Behind The Scenes: NiGHTS Into Dreams

Yuji Naka1

Yuji Naka, and his former development studio, Sonic Team, may well be most famous for creating Sonic The Hedgehog, but over the years the veteran game designer has been responsible for so many more significant videogames than the ‘hedgehog with attitude’. You name it, Phantasy Star Online, Burning Rangers, Samba De Amigo. Naka has been responsible for a list of classics so long it could rival the work of even Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto. Of all his games however, there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest. It is still one of the most inventive and original games of all time and is dearest to the heart of almost every long-time Sega fan. We are of course referring to the wondrous NiGHTS Into Dreams.

Behind The Scenes: NiGHTS Into Dreams1996 was a landmark year for 3D platformers, with every major console playing host to a game that revolutionised the genre. N64 launched with Super Mario 64, and the multiformat Tomb Raider found its natural home on PlayStation. The Saturn, meanwhile, was bestowed with NiGHTS, a platform game so unique, so completely unconventional that it’s hard to call it a platformer at all. And while Mario and Lara leapt into the history books, NiGHTS was somehow forgotten by all but the hardcore. Those who do remember it however, know that NiGHTS was a sublime experience. Its goal – to fly a floating jester-like creature through the dreams of two children, collecting orbs and comboing ‘links’ between checkpoints – was unlike that of any other game, yet it was typical of just how different Sega was to its competitors in the mid-Nineties.

Pinpointing NiGHTS’ inspiration is not easy. Though its speed and motion vaguely recall the fluid movements of Sonic, there really isn’t a game like it, so it’s unsurprising that Naka found inspiration from outside the television screen. “NiGHTS has been inspired by various titles and characters,” he says, “I personally think that it was inspired by my very favourite, Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère”. A brief look at the Las Vegas stage show, in which graceful masquerade characters bounce and soar through a dream-like landscape filled with mesmerising patterns that shift with the action, certainly throws up a few similarities. The visual likeness between performance and game shows exactly where NiGHTS’ fluid movements originated, but how did Naka intend to transfer those movements into the hands of the player?

Of course, NiGHTS could function normally with a standard Saturn control pad, but the ease with which the main character could glide through the air, diving, looping and pirouetting at will, was at odds with the controller’s stubborn digital D-pad. A custom controller, specifically designed for the acrobatic needs of NiGHTS was just what Sonic Team needed. “The analogue pad was a must-have item in terms of having the players experience the great feeling of flying in the air. Also, this might be a secret but the first person who touched the trial version of the analogue pad was actually Steven Spielberg. When he visited Sega, I did a presentation of NiGHTS, and that is when he touched the pad,” recalls Naka with some pride for the innovative controller that launched alongside the game just 12 days after Super Mario 64 debuted with its own specially designed controller. The impact of Nintendo’s pad quickly resonated throughout the industry with other companies soon redesigning their own pads to match. In some ways this was a shame as the limelight could so easily have shone on Sega’s controller had release schedules been different.

As with Nintendo’s own landmark, Sega’s controller brought the player closer to the game, involving them in the action as no other had done before. It was a feeling that Sonic Team had persevered long and hard to achieve. “Expressing the feeling of flying in the air and the creation of a totally new system was very challenging and required trial and error,” says Naka. “The intention was to have the players feel synchronised and reflect itself to the playing character. This is the reason why we tested quite a lot of different patterns. I remember having to narrow them down.”