I truly love what modern gaming can do (rather than a lot of what it actually does). Expansive, atmospheric worlds, nuanced characters, incredible detail and sumptuous graphical beauty make for a kind of experience you couldn’t truly replicate in gaming’s earlier years. That doesn’t mean I don’t hanker for the early years. A time of gameplay purity (through necessity sure, but it still worked!) where chasing the high score worked in tandem with twitch-based gameplay to create a seemingly endless loop of the "one more go" machine. That was what inspired developer Metanet Software a decade ago when it released freeware game N, and it is still very much apparent in the latest -and supposedly final- entry into the indie franchise; N++.
The original freeware N was a hardcore puzzle-platformer that was built for speedrunning. Needing quick reactions to traverse the many hazards in the quickest possible time, your stick-man Ninja was put through a multitude of single screen maps, collecting gold bits to extend the cumulative time limit before triggering and reaching the exit, all the while clocking up a higher and higher score. That still forms the crux of N++; the first game in the series to appear on PlayStation consoles, and it’s a wonderfully simple concept that conceals depth, variety and challenge underneath its basic -yet vibrant- retro style. Even the paper thin plot is in keeping with the simplicity. You are a Ninja in the future solving puzzle rooms. These days you can barely move for all the games featuring future Ninjas solving puzzle rooms.
It all starts off easy enough as the game runs you through the basics without the need to overload you with information, allowing you to figure out the unspoken rules that govern the maps. To do so requires a lot of dying, and there’s a sick hilarity in watching your Ninja meet his demise in various idiotic ways. Getting squashed, splatted, blown up and being fried are among the highlights of your learning experience, and these comedic deaths do help to alleviate some potential early frustrations as you initially just do your best to get through each stage.
For the most part, you can muddle through during your first run-through, missing large batches of gold bits so you can avoid the trickier enemies that naturally patrol them. It’s in the repeat playthroughs that the real challenge arises. Now you are having to collect every single gold bit to keep that timer topped up, timing every movement to absolute perfection as your Ninja just narrowly shaves past robot death machines and bomb-covered ceilings. It’s truly exhilarating to nail a room perfectly, with the futuristic soundtrack seemingly in tune with your every step.
It’s exciting because it’s so very difficult to actually do, especially the further in you go where space to maneuver is at a premium. It can be a bit overwhelming at first as the controls don’t initially feel all that responsive to twitch-based gameplay, but it improves with practice. Both the left analog stick and d-pad have their advantages and drawbacks in terms of movement and it comes down to what you feel more comfortable with. This is just in Solo play, adding other people opens up a whole new spin on the task.
Co-op rooms are a curious, yet perfectly enjoyable part of the game. One player is usually required to sacrifice themselves in order for the other to progress on behalf of the team, resulting in more comical demises as you now find yourself lining up the perfect death instead of avoiding it. It’s certainly more amusing than Solo play, but probably the weakest mode in terms of challenge.
Then you have the Race mode, which is an absolute blast. You and up to three others (offline) run through rooms, vying to be first through the exit. Chaos, hilarity and cursing ensue during each frenetic tussle for supremacy and it becomes increasingly obvious that we have another multiplayer winner on our hands mere weeks after Rocket League breathed fresh life into competitive play. N++ may not take off in quite the same manner as that game has, but it’s sure to have a decent following in the coming weeks and months, something that could be made far more achievable thanks to the creation features.
It seems it isn’t enough to just provide us with a healthy selection of rooms to tackle in Solo, Co-op and Race modes. N++ offers a creation suite to make your own ridiculously challenging rooms with, adding serious longevity to a already decently sized amount of content. A few minutes spent tinkering and experimenting in this mode is all it requires to start understanding how to create a good room of your very own. In my first attempt, it took ten minutes to make a simple yet tricky Solo room (you can make rooms for each of the modes) and it worked perfectly. If I can do that (and I’m fairly average at in-game creation) then it’s a system worthy of praise for its simplicity and accessibility. Metanet has integrated the best fan creations into previous games as well so there’s some extra incentive to try and make the perfect run for all to see.
For many, N++ will be their first foray into this series, and for those people I can not recommend this game enough, especially if you’ve been pining for a bit of retro challenge and/or find your competitive side reinvigorated by games like Rocket League. For those who’ve slung many hours into the freeware N or XBL Arcade N+ already it’s generally more of the same, but colourful and tweaked with a few minor changes. Either way, it doesn’t stop N++ being a greatly enjoyable and challenging puzzle-platformer that offers the purest of gameplay.