N-Ball, a recent release from sadistic physics-based gaming studio Rag Doll Software, is best described as a stripped-down minimalist re-mix of Marble Madness, Sonic the Hedgehog and Uniracers as if they were collectively marinaded inside a pinball machine then poured down a Rube Goldberg device. N-Ball is fun, it is challenging, it is innovative, and for only $5 during the month of April (or $10 normally), it is definitely worth checking out.
N-Ball begins life as a motionless glowing orb in a Tron-esque world that comes alive under the gamers touch and through the magic of physics-based gameplay. Players control the ball through 2D side-scrolling levels with a simple left/right/jump control scheme. The ball takes care of the rest, accelerating through dips, bouncing off rubber surfaces, and rolling down planks. Each of the 40 levels unravels through a Mouse Trap-like topography of reactionary Newtonian gizmos: sleds, pulleys, rubber bands, rubber ladders, funnels, levers, baskets on guide wires, rotating pinwheels, balance scales, rolling spheres, and sticky surfaces. Each of these responds to the motion and momentum of the ball depending on how you hit them. Some objects are scripted, while others wait to be triggered and others can be played around with. Sometimes you literally have to wait for the level to "calm down" if you've thrown too much of your own energy into it. There are also many sequences in the game where you have to manipulate an object to progress. An early favorite of mine was pushing a sled to the tip of a ledge and then hopping aboard to safely slide down through a "red zone" that would otherwise send me back to the beginning of the level. At points the sled takes leaps of faith over large gaps and you have to make the split-second choice to jump off or see where it lands. Good stuff.
Some gamers might be turned off by the minimalist conceptualism of N-Ball, which is better thought of as more toy than traditional video game. There are no stars to collect, no enemies to stomp, and no bosses to defeat. The focus is on timing, exploration and pulling off imaginative chain-reaction moves. Achieving a state of free manipulation will take some time however, and maintaining it on the harder levels will be even more difficult. If you take some time to become proficient with the controls, you will experience moments where they seem to disappear. It is during these moments of "flow" (to take the term from Jenova Chen's enjoyable game and masters degree thesis) that N-Ball is at its best.
Depending on your skill level, these moments may be few and far between. The control scheme gradually becomes intuitive as you play through the first 10 levels, but after that N-Ball can be unforgiving of mistakes. As you leap through the levels there is no fundamental "floor" to land on, meaning a mis-timed bounce or unintended reaction that can't be saved will send the ball plummeting to its extinction like a technicolor jurassic comet (and you back to the beginning of the level with it). At the same time, however, it is precisely the chaotic interaction between ball and environment that leads to the surprises and spontaneously emergent gameplay mechanisms that makes the game so fun, and which differentiates physics-based gameplay from the inevitable boredom of overly-defined digital systems. Nevertheless, adding certain crutches would make the game a little more friendly and less frustrating, such as zooming out the camera when the ball soars or providing a mini-map of the level. Would such accouterments detract from the aestheticism of the game by turning it into a goal-oriented exercise instead of an open-ended one? Luckily we need not ask this question as the inclusion of a "free play" mode where N = infinite balls gives you a chance to explore and experiment without consequence.
Unlike most videogames, you should not think of a level in N-Ball as something you have to beat or confront. The only way to "get" N-Ball is by relaxing: the game is not there to challenge you, rather you are there to challenge the game. Sometimes taking your hands off the keyboard and just letting the ball roll slowly or bounce on its own is the best way to pass a section, while in others you have to precisely time jumps of varying intensity. At other points you have to quickly mix both techniques or invent your own. The level design is quite thoughtful, and encourages dozens of different ways to interact with the software.
In conclusion, it is safe to say that I've never pressed a keyboard so hard in the misguided attempt to squeeze that last little bit from a video game jump! I imagine that an expanded version of N-Ball would be a fantastic demonstration of the gyroscopic controller for the upcoming Nintendo Revolution console. But in the here and now, N-Ball gives you fun physics, 40 levels to explore, genuine moments of tension and elation, and a level editor all for the incredibly low registration price of $5 until the end of April ($10 thereafter).
Note: the game doesn't include minimum system specifications, but it ran like butter in full screen on my G4 1.25GHz with OS 10.4.6.
The Good• Amusing, simplistic and novel physics-based gameplay
• 40 levels and a level editor
• Rewards experimentation and imagination
• Unlimited "free play" mode
The Bad• Minimalist conceptualism might not be enough "game" for some gamers
• Difficult enough to frustrate at the higher levels
• Repetitive disco soundtrack (try playing your own music instead)