Super Mario Galaxy will be available in a few hours and it's one of the very few games I'm willing to pay full price for. So naturally I need to look at a game in Mario's own native genre, platform action, for my free game.
(For what it's worth, how I mentally rate games is by deciding how much I'd be willing to pay for them. No game goes above $20 unless I have strong reasons to suspect that I'd enjoy the game in which case it gets bumped up to $30. A very tiny handful of games exist that I'm willing to pay full price on based mainly on the developer and if I have a long history of enjoying their games coupled with a desire to play them as soon as I can. So far this year the total of those games is four and it's been a busy year. I am the game industry's worst nightmare; a player with patience.)
Technically N isn't really a descendant of Mario. N holds a lot more in common with titles like Montezuma's Revenge which predate even Mario Brothers by a few years. The game is simple: you jump, you stick to walls, and you want to get to the exit. On the way to the exit you have to dodge the an assortment of enemies, make tricky jumps, and figure out simple switch puzzles. A clock is constantly ticking down and you can collect gold bars scattered around the stage in a Lode Runner type fashion to push it back up.
One of the more interesting things about N is how deadly the game is. The game's joking story says that you have an average life span of fifteen minutes but that's being generous. On many levels it will be closer to fifteen seconds. Anything bad is instantly fatal and the enemies are fast and accurate. The tracking rockets follow closely, the machine guns fill the area around you with bullets, and lasers home in on you fast. The only thing you can do is keep moving as fast as you can and slip by them. The only punishment for dying is having to do that level over and that means you typically only lose a few seconds.
The graphics in N are minimalistic in the best sense of the word. Everything is tiny but moves smoothly. There are no distracting screen elements: just you and the puzzle. Each stage is exactly one screen in size For the screen shots that are accompanying this post I had to trim down the view so it would be possible to see what was occurring.
Not every level is as balanced as it could be: some even past the initial gentle learning curve missions can be run through in seconds while others can be hair pulling challenges. To avoid this becoming a problem N has five hundred levels and you can jump around them in blocks of fifty to avoid getting stuck at too frustrating of spot. There's also a level editor and the ability to play other user's levels built in. That's a lot of game play in one simple package.