As much as we adore becoming hopelessly engrossed in an epic RPG or uncovering the labyrinthine plot of a deep and meaningful FPS, we can’t help but feel that storytelling in videogames is often given a little too much credence at the expense of actual game play. Take the likes of Space Invaders, Pac-Man or Pong as examples; these are classic titles that contain little to not plotting, yet remain eminently playable regardless. Compare these legendary experiences to your average fantasy role playing opus, with its bloated cut scenes and limited, turn-based combat and it’s blatantly obvious that although both extremes have their merits, with some games it’s sometimes necessary to tear away any semblance of storytelling and allow the game play mechanics to take centre stage. That is undoubtedly what developer Metanet has done with N+. Essentially, there is no story to speak of; the game has been distilled to create a glorious test of your wits and reflexes.
The general aim is to guide your pint-sized ninja as he hops, skips and jumps through a series of screens in an effort to escape unscathed. Each screen has an exit that is only accessible once a switch has been triggered. Predictably, these two elements are separated by all manner of threats, ranging from stationary mines to semi-autonomous enemies that actively seek to harm your character. Although N+’s avatar has ninja-like reactions and is gifted with startling speed, he is unfortunately defenceless against the enemy onslaught and has no offensive capability whatsoever. Therefore, it’s paramount that you utilize his impressive manoeuvrability to avoid danger and successfully complete each fiendish stage.
Although the main character is diminutive, he’s surprisingly adept at negotiating the hazards placed in his way. Not only can he leap several feet into the air, he possesses the ability to jump off walls (Ninja Gaiden-style) and slide down tall structures. His movements are governed by a startlingly realistic physics engine, which ensures that if he falls from too high a ledge or hits the ground with too velocity, he’s sure to be leaving a ninja-shaped splat on the tarmac. Thankfully, control is silky-smooth and ultra-responsive, granting a feeling of immediacy, connectivity and immersion that is often lacking from games with far more elaborate visuals – a lesson in videogame creation, perhaps?
There are over 400 devious screens to complete, each organized in ‘chapters’ of five screens each. You’re assigned a certain amount of time to complete each chapter, which can be boosted by collecting gold coins that happen to be scattered around each stage. The inclusion of a timer creates a tangible sense of tension and places N+ squarely in the realm of ‘score attack’ gaming – a place where passionate addiction is rife and joy pads are oft broken in fits of rage.
Each screen becomes a race to not only get to the finish in the shortest time possible but also a challenge in picking up as many precariously-placed coins as your nerves will allow without putting your character in the way of peril. There’s unquestionably an element of trial and error involved, but although the grisly deaths encountered can initially seem disheartening (largely thanks to some shockingly realistic ‘rag doll’ physics), the game fully expects you to fail, and fail often; the key to ultimate success is having the willpower to dust yourself off and find another way to the goal. If the idea of replaying a screen several times over in order to dissect and understand what makes it tick repulses you, then you may want to avoid N+, because it’s often the only way to triumph.
Getting through all of the standard levels is no mean feat then, but should you manage it then the N+ still has much more content on offer. The opportunity to design your own sadistically challenging screens using the level editor comes as a welcome addition, and it’s also possible to indulge in some frantic multiplayer frivolity. Teaming up with a fellow human grants an extra layer of playability to proceedings; one mode sees you working co-operatively to clear special screens designed specifically with several players in mind and another represents a race to obtain as many coins as possible whilst avoiding the various traps and hazards.
The only conceivable issue we can see with N+ is the fact that its PC prequel is freely available online and already showcases much of what makes this XBLA enhancement so appealing. Therefore the moral question arises: do you stick with the gratis product or splash some MS points on this updated edition, thereby supporting the Herculean efforts of the high-deserving indie developer? In our opinion there’s more than enough quality entertainment in the Xbox instalment to justify purchase, and little improvements – such as the ability to watch recordings of other high-scoring speed runs – makes this an attractive proposition. However, should you be in any doubt there’s always the option of treating the PC version as a demo and graduating to the XBLA game later. The controls on the latter are certainly far superior.
N+ effortlessly brings to mind the classic platformers of days gone by; within a few minutes of play you will be mentally planning routes through each level and agonizing over pixel-perfect jumps, just like everyone used to back in the era of the 2D Sonic and Mario titles. This is game play in its purest form and should be both encouraged and celebrated in these days of self-indulgent graphical excess.