As modern video games become ever more complex and immersive it's all too easy to forget that sometimes it's the most basic concepts that prove to be the most enduring. Sure, the latest Metal Gear Solid wouldn't have quite the same impact were it not for its gorgeous visuals and labyrinthine plot, but would Tetris necessarily be better if it featured stacks of immaculately rendered polygons and lengthy FMV cut scenes?
It's important to bear in mind this fundamental truth when you approach a game like the enigmatic N+. If you're the sort that's easily pleased by lush visuals and Hollywood-style presentation then there's every chance that you will recoil in horror when faced with N+'s unashamedly sparse aesthetics, but in doing so you'd be cheating yourself out of one of the most compulsive and downright addictive experiences currently available on any portable console.
Based on the popular XBLA game (which is in turn based on a PC freeware Flash-based computer title simply entitled N), the DS version of N+ is the very definition of the phrase 'less is more'. The core concept involves guiding an athletic ninja through a series of levels to the exit, avoiding traps and enemies along the way.
Control is simplicity in itself: the only activities you have to concern yourself with are moving and jumping. Although your avatar is versed in the clandestine art of ninjutsu, he has no offensive capabilities whatsoever (clearly he left his katana and throwing stars in another pair of trousers).
Despite the relative lack of options, the control system in N+ features a remarkable degree of depth. Your character showcases cannily realistic movements and is just as bound by the laws of physics as you are. Momentum, inertia and gravity all play a part in your ultimate success; understanding how to exploit these variables is intrinsic to survival in the world of N+.
For example, some sections require you to gain as much speed as possible before attempting a jump, while others feature ramps which have to be used in order to gain sufficient 'boost' to access to more out-of-reach areas or objects.
Your character is also able to perform nifty Ninja Gaiden-style wall jumps to ascend vertical corridors and is even able to slide down upright structures - an essential skill when you consider that, just like in real life, plummeting a considerable distance results in you leaving an unsightly stain on the floor upon impact.
To put it bluntly, N+ controls like every brilliant platform title you've ever played all rolled into one. Within a few moment's play you'll feel wholly at one with your on-screen representative; every subtle D-pad movement and button press is instantly and accurately transferred to your digital alter-ego and this glorious synergy is one of N+'s real charms. Rarely has it been so pleasurable to simply move a sprite around a screen.
Of course, such delights count for naught if there's no fundamental desire to actually control your character, and N+ shows remarkable restraint when it comes to in-game goals. Getting to the end of the level before the time runs out is your ultimate aim, and you achieve this by locating the green button which opens the exit of the level, and then making your way to said egress.
Sounds blissfully simple, doesn't it? Predictably, it isn't.
The single player portion of the game is arranged in episodes consisting of five levels. Early examples start off being quite straightforward and basically operate as an introduction to the subtleties of N+, but some of the more advanced stages are stupendously complex constructions that require you to use lightning-fast reflexes, forward-thinking and perfect timing. And if the actual layout of these levels isn't challenging enough, you also have to deal with the various hostile elements scattered around them.
These range from stationary dangers (proximity mines and gun emplacements) to mobile threats (seeker-droids of both land and air-based varieties) that will either rush towards your character or shower him with lasers and missiles on sight. Contact with an enemy or projectile results in instant death, as does falling from a great height.
Needless to say, in the process of slowly feeling your way through each level you'll die and you'll die often, but mercifully your ninja has infinite lives so it's a matter of picking yourself up and trying again.
During play, a clock is constantly ticking down and when it eventually reaches zero it's game over. Thankfully collecting gold cubes earns you additional time, with one cube being the equivalent of 2 seconds. Your time is carried over to the next level (and does so cumulatively until you finish the episode in question) so it pays to nab as many cubes as possible.
Herein lies one of the great dilemmas that N+ poses to the player – do you actively seek out gold to extend your time (and thereby run the risk of wasting valuable seconds in the process) or do you play it safe and simply aim for the exit (and lose out on additional time that could prove invaluable on later levels)?
It's a difficult balance to maintain but it grants N+ a perfectly pitched level of challenge. It's not uncommon to find yourself running out of time on certain courses only to replay them with a slightly different strategy and come up smelling of roses – and with plenty of seconds on the clock.
Once you've conquered all of the 200 levels within the game you can then get your teeth into the level creation mode, which offers you the tools to construct truly fiendish assault courses which can then be traded with friends via the Nintendo WiFi Connection. Multiplayer options are also present, containing co-operative and head-to-head play modes.
When the 360 enhancement of the original N was released many diehard fans expressed their reluctance to pony up hard-earned cash for something that was readily available on the internet for free. The fact that this DS version is even more expensive should give these people more cause for concern, but the same argument simply doesn't apply here; the DS iteration of N+ is so perfectly suited for portable gaming it's a wonder that it's taken this long for it to be converted.
Don't expect a graphic tour de force or a storyline that has more twists and turns than a twisty-turny thing; N+ strips away such superfluous elements and delivers an essential experience that harks back to the days of 16-bit 'reaction' gaming - it's challenging, invigorating and often frustrating, but once you've had a taste you'll almost certainly come back for more, despite the disarmingly minimal presentation.