If you hanker for a return to a more simplistic time, when games were “real” and you had to suffer to feel like you’d really earned your progress, then those masochistic tendencies can be indulged with Super Meat Boy, a traditional platformer for Xbox Live Arcade.
The premise of Super Meat Boy (SMB) is simple. Meat Boy loves Bandage Girl; Dr. Fetus hates Meat Boy and kidnaps Bandage Girl. Cue Meat Boy’s journey across increasingly difficult levels in pursuit of his beloved. This slight story doesn’t mean that characterisation has been sacrificed, it merely unburdens the player from over complicating matters, allowing them to concentrate on the task at hand.
The most immediate comparison will be with the rather excellent N+ which would be a fair one, since they share similar goals and basic premise. But SMB has a bright and breezy attitude to its lunacy compared to the clinical elegance of N+. One thing it definitely shares is the difficulty curve, starting off in a welcoming, gentle manner before deciding it’s had enough of playing nice and then sets about putting the player through the wringer.
Much was made of this aspect before its release and there’s no getting away from the fact that Super Meat Boy is hard. Ball-crushingly hard. There’s no doubt that new and profusely dark utterances will emanate from the lips of players, with a ferocity that would have caused even Richard Pryor to do a double take. There’s countless agonising moments when the player realises that the jump which should have seen Meat Boy reunited with Bandage Girl turns out to be a fail of epic proportions, placing them right back to the beginning, and forcing them to do it all over again.
It would be easy to dismiss this difficulty as a lazy attempt to artificially lengthen the game but that would be doing the developers, Team Meat, a great disservice. Each and every level is supremely crafted, rewarding the player with a grade A+ if you beat the aggregate time. But this is merely the start, the bait to lure you in. From the initial “easy” levels, through to the drip feed of new objects to dodge, the conditions required to reach Bandage Girl are carefully blended, always leaving the blame squarely with the player if they fail rather than the game being at fault. The sheer vindictiveness which is sometimes displayed probably says more about the febrile imagination of the developers than countless hours of psychotherapy could ever reveal.
Even when hair is pulled out and teeth are gnashed in frustration the player will find themselves laughing, secure in the knowledge that the developers are also laughing like drains at these moments would they intended to occur. Amidst this grinning they’re also flipping the middle finger, a goading gesture to make the player rise to the challenge. The elation at conquering a level which was boiling your piss only moments before, is unsurpassed and incredibly addictive, compelling the player onwards and upwards (quite literally on some of the levels).
The final icing on the cake for a game like this is that the controls are perfect. The player has a jump and a hybrid run/special button which, if held down in conjunction with moving the analogue stick, will propel Meat Boy around levels. It soon becomes second nature to dash Meat Boy from ledge, to wall, to platform based on the gradual build-up of muscle memory. It happens to the point where being locked into a death dance with a particular level is inconsequential and only severe hand cramps will cause the player to break the session. Even when not being played, the game still manages to dominate your thoughts constantly, plotting a path through the last undefeated level.
There are additional carrots dangling throughout levels with warp gates that allow the player to acquaint themselves with some surprise guests. Here is where Team Meat really show their love and appreciation for past generations of consoles and it would be remiss of this reviewer to spoil even one, since there’s a genuine delight in discovering what lies behind them. Super Meat Boy being what it is, these warps aren’t hiding in plain view, but secreted in some truly evil locations that add even more spice to levels; do you aim for the exit, or attempt to make for that warp gate? The addition of sticking plasters, ensconced in equally devilish corners and which unlock new playable characters when enough are collected, will soon become a badge of honour for the truly dedicated.
Brutal and hilarious in equal measure, Super Meat Boy is a fantastic game. It’ll have friends cursing each other as finishing times are continually swapped between one another on the leaderboards and gasps of “What the fu…” as replays are viewed with a mixture of awe and pure jealousy. Super Meat Boy truly is a joy to play, making it utterly essential.