Did I win? What's happening?
It's also one of those obnoxious Japanese games that is constantly grading you on everything. You get a letter grade for your performance in each loop of the level, plus one for how fast you defeat the boss, and these are averaged for an overall level grade. Unfortunately, you can't just ignore them, because you need a "C" or better on each level to unlock the final level and complete the game, not to mention some of the fun bonus stuff in the PC version like Christmas NiGHTS.
If you have the patience to stick with the game, you eventually learn that what you're supposed to do is memorize the locations of the blue balls, grab 20 as fast as possible, hit the robo-Metroid to go into "bonus time", then fly through the rings and collect the stars in sequence as fast as possible to pump up your letter grade. The trouble is, even when you know what to do, the game is *demanding as fuck* about giving any grade higher than a D. Getting a C on each loop demands near-perfection, let alone anything higher.
Your enjoyment of NiGHTS will depend on how much the colorful charm and nice Redbook Audio soundtrack outweigh the game's arbitrary bullshit, constant shoving of insulting letter grades in your face and repetitive-by-design nature for you personally. I couldn't be stuffed to even unlock the final level, which is a shame for a game I'd been looking forward to playing for over a decade. I get the feeling the game was trading on its graphics being amazing for the time and the novelty of having a main character flying freely through very large levels; neither of these qualities has aged well.
Some notes specific to the PC port: this is a port of the Japanese PS2 re-release that also appeared on the Xbox 360, with no real difference other than slightly sharpened graphics. You can switch back to playing the game in Sega Saturn graphics at any time, but it doesn't really affect the gameplay.
* Gameplay Video