Like many of you, one of my holiday traditions in December is to play through the greatest demo disc of all time, the immortal Christmas Nights
. I always play from scratch, meaning that I erase my save file so that I can collect all of the presents once again, and it usually takes a dozen games to unlock everything. This includes the many art galleries, the images of licensed merchandise (I'd really love to find one of those Nights plushies, if they exist), the karaoke mode, the link and time trials, and, of course, the cameo appearance by Sonic the Hedgehog, although playing as Sonic has always felt a bit like a chore. Thanks for holding out on giving us a real Sonic game, Kalinske. Pity the M2 assassination plot failed.
Xmas* Nights is how I discovered this classic videogame, as I found a copy at a nearby Blockbuster Video store for five dollars. The magazine articles on Nights, particularly Next Generation Magazine, were somewhat lukewarm on Sega's new mascot, and as a result I stayed away, giving all of my attention instead to Super Mario 64, which at the time was being hailed as "the greatest videogame of all time." Which, of course, it was. Let's be honest. But there's plenty of room for Nights and all its surreal, Jungian quirkiness.
This has always been a videogame that held its cards close to its chest, revealing its qualities slowly over time. It never announced itself boldly, but remained quiet, subtle, imbued with a quiet confidence that its genius would emerge after hours of gameplay. At its core, Nights is extremely simple: grab twenty blue spheres, smash into a giant cage (which on the demo disc resembles a large Christmas tree), then return home to your gazebo. After a time, almost by accident, you discover that if you fly over the gazebo, then you can race another lap and collect more bonus points, and suddenly a light clicks on: you can rack up infinite score combos and hone that perfect racing line. Later on, you discover that the children at the beginning don't have to walk straight to the gazebo where Nights awaits, but explore the countryside, collect spheres and find endless little surprises like bridges, trees, hills that pop into mountains, igloos, trains, and a charming moment where you lead a small red car into its garage. If this were a Nintendo game, you would be loudly rewarded with a 1-up mushroom or bonus item. But Nights is different. The experience itself is the reward.
And have we mentioned the brilliant A-Life program involving the charming little nightopians and their communities that you nurture and grow? Not only does their collective mood affect the game's music, they can mate with defeated enemies to create mutant offspring, which may eventually lead to the birth of a king who builds his own castle. I once even saw a Nights statue built in my honor. Again, it's just there for the sake of being there, a discovery that exists only to be discovered.
Nights is a unique fusion of 2D platformer, 3D platformer, arcade score attack, racing game and virtual pet simulator. And everything is presented under the guise of a surrealist, dreamlike examination of Jungian archetypes. The game world is really a series of lucid dreams that portray the waking world, but under the influence of what Terence McKenna called a "heroic dose" of psilocybin mushrooms. Nights Into Dreams is the end result of four obsessions: the sensations of flight, Carl Jung's Man and His Symbols, John Allegro's The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, and a ludicrous amount of psychedelics. It's just about the greatest acid trip this side of John Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows" and The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and one of the greatest, wildest videogames ever made. And Christmas Nights is that perfect celebration of the whole experience, wrapped up in a little bow.
(*Note: A little postscript about "Xmas," which is a common shorthand for Christmas. The "X" in the name is actually the ancient Greek letter Chi (pronounced "kee") and was used as a substitute for the name "Christ" by Biblical scholars and theologians dating back a thousand years. And so, the word is not pronounced "ekks-mass" but "Christmas.")