It's funny how some things change and some things stay the same. A decade ago, when I was a little blighter terrorising the playgrounds of a South London secondary school, I'd have kicked you in the gut and stole your lunch money if you had dared suggest Mario and Sonic would one day be sharing more than a punch up.
How things change. Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games on Nintendo Wii. Who'd have thought? And now, here I am, ambling along to the wonderfully reclusive Wii Flat in London's West End to get some hands on time with NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams - the SEGA made follow up to the Saturn original - on a Nintendo console. How do they say in French? Plus ca change or something like that.
The original NiGHTS into Dreams was released by SEGA waaaay back in 1996, a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, Oasis and Blur were scrapping over number ones and England had a decent football team. The game combined 2D and 3D elements to simulate dream-like flight - relaxing, gliding gameplay that found a cult following on SEGA's doomed 32-bit console.
Now, with SEGA's console-making days over and the Saturn deader than a dodo, the iconic Japanese developer has decided, finally, to make a follow up - and it just had to be on Wii.
Fanboys are delighted of course. NiGHTS was always more of a hardcore game. Question is - is the sequel so "casualfied" (yes I made it up) that it will alienate its loyal fanbase in favour of this new breed of Wii-owners?
The answer is linked to the way the game utilises the Wii's unique control system. As I sat down to play the game I thought to myself - if this doesn't work well with the Wii Remote this is going to be rubbish. Well, it doesn't work particularly well with the Wii Remote. But thankfully you can play with the Nunchuck's analogue instead. Phew.
Using the Wii Remote only, you fly through hoops, chase after key-holding birds and collect numerous collectibles with what is called Mindsight - a small circle which you control by pointing the Wii Remote at the screen. Your NiGHT glides towards wherever you point it. Point it too far away and your NiGHT will lose interest and stop flying around the course. Keep the guidance tight, however, and you can achieve loop the loops and other impressive flying manoeuvres.
Unfortunately, using the Wii Remote only just didn't feel right. I didn't feel like I was ever in complete control of proceedings. Whether this is down to the Wii's motion sensing technology or the game design I don't know. But what I do know is that I much preferred connecting the Nunchuck and caressing the analogue instead. I wondered if I was just being cack-handed. I sighed relief when I met the game's lead designer, the wonderfully diminutive Takashi Iizuka, who played with the Nunchuck too.
Tacked on Wii controls? I wouldn't go that far. There will be some of you who will play NiGHTS with the Wii Remote only. But, despite only having played through a few levels of the game, I'll stick my neck out and say most won't. It is perhaps revealing that the developer, Sonic Team, has made it possible to play NiGHTS with the Wii's Classic Controller or even a GameCube pad, if you don't fancy waving a wand about.
The game now has two main characters - Will and Helen - to choose from. You begin by picking which one's dream to enter - both are sleeping soundly on the character select screen. The game's hub is the Dream Gate from which you control one of the two kids as they appear in the real world in a kind of third-person platformer vein. As you progress through the story you unlock the doors in the Dream Gate which lead to other levels in Nightopia.
Iizuka-san promised that both would have their own storyline and unique levels. There's even some straight-up platforming levels thrown in the mix, where you control either Will or Helen and lead the other to the exit. It feels a bit like the recent The Simpsons Game, and, like that, well, just a bit rubbish.
Traditional levels follow a tried and trusted format, but have been simplified a little. Now you need to get three NiGHTS Captures - keys held by birds - as you fly around the course, and return them to a prison within the pre-set time. Complete three stages and then face a boss. Because many of the game's levels were already unlocked at the Wii Flat, I jumped straight into a boss battle with what can only be described as a giant ball. I had to fly about and chuck melting rocks at various platforms to try and build myself a path to face him. Unfortunately my noob NiGHT skills meant I ran out of time.
Iizuka-san, however, demonstrated another boss fight with thankfully much greater skill. In what looked like a pinball machine stage, your NiGHT needs to fly around, grab onto another ball-like boss called Donbalon, and chuck it at a number of gates. This was repeated for a bit then it died. If I'm honest - while the boss battles felt impressive, it was a little bit... well, meh. But I'll reserve ultimate judgement for the review.
In another mission Iizuka-san demonstrated, you took the form of a car as it raced along a roller coaster. Here, you could grow long arms to raise yourself high above the rails and go through the links.
If all this feels similar, it's because it is. There's nothing revolutionary here. But perhaps this doesn't matter. Perhaps a NiGHTS game with polished graphics, lovely, vibrant colours and, when you are flying through levels, a dream-like experience with nice sound effects and calming audio, is all we need and a perfect fit on the more casual Wii. Time will tell.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the old NiGHTS and this follow-up is the online connectivity options. The customisable My Dream portal, accessed through the Dream Gate, is like a Nightopian-packed town hall. Here, other players can visit through the Wii's Wi-Fi Connection service for a chat through the game's basic but functional icon-based communication system. And in a neat addition, the game's weather will change depending on information fed to it from the Wii's Forecast Channel. So if it's raining outside your window, it will be raining in your My Dream too. And if it's really hot outside it will be baking in your My Dream, and, according to Iizuka-san, your Nightopians will be sweating. Nice.
My Dream felt very dream-like indeed, with curious music that reminded me of classic 90's dance tune Set You Free by N-Trance. It's also very Wii too, and further evidence of why the game is a perfect fit for Nintendo's console. There's more multiplayer options. Two players can race in the game's levels either split-screen or online. There will be world rankings as well, and you can access your personal records via your Dream Journal, displayed next to your sleeping head on the character select screen.
So, some verdicts then. Well, NiGHTS is coming out very soon in the US, so the game must be almost finished, if it isn't already. I doubt there will be huge surprises come the retail release. But from what I've seen, NiGHTS looks like being one of the better Wii games, and certainly one of the best third-party titles on the system. When you are flying around the levels the game still has that wonderful calming feel to it. This isn't Endless Ocean mind - things can get pretty ropey, and speed is of the essence - but when you get good at NiGHTS and start to tear up the levels you do feel like you're in some kind of trance. An essential Wii release? We'll find out soon enough.