I’ll play any platformer I can get my hands on. If I see a screenshot for your game and it looks like I’m going to be running and jumping around, chances are I’m gonna check it out. It’s in my blood. So after all the buzz about N++ on Twitter, I figured I’d try it out.
This all happened once before, around the time Super Meat Boy came out on the 360. I download the demo for N+ to satiate my then ravenous appetite for more good platforming, and found myself left cold. The grey walls and floaty jumping just didn’t do much for me at all. I spent probably fifteen minutes with it and never touched it again. I couldn’t say it was a bad game, but just one that didn’t hit my sweet spot. So again, in 2015, the series is placed right in front of me. I spent my $15, played it for a few hours, and I’m still in the same spot.
What exactly is it about the N series that doesn’t jive with me?
Turns out, I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. Let’s start with the basics.
Jumping in Super Meat Boy always feels exactly the same. It’s easy to control your momentum, and you can turn on a dime when you need to. There’s a 99.9999% accuracy of me pressing a button and knowing where I’m going to land, because I have total control over my character at all times. N+ doesn’t seem to want you to have this much control.
N+’s Ninja slides as it moves. Once you’re taking an action, you’ve committed to it, whether you want to be or not. You can’t go from a full sprint and start moving backwards in an instant, there’s a slight delay on everything you do. While it’s certainly more deliberate than LittleBigPlanet’s wonky jumps, I still prefer my actions to be instantaneous. I don’t like having to think out how my momentum is going to affect my movement four seconds from now, I just want to run around and do sweet jumps one after another. Despite priding itself on quick-moving ninjas, N+ constantly feels like one of the slowest moving platformers out there. I’m always wishing I moved faster, wishing I felt better about speed-running the levels.
While the ninja may feel a bit slow already, the game deliberately slows itself down by asking you to grab a million shiny things around each level. These objects feed into level completion numbers, as well as adding time and points to improve your level scores. But why? A lot of the levels are fun enough to play through on their own, but I always feel like I’m playing the game wrong by ignoring the extras that are begging to be picked up. If these were absent, I’d have more time to run through the levels I enjoy playing, without being stuck slowly jumping in place to grab the few blocks I missed.
Sure, that’s a problem that’s totally solvable by just not worrying about them, but I like collecting things! Super Meat Boy’s collectibles are great, because there’s like one in every five stages or so, and they’re used as bonus challenges to prove that you can do something difficult. The only thing I prove when I collect the dots in N++ is that I’m good at wasting time. I like the feeling of having mastered a section, and knowing that I’ve done it to the best of my ability. When I finish an N++ stage, all I can think is “Wow, I sure missed a bunch of things the developers wanted me to pick up…” and then it all repeats in the next stage. While we’re here, let’s talk about how the levels connect, and why I can’t have nice things.
The Level Bundles
You can’t jump into N+ and play one level by itself. You just aren’t allowed to. This kind of sucks.
Every stage in N++ is part of a bundle of five. You have to complete a five stages in a row to make any progress, set any marks on the leaderboards, etc. So if you blast through four levels and have trouble with the fifth, you can’t just exit and try something else, because you’ll be forced to play through those first four again. You can’t turn the game on for a few seconds and plow through a couple levels to kill time, because maybe the fourth of the bunch is more difficult than you were expecting, and now you’re stuck. Sure, most of the levels are simple and short enough not to be too demanding of your time and energy, but (yes, here it comes) Super Meat Boy’s levels are even shorter (and play a lot faster!) and you can choose to do a single one at a time if you want. Nintendo realized that splitting individual levels apart makes things more fun in Super Mario Bros. 3… In 1988.
Speaking of Mario, that series has plenty more going for it than just running and jumping. So does Meat Boy. And so do almost all other notable platformers. And pretty much all good games.
…is almost nonexistant. Imagine playing Portal without GLaDOS taunting you at every turn. Yes, the base mechanics of Portal are still fun, but wouldn’t it feel a bit…drab? That’s the entirety of N++. Other than some good music and the fantastic, newly added, ability to mix up the color scheme at will, it feels like there’s not much going on behind the scenes of N++. It’s like if you told a computer to “MAKE A VIDEO GAME” N++ would be what got spit out. I don’t mean this as an insult to any of the designers, there are some really good bits of level design in N++, and for whatever reason I keep playing it. It’s like the Destiny of platformers. And I know it originated as a flash game, but well, Portal and Meat Boy didn’t exactly come from stunning beginnings either. It seems like developers of N don’t know how to evolve, so they just keep getting better at making the exact same thing again and again.
Or maybe Super Meat Boy has just ruined me for other video games.
As much as I complain about N++, I still admit that I have fun with it. Or at least, I still choose to kill time by playing it. There’s something hypnotic about clearing a set of levels and having more and more and more lined up ready to be tackled. But rather than feeling exciting about seeing the next set, more often than not I feel like I’m checking down a list of boxes, tasks meant to be completed. And at what point is that just… work?