Two decades ago, all the way back on July 5, 1996, it was make-or-break time for the Sega Saturn. The 32-bit system was challenged by its old rival Mario via the brand new Nintendo 64, and it was battling a new challenger with Sony’s PlayStation. 1996 would be the year when 3D gaming would hit the mainstream, and Sega needed to be ready for it. But instead of sticking with its mega-popular hedgehog, they’d instead get behind a fresh star that they hoped would make the company soar even higher. And so the stage was set for the 3D flight/platformer title, Nights into Dreams

Made by Yuji Naka’s Sonic Team, Nights into Dreams was pushed as the Saturn’s killer app. Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot were pushing the envelope with polygonal visuals and Sega didn’t want to be outdone with its own 3D mascot. While Nights didn’t reach the same level of stardom as stablemate Sonic, the androgynous pixie found its own fan base, one that would inspire a long-delayed sequel and a remake more than a decade later.

And so, on the game’s 20th anniversary, let’s celebrate just what made Nights into Dreams so special.

Bringing Sega to the Third Dimension

Nights into Dreams Screen 1

Most developers of the time would say that the Sega Saturn was a very difficult machine to design for, thanks to a system architecture that wasn’t originally built with 3D graphics in mind. Nights into Dreams would be Sega’s first real attempt to show that the Saturn could handle a 3D adventure game, and they were so committed that they even redesigned the controller a year into the Saturn’s lifespan. Nights came packaged with the Saturn 3D controller, Sega’s answer to the analogue controls featured on the N64’s standard control deck.

Nights into Dreams 3D controller 20 years

That analogue stick was definitely put to good use as Nights demanded a full range of motion to fly through its challenging skies. Nights had the soul of an arcade flight game, meant to challenge players to explore and seek out high scores in deceptively simple stages. If you know what you’re doing you can fly to the end of each stage fairly quickly, but not if you want to beat your previous high score. Though it didn’t have the dense world of Super Mario 64 or the attitude of Crash Bandicoot, Nights won fans by focusing on engaging gameplay that rewarded curious players, keeping people playing long after they restored peace to Nightopia.

Soundtrack of Your Dreams

Though Nights didn’t recreate the gameplay of Sonic’s best titles, it had many of the Hedgehog’s best qualities, and that included a killer soundtrack. Composers Naofumi Hataya, Tomoko Sasaki and Fumie Kumatani worked together to craft Nights eccentric music, with Tomoko, in particular, crafting some of the best tunes. Tracks like “The Dragon Gave a Loud Scream” and “Know Thyself” found a balance between feeling dreamlike and pushing the player forward as the timer ticked down with intensity.

At the top of the list of Sasaki’s accomplishments has to be “Dreams, Dreams,” the main theme of Nights. You hear the catchy tune throughout the game, but it really pays off in a vocal version that plays over the credits. The theme, along with the rest of the soundtrack, also proved versatile enough that the tunes could be redone in seasonal style for the special Christmas Nights demo that was specially released to fans in late 1996.

A Legacy of Fantasy

Nights made a splash in 1996, but it would quickly seem like a bit of a one-off. Developer Sonic Team would move on to Burning Rangers and Sonic Adventure prep for its release on the Dreamcast in 1999. In interviews co-creator Yuji Naka would remark that he would like Nights to stay unique and never get a sequel. For many years it seemed like more Nights would stay in the realm of fantasy.

Nights into Dreams boss fight

But in the mid-2000s, that all began to change. Sega started to reference Nights via cameos in other games, ultimately leading to a full-fledged sequel in 2007. After that Wii release, the original Nights into Dreams got exposed to a whole new audience with an HD remake for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. No longer would curious gamers have to dig up a Saturn and a special controller to enter the world of Nightopia. Hopefully, this version will still be playable when Nights reaches its next landmark anniversary.

Nights into Dreams screen 4

So happy birthday, Nights into Dreams. You might not have been the Saturn mascot the system needed, but you were a great game that transcended your console.