Super Meat Boy is something of an indie Cinderella story. A game designed and produced almost entirely by Edmund McMillen alone, its release on Xbox LIVE Arcade heralded the return of the hyper-difficult old-school platformer, a genre that hadn’t had anything like mainstream success since the days of Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man 2 on the NES.
Read on to find out if the PC release of this indie darling is deserving of your time, money, and endless frustration.
Super Meat Boy is an old-school throwback through and through. The story, presented in 1920’s style film reel, is very simple: our protagonist, Meat Boy, is attempting to rescue is girlfriend, Bandage Girl, from the grips of his nemesis, the evil Dr. Fetus. In each level, Meat Boy must reach Bandage Girl, at which point she will be kicked around a bit by Dr. Fetus and subsequently poof’d off to the next level. It’s about as simple as videogame narratives ever get, which just reinforces the concept that this game is about gameplay and little else.
The first thing you should know about the gameplay is that Edmund McMillen is an incredibly intelligent game designer. He understands how to do difficulty the right way, and how to gradually ramp up difficulty in a way that does not become overwhelming to the player. Super Meat Boy is a game that teaches you how to be great at it, while simultaneously making you its bitch. It’s all based on the concept of high-risk, high-difficulty levels coupled with a very, very low penalty for failure. The game is really very simple; all Meat Boy can actually do is run and jump, and it’s never unclear what’s going to kill you when you run into it. Your goal is always obvious, the only challenge is navigating though the deathtraps to get to the end.
A lot of people claim that their game is “easy to pick up, tough to master”, but SMB really means it. You’re going to die in SMB, and you’re going to do it a lot. In any other game, game over after game over would eventually force you to throw your monitor off your roof in frustration, but McMillen has decided that the concept of the game over is outdated and largely unnecessary. Under normal game circumstances, you never have a limited number of lives, and death is really only a minor inconvenience. You might die 30 times in one level, but when a the level only takes 14 seconds to complete when you survive, a single death feels like hardly a slap on the wrist. If the short level time is a source of concern for you, don’t worry: each individual level may be short, but there are a friggin’ ton of them. Each world consists of twenty levels as well as a boss battle, and upon completing a level with an A+ grade, you’ll unlock the “dark world” version of that stage, a modified version of that level with the difficulty cranked to eleven.
As if that wasn’t enough, the game also includes bonus stages, known as “warp zones”. There are usually three warp zones in each of the game’s six worlds, and they offer a slight change of pace from the way the rest of the game plays. These stages, hidden as black vortexes within the game’s normal stages, throw back to older game consoles, emulating the look and sound of platforms like the old school GameBoy or Super Nintendo. They typically last three levels, on which you’re only allowed to die three times each before being forced to restart the zone.
These zones are also one of the means of unlocking brand new characters in Super Meat Boy. Occasionally, the warp zone will be prefaced by a short cut scene introducing a brand new character, and after completing it, you’ll be able to play as that character any time you please. The other method you have of unlocking characters is through the collecting of bandages. In some stages, you’ll see a small pink bandage floating somewhere around the level. Collecting them will incrementally unlock even more, sometimes platform-exclusive, characters.
The bonus characters are definitely a major selling point for this game. They all come from other indie darling games, and they all play differently and have different special abilities. The Kid ( I Wanna Be The Guy) can double jump, Commander Video (Bit.Trip series) can glide horizontally through the air for a short time, and Steve (Minecraft) who’s spefical ability is to completely break the game. There’s a ton of them, and they’re a blast to use. Oh, and who can forget the latecomer Tofu Boy, a character patched into the PC version of the game after a brief but hilarious scuffle between Team Meat and animal rights jihadists PETA, unlocked by typing the word “petaphile” into the game’s start screen.
SMB‘s sound and art design are both great. It sports a cartoony look reminiscent of its flash game roots, which is silky smooth and easy on the eyes. It changes up the visuals frequently: each world has a very unique look, and some stages are presented in silhouette style that looks very cool. The music, composed by the very talented Danny Baranowsky, fits the flavor of the game perfectly, and in fact can be purchased from his bandcamp page.
Super Meat Boy is incredibly good at what it does, but the fact is, what it does will not appeal to every gamer. It comes down to a “try over and over until you get it right” kind of mindset, and whether or not you enjoy it will depend largely on how satisfying it is for you to finally complete that stage that killed you 75 in under two minutes. The satisfaction is amplified by the replay you get to see of the level, showing each of your attempts played simultaneously. It usually ends up being a veritable river of meat that pops apart, one by one, until a single Meat Boy finally pushes through to the end. For some gamers, that sense of accomplishment is crack, and they’ll play this game hour after hour, until their thumbs are bloody, immobile nubs. Personally, though, I find it more exhausting than exhilarating. After only a few levels, I can literally feel my heart racing, and I find that my leg is bouncing involuntarily. It’s uncomfortable.
I do have to complain a bit about some of the bugs in the PC version. They’re not game-breaking by any means, the game has a tendency to forget some of your settings, and you usually have to run the game in windowed mode in order to prevent it from running at perma-warp-speed, though that’s a common bug among games ported from XBLA. It also has oddly high requirements for a game that started life as a flash game on Newgrounds; I’ve heard reports that gamers with relatively low-power laptops have some trouble running the game smoothly. Combine that stuff with the fact that the precision demanded by the later levels of this game basically requires you to use a gamepad rather than a keyboard, and you end up with a PC version that’s tough to recommend over its XBLA counterpart. However, if you have a decent PC and access to a gamepad, the PC will be adding in a level editor in sometime in the near-ish future.
Super Meat Boy is easily the best platformer you’ll play this year. If you love the feeling of clawing your way to triumph over a hyper-difficult stage after being beaten back by it again and again, this is, without a doubt, your game. If you’re like me, you may find that your mileage with this game is relatively low. Either way, you can’t deny the fantastic gameplay and art design present here, so I’m going to give Super Meat Boy…
- Game: Super Meat Boy
- Platform Reviewed: PC
- Developer: Team Meat
- Distributed By: Steam, Direct2Drive
- Release Date: 11/30/2010
- MSRP: $14.99
- Review copy info: A copy of this title was provided to DualShockers, Inc. by the publisher for the purpose of this review.