Welcome back to Part 2 of the teneightep.com Christmas Celebration. Last week, I took a look at two Christmas themed videogame cartoons. However, this week I'll get more “traditional” and talk about a Christmas themed videogame...sortof.
“Christmas Nights into Dreams” (though I will refer to it by the shorter name, “Christmas Nights” for the rest of this post) for the Sega Saturn is a strange little piece of Sega history. It was originally part of a Christmas themed Sega Saturn bundle in Japan, and was given away with certain Saturn games in America as well as being bundled in issues of Sega Saturn Magazine. The copy I will be using for this post is a Japanese copy that belongs to my good friend Sam of “Sam's Song of the Day” blog. So a big thank you to him for spotting me a copy for this post.
Christmas Nights, at its core, is essentially a demo disc for the full “Nights into Dreams” game with some neat little bonuses thrown in (more on those later). Because of this, I will not be giving this a review score. But what I will discuss is what the demo consists of, my thoughts playing through it, and the bonuses that are contained within that make it a little more than just a simple demo disc.
DO NOT MIND! that this post is a few days late. Just don't. :P
For those not familiar with Nights into Dreams, let me explain the game (especially since playing through this was the very first time I'd ever played any game in the Nights franchise at any real length). You play as the title character, Nights, who must eliminate the evil Wizeman who is trying to conquer the “dream world” where Nights resides, which would allow Wizeman to enter and conquer the real world as well. Nights is accompanied by two teenagers named Claris and Elliot. Depending on the character you pick at the start of the original Nights game, the levels and story will slightly change. In fact, the playable level in this demo is a rendition of the first level in the game, but provides a unique route from the original game. The story is also altered into trying to find a Christmas Star in order to bring the Christmas spirit to Claris and Elliot's hometown, though it's really just glossed over in a quick intro which, if you own the American version, includes some very unenthused voice acting:
The gameplay heavily revolves around the concept of flight, which was the major goal of Sonic Team even when they first began conceptualizing the game shortly after completing Sonic 3 and Knuckles. Nights can fly around the stage in a 2.5D manner; actual turning left and right is done on a “course”, but the elevation can be controlled freely by the player. This allows the player to do loops and spins very fluidly. In fact, the game demands the player do this in order to defeat certain enemies and gather items. While you can just pick them up or “spin attack” into them, learning the more complex method of “looping” the items and enemies will allow the player to keep their momentum going and result in faster times and higher scores.
Because of this method of controlling Nights, the method of controlling the game must be mentioned. I'm a fan of using the Sega Saturn controller in a 2D space. I grew up with a Sega Genesis as my console of choice, and I adored the 6-button controller that came with it (I still own that very controller to this day), and no matter which model of 6-button controller you use on the Saturn, it provides a natural evolution to the Genesis controller. That being said, your thumb will be begging for mercy in short order trying to use the D-pad on this thing in either Nights into Dreams or Christmas Nights. Constantly changing directions and making loops will be a painful experience, even just in this short demo.
The original Nights into Dreams was also available in a bundle containing the “3D Controller”, a large spaceship-like controller that is much different from the Sega controllers of the past and actually served as a blueprint for the base Dreamcast controller (which itself inspired future X-Box controllers). It included an analog control stick, which is a necessity for this game. I say this with all sincerity in my heart, if you don't have a 3D controller for Nights into Dreams, you're not going to enjoy it. The turns are much more crisp and natural, and your digits will thank you too. And it's also just a nice controller to have around. If you're even remotely serious about the Saturn as a console, the going price for it is a little steeper at about $35-40 (with some sellers asking for more or bundling it with Nights into Dreams to drive up the price), but it's worth having at least one around. Even if you're just playing Christmas Nights, your experience will be much better with it than without.
The only stage available is a Christmas themed recreation of the first level, in which the only real enemy I had was the time limit. There are enemies within the level, but I was never damaged by them, to the point I wondered (other than point fodder) what purpose they really served. To clear the stage, you're required to pick up bells (known in the original Nights game as “chips”) and deliver them to a point within the level (known as the “Ideya Capture” in the original game, but resembling a Christmas Tree in this one), and then return to the start of the stage to enter the next phase of the level. Each phase has the same goal, but with a different route to take through the stage. It's easier to wrap your mind around the concept of this if you think of it like a “race course”, sometimes needing more than one “lap” to complete the objectives, and the course changing whenever you accomplish the tasks at hand.
Looping is something you better wrap your mind around pretty quickly, be it here or in the full game.
There are also stars in the level that provide points, and as stated before, “looping” around stars/bells/enemies will gather more points than just touching them, and there are also hoops to fly through which can add a ton of points if you can complete the sequence or “link” the gathering of bells or defeating enemies. The loops around enemies/items have to be fairly sharp however, there isn't a lot of room for error. This takes some getting used to, as sometimes the limit can seem lenient and other times it can seem...not so much (again, the 3D controller is a major ally). Once you learn it, you get more used to what your limitations are, but a first-time player will likely not want to mess with it and just want to be more “direct” as they learn the game.
Once you figure out his weakness, the most dangerous part about this battle is the repetition.
There are also two boss battles within the demo. While we will get to the second one later, the first boss is a re-skinned version of the first boss in the original Nights. Once you learn the strategy to defeating him, it's ridiculously easy to defeat to the point that your most dangerous enemy will be your own impatience as you try to defeat him quicker and quicker and take damage. And while the game does not have a lifebar, getting hurt by an enemy does cut your time limit down. If you're on a normal stage, hitting this time limit will force Nights to turn back into Claris or Elliot, causing the player to run back to the central shrine to turn back into Nights. This will cut into their score and rating at the end of the stage. On a boss level, however, it results in a proper Game Over. Defeating this boss will award you a final score/rating and end the demo.
This isn't where Christmas Nights ends, however. Upon completing the demo, you'll be given a “matching game” where you can unlock extra content. This content is actually saved to memory (yes, a demo disc with a save function). While some of the content is simply bonus material for the original Nights game, such as an art gallery and a (much appreciated) music player, other bonuses are included. Two of these are Time Attack and Link Attack. These modes keep track of your best time through the game's single stage and your best “link” (or best chain of collecting/defeating enemies/flying through hoops).
The biggest bonus mode worth mentioning is unlocking Sonic the Hedgehog as a playable character. Unfortunately, due to a memory issue with my Sega Saturn (not sure if it's my Action Replay cartridge or a faulty system battery), I was unable to retain a save file long enough to eventually collect this bonus. Many players see this little easter egg as a precursor to what would have been “Sonic X-treme”, the canceled Sonic the Hedgehog title for the Sega Saturn. Using Sonic in this game also results in a different boss battle, a re-skinned version of another Nights into Dreams boss, this time appearing to look like Dr. Robotnik.
The last item worth mentioning is based on the date/time system in the game. Despite the fact that this game goes by the title “Christmas Nights into Dreams”, playing the game on a different time of year will result in a transformed demo. Playing the game in November or January will simply result in the game being “Winter Nights”, where Christmas items will still be included but the boss battle will be disabled and no mention of a “Christmas story” is included. If the game is played any other time of year, it'll appear as a simple “Nights into Dreams” demo, with no altered graphics or music. There are also little easter eggs depending on the time of day you play as well as the day you play it, including a Lunar Eclipse if you play the game at 3:00 AM, or unlocking Reala (a major antagonist in the full Nights game) as a playable character if played on April Fools day. Some of these bonuses (such as Reala) can be saved and used freely once unlocked.
If you're looking to score a copy of this for yourself, a U.S. copy on eBay goes for around $50 at this time. If you're a big fan of Sega or even just the Saturn, $50 for a fairly neat piece of merch that screams “this is what Sega was all about” isn't taking too much of a hit I suppose, and I don't see a scenario where it'll fall in price as time goes on (unless the entire videogame collecting market takes a fall). Besides, if you're even remotely serious about collecting for the Saturn, and you think $50 is too much, you shouldn't be collecting for the Saturn.
But I'd only recommend chasing it down if you're focused on those types of things. For the general game collector such as myself, $50 for a demo disc is asking WAY too much. Though maybe there's a decent chance you can run into it cheap; someone without knowledge of the game might just see it as a demo disc and think nothing of it. As for a Japanese import copy, they only go on eBay for around $14-15, and most of the text is in English, so there isn't much difficulty in playing it (my only struggle was understanding the intro, which is all in spoken Japanese). So if you have the means to play imported Saturn games (hint: Action Replay cart...that's literally it) and just wanna try it, that'd be the way to go. Another route includes importing a PS2 copy of “Nights into Dreams”, which includes “Christmas Nights” as a hidden unlockable, and while it doesn't include many of the bonuses of the Saturn version (the most jarring being the lack of Sonic as an unlockable), it does unlock bonuses within the full Nights game. So if you have the means to play imported PS2 games and don't wanna bother tracking down a Saturn 3D controller, that option is also on the table.
And with that, I want to wish everyone Happy Holidays, be safe, and enjoy yourselves and the company of others this Holiday season!