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The style, grace and brutality of N++

Heart-pounding leaps. Grisly deaths. Death-defying wall jumps. N+ was a ballet of exhilarating platforming, that often ended with a splatter of limbs or the crunch of bone.

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N++

For me, it was transformative experience. It was the first XBLA game I played that gave me a long-lasting, hair pulling, but ultimately gratifying challenge. It also proved that after many years of staring into blurry, three-dimensional corridors, a 2D game could look as modern as anything else on the market.

N+ was the sequel to the Flash game N (which you can still play here) and was one of 2008’s most notable downloadable games. It was so successful that tweaked versions made later appearances on the DS and PSP. The game’s precise combination of agile platforming and brutal deaths earned it a keen following and its influence is seen in the likes of Super Meat Boy.

During GDC week we met with Metanet’s Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard to discuss the return of the series after eight years, this time on PlayStation 4.

“We were burned out after N+,” says Burns. “It was a really hard project because we ended up having to make about a thousand levels in one summer, it was crazy.”

Over time however a combination of factors paved the way for N to return. “We spent a couple of years working on some new games, and then we found that in our spare time we were making N+ levels again,” recalls Burns. “I would be walking down the street and I would get a level idea. It was a fun creative thing, like noodling on your guitar to pass the time.”

They were also encouraged by fans of the game, in particular Nick Suttner, a Sony account supervisor who works with indie developers. “We would meet Nick every year at GDC and he would say, ‘you’ve gotta do another one’.”

These conversations subsequently led to Metanet receiving the support of the Sony Pub Fund. The final piece of the jigsaw was a meeting with Dyad developer, Shawn McGrath.

“Shawn had just finished Dyad,” says Burns. “We went over to his place and prototyped a technique for doing anti-alias rendering. We had wanted to do this for N+ but didn’t have the time and the hardware couldn’t handle it. It looks really simple and we don’t know if anyone will notice it explicitly, but you feel it. Everything feels smoother because it’s all sub-pixel fractions of movement.”

So, rather than knocking out a quick, souped-up remake of N+ the series is receiving a complete overhaul. There are 1000 new levels, new vector based visuals and multiple new features, entities and enemies. The additions are particularly exciting and include some delightfully troublesome toggle mines and deadly moving laser beams. Most impressive of all is the evil ninja, a deadly ghost that repeats the player’s manoeuvres.

Burns’ delight is evident. “The evil ninja is our favourite new thing. Your previous actions become the basis for problems in the future. It’s doing whatever you did. When we added it, we were like, wow!”

“We didn’t know how it would work,” Sheppard adds. “But it adds a lot of psychological pressure,  you also have to remember what you did, which is hard, so it becomes a lot more about instinct and almost like improv.”

Watching the game in action is edge of your seat stuff. It’s clear that the game is as tricky as ever, but it’s never unfair. Simple levels can become complicated very quickly and it’s all too easy to paint yourself in to a corner by trying to be clever.  But the fault is always lies with the player, not the design.

“You can over think it,” says Sheppard. “If you think too hard you can really screw up. When we record the main menu demos, the goal is to die, pull off something amazing and then die. So when people are looking at the game the can get a sense of, ‘oh you can do all this crazy stuff, and you’ll die a lot.’ It’s part of the experience.”

“You always go in with a plan, explains Burns. “Then you flub a jump and the rest of the run is trying to deal with the side effects of your earlier mistakes. A lot of people don’t make it past 20% of the levels, but there are so many that it’s still really fun for them. For such a simple game, with three buttons, there is a lot of nuance to the timing and rhythm of it.”

Seeing N++ in full-flow demonstrates how the game benefits from its new graphics engine. It looks silky smooth and wonderful in motion, but it also has a print-like quality. The monochrome colour scheme of N+ has been replaced with a range of vibrant palates that provide a more modern aesthetic. The influence of The Designers Republic is obvious.

“Looking back, we realised that the grey look was purely functional.” says Burns. “We still like it, but we are aware that the screenshots for N and N+ where never really interesting. You would not see the game and be excited. And so one of the goals is to change that.”

Sheppard cites the input of graphic designer MASA as being key to the game’s visual evolution. “We knew we wanted to do colour, but we didn’t know what direction to take that in. MASA added a lot of neon, he added colours we never would have thought of putting in. He really pushed us in ways that worked.”

Even advances in HDTV adoption over the last eight years have had an impact on how the game looks and plays, says Burns. “The levels are now 16:9 ratio. On Xbox 360 we had to support SDTV, so it was all 4:3. That change has really opened up quite a bit of stuff. You can now have much more horizontal speed, so it’s nice to give levels more breathing room. It’s now all single screen with no zooming. It’s more classic presentation like an old arcade game, but it’s a fusion of that and modernity.”

N+ featured a suite of level creation tools, but online sharing was never enabled due to various legalities. With N++ players will be able to share their created levels online, although this is not without its development challenges. “Every level that anybody makes will be just like the built-in levels, with leaderboards,” says Burns. “A lot of users make cool and inspiring levels and we can now showcase them. It’s such a simple game that it’s actually not a chore to make levels.”

“One of the problems with user made content is discoverability,” Burns adds. “There is a massive amount of work on the menus and UI that we didn’t anticipate. You’re almost recreating Twitter, where you are recommending things and sharing levels.”

The positive showing for N++ at Sony’s GDC booth proved that its capacity for making players show off their skills has not diminished. Its visual simplicity and snappy pace make it the perfect spectator game. Burns and Sheppard hope that players will use the PS4’s video-sharing features to emulate that experience online.

N++ will also feature a range of multiplayer modes. “There’s co-op and there’s two competitive multiplayer types, race and death-match,” reveals Burns. “There was race in N+, but we have tweaked it and the new entities are really interesting, like the toggle mines for instance. As a level designer it’s really interesting as you can make pads where the first person to get there is the only person who can use that route. Once they run through it, it becomes deadly.”

N++ is already a very polished looking game, the levels I played felt good, and the new additions have certainly refined the experience without sacrificing the core elements of movement and momentum. However, despite appearances, the game is not quite ready for release. “There’s a lot of back-end work to do for the level sharing, we’re hosting the database as well, so there’s a lot of testing,” says Sheppard. “We are toying with the different modes of death match. We need to figure out which are best and tuned. And there’s still UI to do. We want it to be perfect. It needs to be great, but we think it will be released this year.”

“It’s the last one we ever can make,” adds Burns. “We have now made a 1000 new levels, and it’s getting to the point where we’ve made every level we can think of!”


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Thumbsticks editor and connoisseur of Belgian buns. Currently playing: Paper Mario: The Origami King, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and Pikmin 3 Deluxe.