Throughout the duration of this column, we've learned a lot about shovelware. We've examined the sharing of blame between the publisher and developer, the curse of a license, the effects of critics' perception, and much more. Our top priority has been determining common attributes. One might ask what is the single, definitive trait common throughout all shovelware. The easy answer would be "it sucks." But to who? You? Me? Everyone? If you were to wander through the graveyard of the DS's library, even the loneliest tombstone will have a sympathizer or two. Particularly for younger gamers who might not know any better, cognizance is everything.
Thus, we must focus on the objective. As the swipe for this series states, "shovelware refers to any game in which time and effort were eschewed in favor of turning a quick profit." Theoretically, any game which shows compromise in any area for the benefit of time and/or money might be considered shovelware. Even if the game is a critical success, one can still identify flaws in its design. Without labeling n+ as shovelware, let's examine how its existence relates to the bottom-feeders of the DS.
(A quick note: I've been playing this game very often since a few days after it was released, so the typical "timing" method used would not be feasible. Suffice to say I've spent a lot of time with this game. Instead, I'll list hints of shovelware-esque faults.)
- The online modes are really awesome ... in theory. You connect to a server using a created username and password, then you can browse through select user-created maps. These can be played without requiring a download and save to the DS card, which is awesome. But if you really like it, you can go ahead and do that to play it on the go. Yet there seems to be server issues. In almost every online session I've had, disconnection occurs in a fairly consistent manner. You can chalk that up to the onslaught of new users, but this isn't Mario Kart.
- Although the use of the keyboard in the game is really limited, the keys don't seen to like the stylus. It's not a deal-breaker, but it is a bit of a detriment. Even Ping Pals' keyboard worked flawlessly.
- Menu options don't always stay selected, especially after restarting the DS. For example, the display mode occasionally toggles between "plus" and "pure" modes without my consent. Additionally, the game turns the music off (but not the sound effects) after a restart every time like clockwork, even if I go into the options and turn it back on. Speaking of which ...
- On its own, the music is pretty cool. The retro / electronica hybrid sounds great in samples, and is best experienced through the promotional videos provided by the publisher. But in execution, something goes terribly wrong. Musical phrases repeat indefinitely and awkwardly, leaving the audio experience more distracting than enjoyable. Occasionally the music drops out completely, then startlingly reappears later mid-level. My best guess is that they were trying to implement some sort of event-related music (i.e. the speedy version of the Mario theme that plays when you're running out of time). But perhaps they didn't have enough time left to fully test and implement it.
- Nitpick alert: the deaths are nowhere near as cool as they were in the original flash version. Death happens often in this game, and a happy consolation prize for a cheap death is the entertainment of watching your ninja's body blow apart or dangle off a ledge with incredible rag-doll physics. Yet in the DS version, it looks more like watching a hot dog roll off a table onto a carpet with an unsatisfying plop.
One could assume that this title had resources stretched too thin. Metanet, creators of the original flash N, were much more satisfied with the XBLA version of their original game than the DS and PSP releases. Developers Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns mentioned in their blog that "in terms of design as a whole, we don't agree with some of the decisions that were made with the handhelds." Perhaps the issues present are solely the fault of Silverbirch Studios. Or perhaps Silverbirch didn't receive enough resources from Atari to sufficiently port the brilliant flash game to the DS and PSP systems. Indeed, the title was delayed about 6 months from its original planned release date. Perhaps the project was running short on time and / or money. While a compromise in either of these two factors usually precedes doom, gameplay can still persevere. And in this case, it most definitely does. The gripes I described above? Extremely forgivable.
Is N+ a great game? Yes. Is it one of my all-time favorite DS titles that I'd recommend to anyone? Most definitely. But is it an effort that may have been shortchanged on time and resources and thus categorized as shovelware? You be the judge.
Update: Included commentary from Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns. Big thanks to dtd and especially Mare!