When you ask someone to name a platformer - any platformer they can think of - chances are very good their response will be Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog or maybe (if something went woefully, woefully wrong in your life) Izzy's Quest For the Olympic Rings.
N++ is the latest (and final) installment in the N series of platformers which originated long ago as a freeware game in the dark ages of 2004. I distinctly remember watching my friends play the original N from across the room in my high school business class every day despite them never managing to beat the thing. They just kept dying and dying and dying, over and over and over, advancing ever so slowly as they pressed on through the levels. Yet for some reason, they never stopped playing. When I asked them what they were playing, their response was “It’s called 'N', it’s fun!”.
N++ has the exact same effect.
To call it anything but an platformer would be out of turn; N++ is as pure a platformer as there ever was. There are only a few basic controls: move left, move right, and jump, the length you hold these down affecting just how much force is applied to the action and all of this feels extremely tight. The game incorporates physics in its platforming too, where factors such as inertia and forward momentum are integral to completing some stages. You can pull off some more complicated moves such as wall sliding and wall jumping but make no mistake, the focus of N++ is the platforming and it does it masterfully. Every time my character was splattered across the screen I knew it was only my own wrongdoing that was to blame.
The game has little story to speak of, in fact, the blurb of plot at the main menu even acts as a roundabout way of telling you to just play the game. Much of the way N++ presents itself is very simplistic, and that’s not a bad thing!
The ‘Solo’ game mode is structured with a series of “Episodes”, each composed of five levels. To successfully complete each of these episodes you must to complete all five levels in a row. Not on one life, of course, but at least without exiting back to the main menu, or you’ll have to start back at the first level. If you’re having too much trouble on an episode you can skip it, but you won’t be able to play each of the levels within it individually until you complete it.
Not being able to complete levels individually is something which I wish I had the option to disable (or at least work around) since the difficulty curve for each episode doesn’t always feel consistent. There were instances of levels where I had died dozens of times only to breeze through the rest of them and complete the episode which left me wondering how many easy levels I had lost access to because of one hard one in previous episodes that I had chosen to skip.
When you complete a level your score and replay are recorded for you to go back and watch again, encouraging you to try for better times and obtain that last coin (or ten) you missed. You can also favourite levels and track them to watch for new high-scores.
The level design of N++ is nothing short of beautiful and usually features arrangements which are often easy to find a solution to, but more difficult to execute on. Environmental hazards range from landmines (complete with beautiful explosions when you touch them), orbs that fire missiles and bullets at you, and clones that follow your movement path and kill you with their touch. Levels also offer coins which act as a means to boost your score. They are, however, usually in difficult to reach or hazardous locations which leave you with the option of taking your sad little safe score and finishing the level in one piece or sticking your neck out to achieve a high score and run the risk of facing your premature end. It’s a risk/reward balance that I think consistently matches the needs of both casual players and the hardcore, and I can say with confidence that any fan of platformers, designer or otherwise, will be thoroughly impressed with the skill and dedication with which the stages are crafted.
In terms of content, the game feels nearly endless and certainly isn’t lacking in any capacity. Not only does it feature an extensive solo campaign with hundreds of new and classic N and N+ levels, it also boasts a two-player local Co-op mode where players work together (and sometimes sacrifice themselves) to complete challenges as well as a local co-op competitive Race mode a-la Speedrunners for 1-4 players, where players attempt to beat stages faster than their opponents can. What’s more is that both these modes play as smoothly and are crafted with as much attention as the campaign, and that’s just the beginning.
After I had completed the campaign I took a delve into the level browser which is where I had tons of fun playing through user created content. To my amusement, many of the player submissions range from levels that could very well be in the core game itself to insane creations which I believe to be cooked up by a raging lunatic in a decrepit old mansion in the middle of the night. There’s “Untitled-2” which put me in the most dangerous spot imaginable, surrounded by hazards and left me alone to find a hidden door without getting blown to tiny pieces, "Patients” which features one drop and a hallway but takes roughly 3 minutes to beat thanks to spring boards, and thanks to "Peek-A-Boo” you can jump through a menacing-looking child’s mind just like you always wanted to! Crazy levels like these kept me coming back to check if any insane new stages were created while more...rational ones such as “Superliminal 0” kept me entertained with new content.
The level editor itself is simple and intuitive as everything else in N++ tends to be and lets you create levels without needing too much know-how. It’s part of this accessibility that I think lends it to being used in a way similar to Mario Maker with one apparent drawback - you don’t need to complete your level to submit it. This lends some problems to playing user-generated content system as there are some levels that, while seeming completely beatable, are actually impossible in practice (or outright kill you from the get-go).
N++'s minimalist appearance is what helps it to stand out as so aesthetically striking. The game gives you the option to change the colour palette and style to a number of different formats which enables you to customize the game to your liking and would be very beneficial for those with colorblindness. Some of these styles seemed a little muddy to me (I struggled with distinguishing some negative spaces from positive ones with certain themes) and generally I played with themes with high-saturation, because I live my life on the edge. On top of the few that you begin the game with initially, dozens more are unlocked as you advance through the campaign which serve as a nice ongoing reward.
The game’s music and sounds match up with its minimal aesthetic too. Sounds are usually unintrusive and unique for individual hazards as they fire, which is helpful to recognize when you’re walking directly into a row of automated turrets you may not have noticed (though I should really hope you would). The music varies from upbeat techno jams to low-frequency trance music that helps you get into that perfect level of flow as you play, which in turn helps mediate some of the frustrations you might be having with certain more difficult levels. I even felt compelled to seek out some of the tunes to listen to for my own listening pleasure after I finished the game.
Coming away from the experience most of what I can really say about boils down to this: N++ is as pure a platformer as you could ever hope for. Its mechanics are simple and intuitive, its content nearly endless and its gameplay fun and rewarding.
We live in an age where it’s easy to get bogged down in new features, and developers often seem to push for complex mechanic after complex mechanic. N++, however, sends itself off with a warm reminder that the series has always been created around one sole value: fun.