I grumbled, but the fault was wholly mine, not the acrobatic N's.
"You've got what the indie scene will call the best platforming engine in Flash, ever," said David Geudelekian, producer of Metanet Software's N+. "What N did really well was it presented this incredible platformer with 1000 levels, it was crazy difficult. N the ninja was this lithe, acrobatic guy with all the things developers had learned from other platformers. You can wall jump, you can press along the wall as you're falling to slow your descent. Because it's a full-featured physics engine, momentum can kill you, but if you use a ramp's natural curvature, you might be able to catapult yourself across the level."
My particular level was one of 350 stages unique to the DS version of N+. Each setting is stark in appearance: drab backgrounds frame simple architecture over which the flexible N will run, leap, and slide. While not as aesthetically barebones as N, N+ maintains function over form for a vital reason: ease of design. Because each stage doesn't require the hardware necessary to make it a graphical tour de force, levels are small in terms of storage, which means they can be designed to present the player with any manner of challenge.
Creating 350 unique levels is quite a feat, but one that the game's level designers cannot completely claim as their own. "We're allowing full functionality for uploading and downloading of user-created content," Geudelekian said. "There's an included level editor, and the big thing is, we've gotten around Friend Codes. We definitely had to make concessions, but we don't use Friend Codes, and you can upload and download content."
From the very first time the N+ cartridge is inserted, users can access the level editor to create wild architectural wonders. Unfortunately, the sky is not the limit in terms of capacity. "With the DS, due to hardware limitations, we have eight save slots for your own created levels, downloaded levels, replays," Geudelekian admitted. So it's only eight slots, but given the hardware limitations, we got as much out of it as we could."
Uploaded levels will be categorized by date, another concession made by the N+ design team. In order to shirk the confining Friend Codes, the designers chose to make all online interactions anonymous. "We had to be sensitive to Nintendo's desire to keep their community features safe," Geudelekian explained. "They don't want people stalking, being malicious, whatever. What we're trying to do with Atari is to create a middle ground. Something like Konami's Metal Gear Online ID system, but we're trying to make it as user-friendly as possible."
Regardless of those meager limitations, developers Metanet and SilverBirch Studios still believe users will enjoy creating and sharing custom content. "We wanted to create a second community to allow the DS players to experience everything," said Geudelekian. "It's great to see your level up on the server, and that should be enough for the hardcore who just want to get their created content out there. Some people make the engine to use art; the level isn't beatable, it's just art."
Also new to N+ is multiplayer, a component lacking in N's debut single-player adventure. "The original game never had any multiplayer, and we decided that the engine should be used toward that," said Geudelekian. "There are six different multiplayer modes. Tag is one of our greatest. You tag the other player, their time bar starts running down. They tag you, and now your tag bar starts running down."
He turned to me, donned a feral grin, and challenged me to a game of tag. Being a ninja master, I had no choice but to accept.
After selecting multiplayer, Geudelekian showed off another facet of the game's customization: playlists. On the surface, playlists function about how you would expect. "You can populate a playlist with pre-made levels and a combination of user-created levels," Geudelekian said. "You could go up to 99 levels if you want to."
Impressive, but the tip of the proverbial iceberg has only been scratched. If players are so inclined, they could take it upon themselves to create a set of custom levels that share a common theme. From there, "you could structure a sequence of co-op levels arranged and designed to be a sort of mini-game," Geudelekian said. "Boom -- you've created a new take on the game."
From there, our session of tag began. We began in a square room with few impediments -- an oval turret hung from a smallish rectangle suspended in the center of the stage; several gold coins dangled from a tiny gap in the otherwise smooth ceiling. My avatar was framed by a gold outline, designating me as "it." Geudelekian's N was solid red.
A time counted down from 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and we were off. Being "it," my time bar started to decrease. I began by lunging for Geudelekian, who smartly responded by immediately sprinting in the opposite direction. All I had to do was touch him, simply overlap our sprites, and the "it" status -- as well as the draining time bar -- would transfer over to him.
Geudelekian leaped onto a side wall, bounded over to cling to the hovering platform, jumped back to the wall, and landed on solid (albeit hovering) ground. No doubt triggered by his appearance, the turret clicked into action, sending a reticule floating across the screen toward him. He jumped yet again, sliding down the opposite wall to land safely on the ground even as the reticule continued to lazily trail him.
I, meanwhile, eyed the glittering gold suspended above me. Touching coins while "it" restores a bit of time on your time bar, but also causes them to disappear for a limited time. Being a ninja, I used barely a second to think, trusting solely on instinct as I shot up, grabbed the coins, and dropped to the ground -- just as Geudelekian happened to run directly beneath me.
Three things happened in rapid, almost blurred succession. First, my character successfully grazed his, passing the evil gold outline like the hot potato it was. At the same time, the reticule decided it had pestered Geudelekian enough and set its sights on me. Finally, Geudelekian, realizing he was glowing a dangerous shade of greed, turned and began to pursue me as well.
So much attention, so little time bar remaining. As I fled, I passed over the reticule, prompting a missile to erupt from the turret and join in our fun little game of Chase the Journalist. I ground to a halt, turned on my heel and sped in the opposite direction, correctly predicting Geudelekian's assumption that I would skitter up the wall and onto the platform as he had. The missile was still after me, but my opponent was now conducting intimate relations with the wall. There was nothing to do but dodge the missile, which I did, successfully guiding it into the wall as I finally decided to make my way up to the floating chunk of real estate.
As I bounced on my virtual toes, preparing to evade the reticule now intent on avenging its missile, I watched a small red line slide slowly to the left on my time bar. That red line represents your opponent's position on the time bar. So long as it falls off the far end before your own bar, you've successfully won the tag match.
Which, woefully, I did not.
The session concluded, I folded my DS Lite and placed it on a glass coffee table and let out a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding. Geudelekian beamed, clearly pleased that my experience had been what he'd intended: blistering, intense, and ninja-caliber awesome.