N++ (Metanet Software, 2015)
“This Old Neon strives to publish reviews with at least two opposing voices: one largely positive or sympathetic, and the other more critical and demanding” (Review Policy). Both reviewers provide honest evaluations of the game; thus, a sympathetic review may not always be fully positive, and a critical one need not be completely negative. There will be intersections, overlaps, agreements, and divergences. It is the readers’ prerogative to navigate these as they see fit. – JC
N++ is the ultimate platformer. The result of more than ten years of revision and refinement, it is a game so lean, so focused, with such exquisite purity of purpose that it demands the same reverence today as the venerable classics of yesteryear. Not precisely new, it is never derivative, and despite the sheer volume of content, every stage, every component displays mastery of craftsmanship.
It is the embodiment of Neo-Futurism and Minimalism. Minuscule abstractions juxtaposed against massive flat structures, their apparent benign dormancy belying the kinetic energy within. Pacifism is empowered through unfettered acrobatics even as any minute hesitation carries the threat of fragile mortality. It is a journey taken moment by moment yet the destination is always in sight. Rarely a rote exercise, if one is to become N, one must remain fluid.
There is subtle rhythm even in the absence of a defined tempo. Soundscapes evolve organically, sometimes erratically; a racing pulse the only constant metronome. Repetition hones execution and ultimate success reveals infinite choreographies. What begins as a clumsy series of missteps evolves into dance, velocity thrown with defiant confidence against the weighty persistence of mass and gravity.
It is in perfect balance with its own dichotomies. Persistence and perseverance are the requirements for success, yet failure is often rewarded with revelation. The goal is expeditious escape and yet risk is the reward. Greed offers life, even if it more frequently manifests death. Each screen finds N boxed in but presents countless possibilities. Personal triumphs are measured against the successes of others, fostering competition even as replays present opportunities to mentor.
N++ is the pure distillation of the classic platformer. It is raw and utterly singular of purpose, honed to a razor’s edge and expanded upon across literally thousands of iterations. It is demanding yet playful, crushing yet merciful, sparse yet beautiful. It is a masterpiece from conception through execution and will stand as one of the finest examples of design in interactive media.
And yes, it is about a little stick ninja that dodges rockets and robots to make it to a door.
One way games distinguish themselves from other art forms is by letting players experience a highly interactive narrative. Music, books, and films have some level of interaction to go along with their stories, but a well-designed video game can truly take that part of the experience to the next level. I’d passively resisted playing the N series largely due to disinterest. It wasn’t clear to me what the game was about or what it was trying to do. The title is cryptic and the handful of screenshots I saw reminded me of games from thirty years ago.
I went ahead and gave N++ a try, in part due to the accolades I’d heard about the series from both reviewers and friends. Not all games need to have a point—I certainly count a number of score-chasing games, both old and new, among my favorites. If I care enough, I can always make up a story or context.
First, I do have to commend the game for controlling exceptionally well. It’s on the cusp of perfection in that regard. Second, the level designs that I saw, and I’ve only just scratched the surface of this enormous installment, are clever and fun. They’re tough but fair. Finally, I want to give the game credit for balancing the difficulty as you go, which makes it much more palatable to play rather than levels becoming increasingly difficult. The designers mix up some easy ones and tougher ones to balance out the experience and it works.
My main issue that deterred me from giving the game a try also kept me from wanting to play it much once I had it. I prefer to have something interesting to think about, even if the story is stupid, to give the challenges and successes in the game a context. If I don’t have that, then I expect to have something fun to look at while I play. Dyad (][, 2012) and Super Stardust Ultra (Housemarque, 2015) are examples of games that do that really well. The minimalist design and palette, intended to support the fantastic controls, had the side effect of boring me. There’s lots of gold scattered about, which interested gamers can collect if they choose, but it’s tough to justify making the effort when there’s no in-game benefit aside from a few trophies down the road.
To stay engaged for any length of time, I usually need a game to do one of two things: tell me a fun story, or show me some interesting images. N++ does quite a few things well, but those two were unfortunately excluded from the game. It gave me lots of obstacles and button-pressing, but little reason to continue playing.
N++ was developed by Metanet Software and Shawn McGrath and published by Metanet Software. It was released on PlayStation Network on PlayStation 4 on Tuesday, 28 July, 2015 in North America and Wednesday, 29 July, 2015 in Europe.
For further reading, check out our in-depth interview with Metanet’s Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard.
Metanet Software provided a copy of N++ for Brian. Ryan paid for his own copy. Neither reviewer was in direct contact with Metanet.
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