Ninjaneer

Welcome to this week’s first article focusing on independently developed games.

The funny thing about being a ninja is how really, it’s all about the basics. Sure, sure, you can learn advanced jutsu to channel your chakra into a deadly weapon, or distill a lethal poison for slipping into the drink of the man you’ve been hired to assassinate. There’s the parties with other ninja, the endless fashion parade of simple black clothes and ever more expensive accessories (“Oh, didn’t I show you my new shuriken? It’s titanium.“) Despite all the glitz and glamour of the ninja world, though, when you’re on a mission it inevitably comes down to the simple things your first teachers tried to teach you: speed, agility, and intense concentration. N is a simple, addictive, and elegant game for PC, Mac, and Linux PCs. It is, at it’s heart, a descendent of Lode Runner, itself based on Apple Panic. The premise is simple: you are small. The world is big. The world has gold, and lots of things that can kill you. Get the gold. Don’t get killed. That’s it.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because these sorts of games are also the precursors of Donkey Kong, and thus also of the Mario games. The genre is named after their most easily identified feature: they are platformers. N is a throwback to the game in its purest form.

N

N (click to enlarge)

N is primarily a game about motion. One of the most strange and wonderful things about it is the cognitive dissonance between the time that you first see a screen shot and the time that you first play the game. Seen as a screen shot, N is ugly and uninspired. Your avatar is a stick figure. The palette consists of different shades of gray, black, and the occasional (tiny) red spot, and the yellow pieces of gold. It looks, in screenshots, like something a 12 year old might draw on a history notebook in a really boring class.

But then you play, and your ninja begins to move.

He glides with elegant panache across open floors. He leaps impossible distances, swinging his little stick figure arms forward and back in time with the jump. He climbs up walls and scrabbles up and down ledges. He falls from a great height, and reaches out and drags his little stick figure limbs against the wall to slow his descent. He is lithe. He is nimble. He is beautiful. He does his best to navigate treacherous mazes and avoid lethal ninja-killing robots. He has no offensive abilities. His only weapons are grace and speed.

The controls are sensitive, with an “aftertouchy” nature that is not immediately apparent at first. After a few levels, you’ll be making in-flight adjustments and making jumps that seemed impossible at first. The animation is great, the collision detection precise, and the various ragdoll movements that occur when you die – in many, many gruesome and entertaining ways – look disturbingly realistic, given their stick-figureness.

I can recall the exact moment that I decided that I loved the game. I had finished most of a level and had a clear path to the exit. There were a few bags of gold left, but they were in an incredibly dangerous spot. Trying to get them would have been foolhardy and arrogant. The sane thing to do was to head straight for the door. “The hell with that. I’m a ninja. I do not fear death.” Leaping down into the crevice, I slowed my fall against the wall, narrowly avoided the proximity mines, grabbed the loot, and only then exited the level.

Now that’s what I call fun.

N was written by two guys from Toronto over a six week period. There are no cinematics, cutscenes, plot twists, dialogue, or other extraneous material. The game application also includes a built-in level editor (somewhat hidden beneath debug menus – read the documentation). N is an in-your-face slam at those who insist that the only way to improve games is to create a “more realistic virtual experience” (also known as “spending more money and thought on art and sound asset development than you do on gameplay”). N isn’t just a great little game. It’s a great little tutorial on what a game is, stripped down to its essential elements.

It’s a lesson that other game developers should heed.

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