The Hyper-Polished Zen Masocore Primordia of N++

N++ is out! It’s the sequel/update to N+, which is itself the sequel/update to N. What does any of that mean, you might ask, and why do you care? Let me explain, by way of going back a ways.

So, I’ll never forget cracking open Super Mario All Stars for the SNES with my dad, replaying the first three Mario games with reworked whiz-bang 16-bit graphics. And of course, in addition to the three games we remembered, there was that whole other Super Mario Bros. 2, then called The Lost Levels. This was how I learned, by inches, pre-internet, that the Mario 2 we’d played five years earlier was actually a re-skinned Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic (later called Super Mario USA in Japan) because the initial Japanese sequel to Super Mario Bros. had been deemed too demanding and painful for release in the success-addicted West.

These Lost Levels were less aesthetically distinctive than Super Mario USA was, and also less outwardly surreal. Here Mario 2 was the same as the original Super Mario, more or less, except that it was unrepentantly evil, meant in all aspects to trick and punish and test devoted players.

There’s a whole genus of game design that branches out from this one bizarre, unyielding, mean-spirited Mario sequel, from like-minded Mario hacks (and lately, Mario Maker levels) to standalone masocore platform games like I Wanna Be The Guy and Mighty Jill Off. These games share a common ancestor in The Lost Levels, and so too do what I’ve previously called zen masocore platformers, like Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, and yes, N.

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Zen masocore games are often just as exacting as their crueler cousins, but they’re markedly different in tone and intent. Where I Wanna Be The Guy is a direct provocation, daring you to ragequit at every turn, Super Meat Boy is more about dogged sanguinity. You’re going to die, but don’t sweat that too much, because (again unlike I Wanna Be The Guy, and for that matter, unlike The Lost Levels), the individual challenges are brief and the proceedings are fanatically fair. They’re meant to taunt you without demoralizing you, and without being quite so unwelcoming to those with middling twitch skills.

“You Suck But That’s OK,” says what will likely be your first achievement in N++, thereby offering a statement of purpose: This game will fuck with you, but it wants you to succeed anyway. You can see echoes of this approach in roguelike-alikes and soulsalikes, where difficulty acts as a deliberate aesthetic element. Zen masocore platformers are the purest expression of that idea—taking the ensorcelling brutality of The Lost Levels and tempering it with the welcoming craft of the original Mario.

The modern zen masocore platformer came into being when N was first released in 2004 as a Flash game. It was later revamped as N+ in 2008, and then again as N++ in 2015. After a year or so of being exclusive to the Playstation Network, N++ is now on PC, replete with a level editor and all the other trimmings. The game’s come home.

Twelve years on, N plays like an exercise in minimalism. There’s your agile but fragile stick figure avatar—less hearty and more splatterable than the Dustforce crew, or than Captain Viridian, or even than Meat Boy—and there are doors and switches, spikes and trampolines, and there’s gold to collect. And that’s kind of it. It’s purely a game about the joy of movement, about managing momentum, and about the tension of navigating a dangerous environment with grace. It feels pared-down.

But at the same time, the game has been polished to a radiant sheen, with a confident and refined version of its quirky physics, and levels on levels, and a slick portal for sharing and acquiring more levels still. N++ represents a key moment in this one intensely specific but broadly influential branch of game design, crystalized.

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