Super Meat Boy
I've died 7,555 times. I've only completed 67% of the game's content. At this rate, it stands to reason that I'll need to die another 3,778 times to get to 100% completion. That is, of course, assuming uniform difficulty. But the difficulty isn't uniform, and I don't have the mathematical mind necessary to crunch the numbers further. Still, to die over 10,000 times to beat the game fully? To die at a rate of 343 times an hour, 5 times a minute, very nearly once every 12 seconds to make it two thirds of the way there? And presumably exponentially more than that to finish the final third? That's an insane rate of failure.
And yet, I find myself coming back for more. Super Meat Boy has that effect on you. It'll throw you into pits of lava and used syringes. It'll eviscerate you hundreds upon hundreds of times on contraptions of circular saw death. It'll make you feel utterly hopeless towards the perilous and infinitely lethal hoops through which it demands you jump. And yet, somewhere deep down in that sadistic core of brutal 2D platforming mechanics, it loves you. As often as it marches you to your death, it nourishes you with lovingly crafted visual design and catchy, invigorating background music. It may not nourish you at a rate of nearly once every twelve seconds, but somehow it balances out.
Pfft... Child's play.
Super Meat Boy is the 2D platforming debut of independent developer Team Meat, currently available for download on PC and X-Box 360 with a forthcoming Mac release on the horizon. In it, you play as the eponymous Meat Boy, an adorably rendered cube of meat who was beaten up and had his girlfriend, Bandage Girl, stolen by the nefarious Doctor Fetus. You then proceed to guide Meat Boy through various colourful worlds (most of which are eventually coloured red with your own blood, mind you) in order to defeat the villain and win the girl in the traditional Mario mould.
You may think that the narrative is pathetic and ultimately a superficial vehicle for classic, tried and true 2D platforming gameplay, and you'd be right. Keep in mind that, if anything, it's not necessarily disposable in its simplicity - after all, Nintendo have been refusing to throw it away for 26 years and counting - but disposable in the bizarre renditions of iconic archetypes. Men of meat and sharply dressed unborn children? We're not exactly operating in the real world here...
At any rate, the context for the game's action is so simple as to be established in its entirety even before the opening title credits. It's a throwback to the glorious days of tough as nails 2D platforming in the NES/SNES era. You think Demon's Souls was tough? Or how about the old Donkey Kong side-scrollers? Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts? The classic Castlevanias? May God help you with Super Meat Boy, then; a game so hard it would make the boys from Contra shrink in fear.
All Super Meat Boy gives you is a jump button and the directional arrows (as well as a uselessly toggled speed key which should really have been default, if I'm honest), puts about a million spinning blades between you and Bandage Girl, and then crams in about a million more. Before you know it, you'll be inventing expletives in order to express your frustrations. The game quickly makes you realize that there's not nearly as many curse words as there should be.
What could possibly make such a bleak and deliberately infuriating game worthwhile? What's the gratification, what's the payoff? Super Meat Boy is a rarity in that, for the first time I can remember in years, victory is its own reward. Once the game stops holding your hand about midway through the first world (if you want to argue that it was ever holding your hand in the first place), every level seems to present its own unique challenges. All you're able to do is run and jump on a 2D plane, but absolutely every possible thing that can be done with that mechanic is explored across an assortment of 300 levels.
Sometimes, it's all worth it just for the replay montage.
Never before has such variety been expressed through such simplicity. You'll frequently spend dozens - occasionally even hundreds - of super meat children on completing a level which on average takes no more than 20 seconds to get through once you've figured it out. You'll applaud your perseverance then immediately wonder what on earth the game could possibly throw at you next. Then you'll see the next level. You'll see the chasms you must jump, the dizzying maze of deathtraps in your way, and the seemingly impossible timed actions that the level design demands. The infinitely looped music will chime in once again with a pumping riff and you'll hurl yourself headlong into the mercilessly cruel challenge that awaits. And if you have the fortitude to tough out the entire game, you'll do this 300 times. You'll feel like a champion 300 times. For $7.49, that's quite the ego-boosting bargain.
The reason Super Meat Boy works so well is because of its sheer speed. A lot of games demand lightening quick reflexes from their players, but such is often unbalanced when it's the only thing about the game that's fast paced. In Super Meat Boy, everything is quick. The music is energizing and high tempo. Meat Boy himself moves at an initially uncomfortably swift pace given how precise most of the actions must be. The game rewards a fast performance by opening up a crueler version of the current level if it's completed in a fast enough time, and always has a timer in the top left hand corner which is tuned to hundredths of a second for online leaderboards. And how do you think that it's even possible to die at such a blisteringly fast pace as once every twelve seconds? It's not by waiting around for load times, that's for damn sure. All of a sudden, Meat Boy being skinned in Ferrari Red seems appropriate.
Super Meat Boy certainly isn't for everyone, but this is just a fact of the genre and is through no fault of the game. Mechanically speaking, it's fair and sound. It's immensely rewarding in its difficulty and challenge, and while the core game up until the final showdown between Meat Boy and Doctor Fetus should be attainable by anyone sufficiently buoyed by the game's lovingly retro charm and presentation to endure the punishing difficulty, the extra chapters, dark worlds, and warp zones will certainly push them over the edge. Still, this is a good 100 levels worth of content well within the skill set of almost anyone. And at the bargain indie game price, throw a couple of bucks Team Meat's way and support a truly stellar and wonderfully realized title.
I'm not sure about you, but character design-wise, I think that Meat Boy is brilliant.
For this review and others like it, please visit Confederate Wing.
Note: Last year, I wrote a thorough retrospective of 2009 in film. I wrote something similar for this year, however nowhere near the same magnitude as before (It's about 1/6th as long, if I recall correctly. Still, it's 2,500 words long.) I'm not going to be posting it here since it's a bit more humble, personal, and subjective, but I'm including a link to it on my own personal website if you're interested in reading it, as I'm sure at least three of you may be. Click here to view it. Cheers, and happy holidays.
Oh, and please let me know what you thought of the liberal use of the second person in the review. Honestly, it just felt like the best way to approach the subject, although I'm keen to hear whether or not you think it worked well here.