N. It's that simple. (Or is it...?)
Some of the best games are ones that appear simple on the surface. For instance, the Namco classic Pac-Man. The idea of moving a little man through a maze while collecting pac-dots (yes, that’s what they’re called) and running from ghosts is as simple as they come. But, as they say, looks are often deceiving, as anyone who’s played Pac-Man knows. Many of us recall racing for those last few pac-dots as Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde gave chase. If we were lucky (or skilled) enough, we gobbled them up with a few quick jolts of the joystick, ending the stage. But as we all know, for every level we felled, another was waiting just around the corner. And the chase began anew. With each new level came different mazes, faster ghosts, and a shorter lifespan to those oh-so precious power-pellets. To think, all these fond memories and wickedly challenging gameplay from a title that consisted of nothing more than a few lines, 244 pellets, four colorful ghosts, and one yellow pizza-like man.
In this regard, Metanet Software’s N is eerily similar, yet I’d refrain from calling it a clone. However, one would be correct if they were to call it ‘heavily influenced.’
You play as an unnamed ninja who must traverse five maze-like rooms (per episode) before his “amazingly fast metabolism” causes him to die. Along the way, you must collect gold (not only is he a greedy little ninja, but each square of golden goodness adds two seconds to his already short lifespan), and outrun a series of “well-meaning, inadvertantly (sp) homicidal robots.”
Much like Pac-Man, the premise is simple enough, but after the first few rooms one starts to realize there’s more to N than meets the eye. At first none of these well-meaning robots are present. Instead, you’re left alone to collect as much gold as possible while unlocking the exit. In fact, the only way to die is to either fall a great distance, or let the clock (RE: your lifespan) run dry. It’s in the third room where get our first taste of non-user implemented doom. Explosive mines line the walls and thwumps (think self-elevating blocks) which can squish our hero, come into play. And the learning curve has begun.
Things only get tougher should you survive the set of rooms. As one moves onto the next episode, more danger’s abound and the rooms cause for further study. Luckily, unlike Pac-Man which throws you into the fray with hardy a glance at the newest maze, N allows the user to start at his whim with a simple press of the spacebar. Astute gamers will take this moment to carefully study the terrain, noting where the access panels and remote terminals are. He’ll quickly locate the mines, zap drones, homing turrets and other deadly robots. But, most importantly, he’ll pinpoint the gold in relation to all that’s mentioned before. Because, remember, gold equals life.
With Pac-Man, where gamers have but three lives and zero continues, N provides users with one life but limitless continues. Much needed limitless continues, let me tell you! What’s needed much more than continues, however, is patience. Even the easiest of levels can provide death or surprises that warrant suicide (you read that right) at every turn, and you will find there are many levels that demand repeating. Trial and error is an integral part of this simplistic game.
On that note, this reviewer would be amiss if he didn’t once again mention the simplicity of N.
As technology advances, so does the graphical capability of video game consoles. One look at Ninja Gaiden and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time demonstrates this to even the most stringent detractor. However, realistic graphics doesn’t necessitate quality gameplay. (Ask anyone who’s played Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball.) One must also remember the converse: simplistic graphics doesn’t necessitate simplistic gameplay. If that were so, why would people continue to enjoy the oft-mentioned Pac-Man, Pitfall, River Raid and dozens (if not hundreds) of other games from the pre-NES era?
N, if you hadn’t guessed, is the perfect example of sacrificing jaw-dropping visuals for pure enjoyment. Our ninja hero is nothing more than a stylized stickman running about mazes comprised of the most basic shapes and curves while collecting golden squares and leaping away from octagonal drones. It doesn’t need photorealism to draw attention or praise, because what it (purposely) lacks in that department, it more than makes up for in simple (there’s that word again) fun.
To date, there have been countless Pac-Man clones, most unsuccessfully stealing the formula. In fact, the only Pac-Man clone to ever garner any admiration would be Namco’s other classic, Ms. Pac-Man. (Which was actually more successful than the original.) N feels more like a 21st century homage, with more violence and the addition of blood, than another copycat attempting to steal the thunder of Pac-Man. (Then again, why any developer would attempt to “steal the thunder” of a 25 year old game is beyond me.) It’s in the design and addicting gameplay of N that one recognizes little bits of video game history. And many will surely smile as they guide the stick figure ninja towards another series of golden squares, as they fondly recall directing a yellow circular man as he munched down on white pellets all those years ago.
Note: This review refers to N version 1.3.