Difficulty is subjective, especially when it comes to video games. It stands true that one man’s “piece of cake” is another man’s “hunk of irradiated steel wool.” And nowadays, with indies marching into the affordable minimalist obsession, there’s more variety in picking your poison. Although it’s becoming increasingly tough to find that difficulty sweetspot, and “practice makes perfect” is sounding more and more like a cop out for a lack of dexterity, sometimes it’s nice to be challenged beyond the realm of playing responsibly and not shattering a $60 controller.
Take Spelunky for example: ostensibly an evolution of Dig Dug, it’s a self-torture device that’s as addictive as it is devious and punishing. It looks simple and saccharine, but beneath its Mega Drive exterior hides a monster; a deeply engaging, hardcore game that holds nothing in the way of making you (me) feel like you’ve (I’ve) never played a video game before. And I’ve played loads. I swear.
N++, sequel to the similarly titled and surprisingly still wildly popular N+, follows such traditions. It’s about as pretty as a high-resolution Bally Astrocade game and as difficult as landing an airplane. On a miniature golf course. At night. Blindfolded. With both arms behind your back and a gaggle of babies singing along to cancelled children shows theme songs. Loudly. It’s also more accessible than it’s forbear — though watching me play wouldn’t spell such things.
It’s not the game’s fault, though. N++ ticks like a fine watch, wound tight. Every faulty maneuver; every missed cue, headfirst collision into a spiky bomb: it’s like being punched with an invisible fist of suck. As much as I wanted to — and tried before being confronted by an observing bystander at Metanet’s PlayStation Experience booth — I couldn’t blame the game. It was me.
Mechanically, N++ couldn’t be simpler with a shiny red helmet and floaties. Players control a stick figure, time and land jumps meticulously, plot any boastful bursts of speed and avoid the hellish dangers of over a thousand wonderfully pieced-together levels. Things like moving lasers, missiles and explosives are a constant threat, and every stage combines various hindrances in creative and dangerous ways.
The surface paints only half the picture, however. Timing jumps isn’t for the squeamish, and the smooth-as-butter controls will rarely lead to a fumbling end. Even well-executed maneuvers are likely to result in death, and though pure skill has its place at the pinnacle of N++’s food pyramid, luck has its share of the market cornered. Any distractions, be they shin-kicks from an angry nephew or the incessant buzzing of Africanized bees, can end an otherwise perfect run.
Despite having to play through the same short level on repeat for what seemed like (and probably was) an hour, finally nailing that thought-to-be impossible jump is satisfying. Of course, it helps that frustration rarely sets in — primarily because it’s so fun to move around the levels.
It’s clear that the folks at Metanet listened to fans’ criticisms regarding level design, because the game is almost diverse to a fault. “We’re much better at putting levels together now, and we’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t,” said Mare Sheppard, co-founder of the company. While plenty of the levels will boil blood, there’s a gradual curve now that should help newcomers adjust comfortably to the anger-inducing layouts and elaborate trappings of later levels.
While N++ is certain to please fans of its predecessor (and newcomers with a heart of steel), the addition of local multiplayer — pitting four players against one another in a footrace — is beautiful. Yes, I asked about online: “Unfortunately, online isn’t viable,” said Sheppard. “People see N++ and they think it’s all pixels, so they think we’re not adding online play because we’re lazy, but lag is a huge concern in a game like this.”
Naturally, it’s not as simple as reaching the finish line and calling it a win. Taking damage during a run sends players back to the beginning of a level, so balancing speed and maneuverability is key to success. Moving too quickly risks losing a whole mess of time, but slow-stepping will leave you at a loss if your buddies are nimbler. Once a player reaches the goal, however, the real fun begins, and with the launch of a missile the winner can harass — and hopefully destroy — other players.
Without a doubt, N++ improves on every facet of N+’s repertoire. It’s bigger, better and harder. Sadly, I didn’t find any hidden talents for dodging spikes or bombs with well-timed wall jumps. Instead, I found a bundle of failures that, at the very least, made me eager to jump right back in. N++ will be available early 2015 on PlayStation 4.