N: Be a Stick Figure Ninja Master

Of the thousands of Flash games on the Web, the simply-titled N stands out from them all with its unrivaled combination of style, simplicity, elegance and challenge. Packing hundreds of levels providing nearly infinite replay value, you can kiss work productivity goodbye.

In N, you are a stick figure ninja with superhuman speed, dexterity and jumping abilities thanks to “an amazingly fast metabolism.” Unfortunately that high powered metabolism also results in an insect-like lifespan of 15 minutes, which can only be extended by collecting gold and avoiding “inadvertently homicidal robots.” The subtle absurdity is well executed and adds a welcome bit of humor to the game.

But it would all be for naught if N weren’t fun to play. Fortunately it’s a blast! Launching yourself from a trampoline while dodging rockets and carefully placed mines in pursuit of the exit door is a true adrenaline rush. The incredibly intricate physics engine makes N a very unique game, where you can spend hours just marveling at the different ways to kill your ninja, sending his body flopping over ledges like a ragdoll. And N comes packed with more than a hundred levels that can be unlocked, and thanks to the included level editor, called Ned, you can create additional levels or download ones made by other players.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who found the game creeping into my work life because N includes a “boss mode,” another one of those funny, clever features that has actually proved to be quite useful on occasion. Tap either the command or control keys any time during gameplay to switch to an entirely gray window with small text encouraging you to “press [boss key] to continue slacking” or “[Q] to panic,” which instantly quits the application. It would be nice to have this feature in more games that could undoubtedly get me in trouble if the boss finds me playing it on company time.

Of course the game doesn’t come without a few shortcomings. The graphics aren’t pretty — although it can be argued that the oversimplified imagery is part of the game’s charm. There are some inconsistencies in the placement of the “previous menu” buttons in the menu navigation, an easily-remedied problem for the developer. Also, the ability to preview a level layout before loading it would be a nice addition. Finally N has some issues when running on newer Intel Macs.

“We’ve gotten a lot of reports that N runs a little too slowly on newer Macs — it’s certainly true of Metanet’s Mac,” Metanet co-founder Mare Sheppard says in an email. “We’re going to take a bit more care with testing the next release.”

While the game hasn’t been updated in almost three years, developer Metanet Software is working on version 1.5, which will include improvements to the level editor, more levels and bug fixes, according to Sheppard. Work on N+ — available for download on the Xbox 360 Live Arcade and soon on the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP portable game systems — and on a new title called Robotology — a 2D platformer set in the future and starring a grappling hook-equipped robot, which will be available for the Mac and PC — is responsible for the slow development on the long overdue N update, Sheppard says. Version 1.5 will be released “hopefully soon,” but Sheppard stopped short of estimating a date so as not to disappoint fans if they miss the deadline.

“We’ve really been looking forward to making these changes for a long time — now we just need to find the time to do it!” Sheppard says.

You can download N for free, but be warned: if you have any major work projects on the horizon, the temptation of the ninja may be too strong for you to resist.

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