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Christmas NiGHTS Sampler

Genre:  Action Developer:  Sonic Team Publisher:  Sega Players: 1 Released:  1996

Christmas NiGHTS  is often called a “demo” of NiGHTS into Dreams. I always consider that inaccurate, even though the U.S. disc and sleeve call it a “sampler,” and it would seem to have the full title, “Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams… Sampler.” Instead, Christmas NiGHTS would better be called a bonus game or a bonus package. Released some four months after original NiGHTS, there were different release dates depending on region. It’s clear though, that the original NiGHTS was meant to be a summer blockbuster, followed by Christmas NiGHTS bringing attention to the Saturn and its games during the following winter season. That timeline makes it easy to dismiss Christmas NiGHTS as an advertising gimmick for the holiday season of 1996, meant to push more sales of the Saturn and original NiGHTS, which had already been out for nearly half a year. The U.S. especially got poor impressions of Christmas NiGHTS, because it was bundled with magazines as a free demo disc… just like those worthless America Online discs that used to come bundled with magazines and junk mail! Despite such impressions, it would be a mistake to dismiss Christmas NiGHTS as just an advertising gimmick, because it’s so much more than that.

At first glance, Christmas NiGHTS only offers one stage, but there’s a lot more to discover! The game stage is called Spring Valley, but it’s not the same stage from original NiGHTS because the layout is different, so there is legitimately new gameplay. (The name is the same because it’s built from the original stage.) We can choose to play as Claris or Elliot, and the layout is mirrored opposite for each of them. In effect, the two different layouts make two different stages. The graphics and music also have two main versions of New Spring Valley, for both warm weather months and for winter months. The lay-out doesn’t change, only the graphics and music, but I’d say that these two themes also count as creating new stages because the gameplay experience is completely different. So, with both mirrored layouts, and both warm and cold versions of each, we already have, in effect, four different stages. The warm weather version features the same graphics and music from the original NiGHTS, while the winter variant is where the graphics really shine, with a thick blanket of snow and Christmas lights glowing and blinking in the snow.

When we start, full-motion (FMV) video cut scenes explain the plot in a sketchy storybook style, which is colorful and pretty. A female voice softly explains that the two children are strolling through the city together, enjoying the holiday decorations, and there is every suggestion that they are two unrelated kids with a loving romance. (So we should just assume that these are not the same kids from original NiGHTS, who seemed to be siblings, or we can just consider them as universal representations of two kids.) The narrator explains that as they enjoy their night together, they feel that the giant Christmas tree in the middle of town needs a giant star on top to make the holiday as happy as possible. It’s a bit vague and dreamy, which fits for a NiGHTS game because the gameplay represents dreaming, and it clearly serves as a loving little story for the plot. Underneath it all, the core gameplay is the same as original NiGHTS, so this is a continuation of that gameplay with new stages, themes, and features.

Despite its title, Christmas NiGHTS is only specifically themed on Christmas during the real-life holiday season. If the Saturn has a working save-battery, Christmas NiGHTS uses the internal clock and calendar to match its theme with the time of year in real life. So, it’s an ongoing dream simulation that can be picked up and revisited anytime we want to, and the dream just might be different, each time we visit. Christmas NiGHTS acknowledges certain different dates throughout the year, but its name does make sense because the Christmas theme is the most beautiful theme. Specifically, the Christmas season is celebrated through the month of December, leading up to Christmas day. Unfortunately, December brings a couple of new songs which are gimmicky and not quite to my tastes. The title screen has an instrumental version of “Joy to the World,” and gameplay has an instrumental remix of “Jingle Bells.” With NiGHTS known for amazing music, these are my least favorite two songs (but I should probably stop being such a grinch, and just enjoy the holiday spirit!). Christmas Day has the fun gimmick of Santa Claus flying around the stage, with his sleigh and reindeer. Thankfully, the rest of the year, the soundtrack is amazing. Before and after that theme in December, New Spring Valley has the same snow and Christmas lights all winter but with music that is unique, beautiful, and relaxing. In-game, we can see that the title changes depending on the time of year. The winter theme with beautiful music before and after the holiday season is called NiGHTS into Dreams… Limited Edition, which is the title for most of the year. NiGHTS: Limited Edition includes both warm and cold seasons with the same title but with the picture changing on the title screen to reflect the warm or cold weather.

The overall best gameplay experience then is to be found in the winter version of NiGHTS: Limited Edition because it has the winter/holiday theme, plus the best music. Actual Christmas NiGHTS will probably be avoided mostly, because of the looping Christmas songs, although they’re okay for a short time, and it might be fun at a Christmas party or something like that. Also, there are a couple of benefits that are only in Christmas NiGHTS mode, so even though I don’t love its music, this mode is still worth revisiting occasionally. NiGHTS himself looks best in this mode, with a cool red outfit, and this is the only time that the pine trees become shining Christmas trees. Otherwise, winter months have plain pine trees, and NiGHTS has his normal outfit, though we still have the rest of the Christmas lights and decorations.

New Year’s Eve does not seem acknowledged, but it actually is because midnight switches to the celebration of New Year’s Day, which brings a new title A Happy New Year NiGHTS into Dreams and a new title theme song. I can’t quite put my finger on what classical song it’s a remix of, but it sounds cheerful and fitting for New Year’s and the theme continues for the next ten days. The gameplay is unchanged from normal winter gameplay except that it’s the only time that we see the kids wearing formal outfits, with Elliot rocking a dress-shirt and slacks, and Claris wearing a headband, a formal skirt, and big yellow boots. Normally, the kids wear full-body pajamas and slippers for cold weather, unless the game is specifically in Christmas NiGHTS mode, and then their outfits are red and white to resemble Santa Claus, apparently. In warm months, they wear the same clothes as in the original NiGHTS.

In winter mode, beating both stages brings us another FMV in the same storybook sketchy style, showing that the kids succeeded in finding a star for the giant tree. Just when you’re wondering how that happened, the narrator reveals that the whole story was all a dream. It’s a vague and simple story, but it is very cute and touching. The FMV ends with both kids holding hands, and then embracing while gazing at the Christmas tree, and Claris rests her head on Elliot’s shoulder.  After each ending, at every time of year, the credits roll, with a slow chorus-version of “Dreams, Dreams.”

As for acknowledging other dates throughout the year, April Fool’s Day has NiGHTS switched with his arch-enemy Reala (from original NiGHTS), which doesn’t change gameplay, beyond the visual prank. It’s a small change, but I appreciate that the game acknowledges this odd holiday, and it’s another nice bit of content shared from original NiGHTS. Halloween doesn’t get acknowledged, exactly, but the end of Halloween night does mark the game shifting from warm theme to the winter theme, just because it changes on November first. So, it seems like Halloween marks the game’s shift to winter, and it’s quite a dramatic change if we are playing on Halloween night, so that we plunge into winter at the stroke of midnight. It won’t change while we’re in a stage, but the next screens and stages will suddenly be full of Christmas decorations and music. Valentine’s Day doesn’t seem acknowledged, unfortunately. I was hoping it would have hearts and candy falling from the sky, or something like that. However, we can deliberately make the snow turn into hearts, or candy, on any day!  It depends on setting the Saturn’s clock to certain exact times of day. For example, if we want to see hearts falling from the sky, all we have to do is play the game at exactly midnight — on Valentine’s Day, or any other day. We can make it rain candy by playing at exactly 3:00 pm. I won’t list every single time that brings special precipitation, but I’ll post a link for that info, at segaretro.org. I’ll just mention that we can also make the snow turn into crescent moons, 3D purple gems, sparkles, or stars.

Additionally, there are certain times of day that will change the background imagery. Click my link above to see what times trigger the background to show the sun, the moon, a rainbow, or the Northern Lights! The sky, however, is always sunny and bright during warm months and always dark during winter months. Even if we have a shining sun during winter, it’s in the same dark sky. The sky and snow will also change on their own, throughout the day, beyond the changes mentioned, and it’s mysterious exactly why it happens. There would seem to be more factors affecting it, beyond the clock hitting certain times. For instance, the stars will sometimes become extra huge, bright stars, and it’s anyone’s guess why. Also, glowing lines of light sometimes appear, connecting the stars into a sky full of glowing constellations.

Bonus items are unlocked by playing the game, including another unique mode of gameplay, which brings a new title: Sonic the Hedgehog into Dreams. This feature lets us play as Sonic in free-roaming 3D, in Claris’ current version of New Spring Valley. Sonic’s appearance here happens to be his very first in real 3D, as this came out before his other appearances on Saturn. Given that, he’s a bit rough around the edges, including his low-poly character model, and his spastic running animations. He isn’t really super-fast, but he is faster than the kids. More than speed, his defining feature is jumping really high and far, over large parts of the stage in a single bound. It’s a fun way to roam around New Spring Valley, and although we can also wander around as the kids, the experience is completely different as Sonic, with the camera flying up and down wildly for each jump. His moves are limited to running and jumping, so there’s no rolling on the ground. Sonic has the same objectives as the other characters: collecting chips and blowing up the floating capsules, then returning to the pavilion to finish each of four courses for the stage. I’ve beaten the stage, but I haven’t managed to get any good scores in Sonic into Dreams, probably because I’m always leaping all over the place too much to really collect things efficiently. Along his speed and high-jumping, Sonic brings the major gameplay enhancement of having no timer chasing him. Unlike the kids, who are forever being chased by that floating timer, Sonic can relax in his gameplay. He can even stand in one spot as a nice way to listen to the music, as long as we want to (with Sonic tapping his foot). Playing as Sonic is also the only way to unlock a different boss, because NiGHTS always fights against Gillwing, but Sonic will instead fight against Dr. Robotnik (who is really just Puffy, redressed as Robotnik). It’s a very fun boss fight, and the graphics look great as Sonic runs and jumps through a limited 2D plane, through the 3D scenery. Both Gillwing and Robotnik have a warm version and a winter version, which has Robotnik dressed-up like Santa Claus.

Bonus items also include two more small stages/gameplay modes with unique layouts, however, these are very limited gameplay modes, each with a very small course that gets repeated many times. The one that I can’t get into is Time Attack that has us collecting every single item in a small course as fast as we can. It sounds promising, but in practice we just rush around the same short course over and over with the result of either getting a new record time displayed or not (nothing happens). There’s also the outcome of not getting every item, so we get an error message. I gave this mode an honest try, but it seems too meaningless and boring.

In contrast, I did get into Link Attack, which means that we just have to keep collecting items continuously to keep the “Link” going (the link of continuous item collection). This can be quite fun because there’s no requirement of getting every item, nor is there any time-based requirement. The only goal is speeding from one item to the next fast enough for the same link to keep going. I spent a few days’ free time with this mode, and my best record was getting up to nearly 500 links, which means that I kept it going for maybe three or four minutes. Unfortunately, I could never quite get the gameplay down, as I remained vulnerable to spontaneously losing my link during gameplay, as I rushed from one item to another. If there is a secret to mastering this mode, I haven’t found it yet. Link Attack really seems to push us to the edge of our physical abilities, with the smallest imperfect movement breaking our link. It’s especially challenging that I find my hands cramping and fatiguing and my left thumb getting a blister the more time I spend gripping the 3D controller in Link Attack. Eventually, I had to let it go, at least until my body recovered a bit!

Those are all the different types of gameplay. Counting Claris’ and Elliot’s mirror-versions of Spring Valley as two different stages and counting those as having two versions each (for warm and cold months), that’s four unique stages plus Sonic into Dreams is a fifth mode of unique gameplay. Moreover, there are those two different boss fights, plus Time Attack and Link Attack. Put it all together and this “demo” doesn’t seem very small at all!

Beyond the gameplay, bonus items offer more content. The whole bonus section is called “Presents,” and during the Christmas season the name changes to “Christmas Presents.” This section is the larger one and includes Sonic into Dreams, Link Attack, and Time Attack. Most of the presents are image galleries, and these are actually great, especially for 1996, which was just before the internet became widespread. All the image galleries are called the same thing, “NiGHTS Museum,” and most show full-screen images of different characters and creatures in the NiGHTS’ universe. There’s also a gallery, “NiGHTS Goods” that shows real-life merchandise that has probably not been for sale since the late 90’s. For example, there’s a NiGHTS clock that looks very cool. There are also 32-bit, pixelated photos of NiGHTS-printed hats, T-shirts, a pillowcase, stuffed dolls, etc. Two presents, “Movie 1” and “Movie 2,” are FMV’s that we can watch anytime we want to, which again, was especially cool in 1996. Both FMV’s are ads for NiGHTS, with slightly low-quality video that makes them stand out. One unique present that may not get much use is a Karaoke version of “Dreams, Dreams.” Lyrics are stamped over gameplay footage of New Spring Valley (with the proper theme of cold or warm, according to the time of year). It could be fun at a party a few times.

The most exciting Present is probably the “Melody Box,” which lets us play the music from New Spring Valley according to our current version of the stage. Plus, we can play the songs from all six main stages of original NiGHTS according to our current version of those stages in our save files! The Melody Box shows the overall happiness levels of our Nightopians for each of the seven stages that the songs are from. The Nightopians’ numbers and happiness levels, are the factors that change the music, and happiness levels are represented with sort of an abstract grid of colored blocks and Nightopian faces, placed within rows of musical notation. There’s a decorative logo of the Melody Box, and colored lights move around the edges of the screen. The Melody Box also lets us customize the Nightopians who are influencing each song, and this is just awesome. To illustrate, we can peg all the Nightopians to be happy to hear the happiest version of a song, or we can make them all angry to hear the angry version of a song. Most gratuitous of all, we can then enter the gameplay of New Spring Valley with any version of any song from the Melody Box. We can, for instance, fly past the Christmas lights in New Spring Valley but with the music from an angry Mystic Forest or the music from a happy Soft Museum.

A separate present removed from the Melody Box is called the “Nightopian Collection” where we can look more precisely at our Nightopians for all seven stages. While the Melody Box shows us their happiness levels, this other present shows us exactly how many Nightopians we have collected and exactly what they look like. We can see if they have particular movements like smiling and waving, performing actions like singing, sleeping, or sweeping brooms across the ground. We also see if they have accompanying items or are doing cool, hidden actions (in my New Spring Valley, they’re building snowmen). If we accumulate enough Nightopians in one stage (like three dozen), and if they are happy enough, they will break into an a cappella version of “Dreams, Dreams,” but without using words; they’re just singing the notes, and this is a surprisingly beautiful version of the song.

The final present is “Christmas NiGHTS,” which is just an easy way to enter Christmas mode, at any time. That’s all the content of Christmas NiGHTS, but there’s something indescribable about the magic of a year-round simulated dream, with its graphics, music, and gameplay synced up with real-life dates and even the time of day. The music evolves to sound better the more we play, of course, but there are always more elements which are unpredictable.  So, it’s usually a surprise to see the sun shining in the dark sky only to soon swap out for the moon, and the snow might turn into 3D gems. Such unexpected changes are especially great when they’re accompanied by new changes in the music evolving better.

Christmas NiGHTS has been re-released on newer consoles, but none of the newer releases have all the content from Saturn (like, they don’t include Sonic into Dreams). Also, newer versions may include a “Saturn mode,” but the graphics are never quite the same or as quirky/unique as on a real Saturn. Plus, the Saturn’s 3D gamepad is needed for the proper smooth feeling of the flying gameplay. For all those reasons, Christmas NiGHTS should really be considered a Saturn-exclusive, for the proper experience of it.

Christmas NiGHTS is very consistent with the original NiGHTS (except for the change in the kids’ relationship now seeming romantic), and both Saturn games are very unlike the later sequel Journey of Dreams on the Nintendo Wii, which I dislike for several reasons (and don’t consider a real sequel to the Saturn games). The Wii game is probably not worth your time, while Christmas NiGHTS is practically required.

There are flaws here, but they’re minimal. The graphics have been improved slightly, so they’re not as glitchy as original NIGHTS. Still, there are the same general limitations. Polygons sometimes flicker in and out of existence, the camera can be awkward, there’s a short draw-distance of polygons, etc. Things like this were consistent with the time-period and of early 3D video games in general. Also, such small glitches/quirks show that the NiGHTS games seem to push the Saturn to its limits. In fact, I consider the NiGHTS games on Saturn as the finest hour of Sonic Team, and of Yuji Naka, too. The dream setting and imagery, the songs that evolve, the A-life, the unique gameplay, and the unique feel of the 3D game pad – it all just seems more imaginative and dreamier than anything that would ever be made, ever again. With shared content from original NiGHTS and interaction with its save files, plus exclusive new features that are not found anywhere else, Christmas NiGHTS is a necessary accompaniment for original NiGHTS. It’s the only way to complete the full experience.

SCORE:  9 out of 10

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