The life of a ninja is brief, brutal and centres around a desperate fascination with gold. The key to their survival, as they leap from platforms, bounce from wall to wall and avoid the hazards and enemies that stand in their way, is in a mastery of momentum. It’s that which makes them a ninja and not just an explosive splat of blood and limbs.
It’s that exercise in the preservation of momentum which makes N++ so compelling and also so simple to pick up and play. A quick tap of the X button will see your ninja skip up off the ground, but a long hold has them soar through the air, especially once you’ve built up speed, with a degree of mid-air control allowing you to gracefully land exactly where you want to.
It’s really all about knowing what jump to make and when, in the context of a level. Too large a drop will kill you, touching the spiky mines will kill you, homing missiles, laser turrets, patrolling balls of electricity and evil shadow ninjas will all kill you. Failure inevitably ends in an explosion of limbs, often setting off a cathartic chain reaction of explosions in levels that feature a lot of mines.
Some levels have a relatively simple design for you to leap from one basic platform to the next, while others play with the game’s physics and are more like puzzle than anything else. Those stand in contrast to the maniacal exercises in trial and error, as you struggle to get through or push yourself time and again to perfect the level and collect all of the most difficult to reach gold.
The most striking aspect of the game is in its visuals, as the ninja’s tiny stick figure form makes its way through a two-tone world, with all manner of colour combinations to unlock and choose from – the original’s grey look is still an option. Gameplay itself is king, and is demonstrated as soon as you load up N++, as hapless bots or replays of failure are shown in the main menu background, picking at random from the many levels in the game. It’s all complemented excellently by a subdued soundtrack that features hours of music, for those who want to indulge in extended play sessions.
While individual levels range from lasting just a few moments to over a minute of tense precision jumping and games of cat and mouse with the numerous potential enemies, they do not exist in isolation. They’re bundled together in episodes of five with a timer that starts on 90 seconds and ceaselessly counts down to a timely demise, though this is extended by two seconds for each piece of gold you collect, with your eventual time and replay recorded on global leaderboards (sadly you can’t play against another player’s ghost). Of course, your demise will generally be untimely, resetting you back to the beginning of that level with your starting time intact. That episodic set up does, however, preclude you from playing just a single level on its own.
Metanet’s original N was a free flash game, created in 2004, before being brought in the guise of N+ to Xbox Live Arcade in 2008 alongside versions specifically made for Nintendo DS and PSP. As the extra plus implies, N++ supersedes them all, with the legacy episodes included within the staggering 2360 handcrafted levels in the game – this fact alone easily justifies the price of entry – split across solo, co-op and race game modes. You can actually play any part of the game with four players locally.
While you can attempt and complete some co-op levels on your own, many are designed specifically for having two players, with one acting as a sacrificial lamb to trigger a switch, two sides of a level require that you work together, and so on. Races, meanwhile, are all about being the first to survive to the finish, with the overall winner based on time over the course of an episode. There’s an overtly devilish side to the level design, whereby the first player through a space can create all sorts of havoc for those behind and triggers sudden death as soon as they touch the exit. However, it’s a shame that there is no online multiplayer, when this was a part of N+ in the past.
However, this is also intended to be a game for the ages that extends beyond Metanet’s own creations, as N++ provides you with all of the tools necessary to create your own levels. The minimalist stylings means that much of the focus can be placed on creating something interesting or challenging, and while there will be plenty of creations that aren’t particularly good, the myriad of search tools and filters to let you find the top levels will extend the game well beyond the staggering number of levels already included.
Having said that, even with the comparative purity of purpose, they could certainly have taken a leaf out of the books of LittleBigPlanet and Sound Shapes, in giving you even a minor introduction to the editor. As it stands, there’s a lack of clarity to basic functions like copy and paste or even deleting something, even with the tooltips menu visible, and there’s no indicator that you’re butting up against the limits of what can be included until you actually do so.
Beyond that, it’s just a pity that the game isn’t making its way to the PlayStation Vita, despite feeling like its gameplay and style would be well suited to the handheld. However, there are plans for Metanet to add further content to the game for free – albeit with the game’s price climbing as more is added – and they have said that, with enough sales, the game could be brought across to Vita.
N++ is a further distillation and refinement of what made N and N+ cult classics in the first place. Rather than replacing those games, it expands upon them greatly, with a bafflingly vast array of levels that come to test you mastery of the game’s pure platforming, and the tools to make even more.
Version tested: PS4