For a relatively youthful medium, video gaming has a profound sense of its own history. The majority of popular franchises — Mario, Madden, "The Sims," "Final Fantasy" — have their roots in the 1980s, practically ancient times in today's accelerated pop culture.
Such series remain successful because their creators are always adding new elements and adapting to the latest technology. But there's still the element of nostalgia: Hearing the familiar "Legend of Zelda" theme in a new game always brings a rush of memories for those of us who played the 1987 original.
But there are still plenty of '80s and '90s video-game characters who have faded into oblivion. Whatever happened to Alex Kidd, Bonk and Earthworm Jim? Will Nintendo ever give us a sequel to the beloved "Earthbound"? Wouldn't a 3-D version of "Splatterhouse" be awesome? After all, if Sega could revive an obscurity like "Nights into Dreams," anything's possible.
"Nights: Journey of Dreams" (Sega, for the Wii, $49.99):"Nights into Dreams" was released in 1996 for the Sega Saturn, a slick console that got buried in the marketplace by Sony's PlayStation. Thus, not many people played the original, although it's developed a reputation as an overlooked classic.
In this long-awaited sequel, Nights (or, as Sega annoyingly spells it, NiGHTS) is an androgynous jester who leads two kids through the dream world of Nightopia. The dream world is under attack from a darker place called Nightmare, but the kids can merge with Nights to fight the monsters. Most of the action involves flying around, collecting blue chips and soaring through rings, although there is an impressive amount of variety between levels.
Unfortunately, you're often thrown into new levels without much indication of what you're supposed to do. And for a game that's supposed to impart the freedom of flying, the controls are surprisingly stiff. (The use of the Wii motion-sensing ability, in particular, is just awful.) There are some innovative ideas and beautiful images here, but "Journey of Dreams" doesn't have the polish needed to revive the "Nights" brand.
"Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity" (Sega, for the Wii, $49.99; for the PlayStation 2, $39.99): Sonic the Hedgehog has been a video-game mainstay since his 1991 debut on Sega's Genesis, with several dozen titles on his resume. Sadly, only a few of those have been really good, with last year's "Sonic and the Secret Rings" seen as a promising return to form.
With 2006's "Sonic Riders," Sega saw fit to put the already speedy Sonic and his pals on hoverboards and other vehicles, morphing the series into an all-out racing game, a la "WipeOut." "Zero Gravity" adds "gravity points" that you can earn by performing tricks; you can use the points to find alternate routes or make your character race even faster.
The high-speed high jinks are fun for a while, but "Zero Gravity" burns out because it's too fast. When you're hurtling down its futuristic tracks, it's hard to see the power-ups or other gimmicks you can use against your opponents. There's a ridiculous story mode for solo players, as well as a nearly unplayable soccerlike game, but if you're looking for a fast-paced racer to play with friends, "Zero Gravity" is worth a rental.
"Contra 4" (Konami, for the DS, $29.99): When "Contra" arrived in arcades in 1987, the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra scandal was in full swing. The game had nothing to do with Nicaragua's counter-revolutionaries; instead, it followed the efforts of two commandos, Bill Rizer and Lance Bean, to repel an alien invasion.
Rizer and Bean are back in "Contra 4," and their first DS mission harks back to the original. The bulk of the action consists of running sideways and shooting everything that moves, with the occasional use of a grappling hook to leap into the DS' top screen. It's intense run-and-gun action, and it's very satisfying.
It's also extraordinarily difficult, just like in the old days. Indeed, if you want to show the young 'uns how we played 20 years ago, you can't get much closer than "Contra 4."