Sometimes it feels like modern games coddle players. There was a time when beating a game meant sitting down and battling through it in one sitting. If you were lucky the developer employed a password system that would bring you back to the start of whatever level you were on. Now we have checkpoints after every minor battle and constant autosave systems. We have unlimited lives and omnipresent hint systems. Gamers today often find their only challenge in competitive multiplayer; someone on the other end creates a challenge where the developers couldn’t.
I mention this because Super Meat Boy is hard as hell. I had every intention to finish the game before reviewing it, but I couldn’t. This isn’t to say I can’t beat this game or that I won’t; god help me I will finish this game. However my conquest has eluded me due to a perfect storm of tortuously difficult levels and sheer content overload.
Super Meat Boy is, on the surface, a simple platformer where you lead a skinless flesh bag through a carnival of dangers with the elemental power of wall jumping. Dig deeper and you will begin to notice how tight the controls are. With practice you’ll find yourself recreating the exact same jump time and time again. You’ll start to feel how button press duration affects your trajectory and how a running start affects your momentum.
And then you will die, a lot, and eventually you’ll grow to accept that too.
Life, Death, and more Death.
In Super Meat Boy, death is the norm. Oh sure, maybe you’ll make it through the first dozen levels without dying. Hell, maybe you’re really good and you’ll breeze through that whole world without seeing your avatar splattered into a fountain of blood and sinew more than a handful of times. But eventually this game will catch you, and it will break you, and it will laugh and tell its friends about the whole thing.
Thankfully, death in Super Meat Boy comes at very little expense. The levels are small, so being forced to start over doesn’t feel like a major setback. After dying, you are respawned at the start almost instantly. In platformers of the past, frustration generally sets in during the death sequence. To this day thoughts of MegaMan’s death animation can still make my skin crawl. Super Meat Boy avoids this by never pulling you out of the fray, and that goes a long way towards keeping the game from ever being truly frustrating.
It’s important to note that Super Meat Boy does not achieve kills through cheap tactics. When you die you know exactly what you did wrong. With the exception of a couple of boss battles, death doesn’t sneak up on you. When you die in Super Meat Boy it’s always for the exact same reason: you weren’t perfect.
You’re the best! Around!
Super Meat Boy is an exercise in perfection. Some of the most difficult levels present their challenge by demanding perfection from the player. You’ll need to have perfect timing to avoid an oncoming laser beam. You’ll need to jump at the perfect angle to squeeze between two saw blades. This is about learning a system of gameplay and becoming perfect at it, and your reward is the unmitigated rush of adrenaline you get when you succeed.
But Super Meat Boy does not just require perfection, it demonstrates it. On display here is some of the best level design since Super Metroid. I lost count how many times I jumped directly into a trap placed there by a team who obviously took the time to play their own game. With a masterful pace the game introduces a new hazard or level element as soon as you start to get the hang of the old ones. It slowly builds an arsenal of weapons with which to torment you, and then it clicks off the safety.
Is it worth the price?
When games are released on console download services, value for price always seems to be a major topic of conversation. Super Meat Boy will be released for 1200 MS points (or 15 real-person dollars), which is the price point most often associated with the question “Is it worth that?” This is always a very personal decision, but all I can say is that Super Meat Boy packs an absolute ton of content. The normal game has well over a hundred normal levels. Add to that the “Dark World” levels (mega difficult versions unlocked by beating the normal level fast enough) and that number doubles. There are also hidden “Warp Zones” in each world that contain a handful of retro-themed levels and the promise of entire worlds free to download in the future through XBL’s title-managed storage system. When was the last time you played a game with potentially 350+ levels?
Adding to the value are the Super Meat Boy’s myriad unlockable characters. The list reads like a who’s who of indie gaming heroes. Tim from Braid, the ninja from N+, and Edmund McMillen’s own Gish are just a few playable characters. Each has their own unique gameplay mechanic that dramatically affects how the levels play, so you’ll find yourself replaying old levels with new characters just to clock a faster time.
Super Meat Boy is one of the most addicting experiences I’ve had with a controller in hand. The game is jam-packed with references to the classic games I played growing up: Castlevania, Street Fighter, Ninja Gaiden. Each world of Super Meat Boy features an intro movie that mimics one of the classic game intros of that generation. There’s even a boss that tips off his attacks by blinking (see Punch-Out). But the most fitting tribute is the game itself, which is simultaneously a throwback and improvement upon those classic games. Though some gamers may be turned off by the near-constant death required to plow through this game, those who give it a chance will be rewarded with one of the best platformers released in this or any other generation. Super Meat Boy expects you to be perfect, because it is.