Super Meat Boy Review

For the past couple of days, my reality has consisted of nothing but blood curdling shrieks. You see, I’m currently trapped in a nightmare. This terrible nightmare has a name–Super Meat Boy. Fun fact: Super Meat Boy is the devil. Hell, Super Meat Boy is perhaps the most infuriating title I’ve played all year. I can’t recall the last time I was this angry at a video game.

Yes, Super Meat Boy is the devil…but I can’t stop playing it.

The premise of the little monster is simple: Dr. Fetus is a dick. And true to form, he’s stolen your love interest, Bandage Girl. I’m sure this sounds familiar to some of you (incidentally the acronym is the same as Super Mario Bros). And, like Mario, I sincerely believe that Meat Boy deserves to be considered for a spot under “generation classic.” A bold claim which will need to be revisited at a later date, but one currently held with real conviction.

I can spend a long time detailing the aspects of SMB which exude the feeling of a classic title–from the retro chiptune soundtrack, to the inclusion of warp zones that teleport Meat Boy to homages to classic gaming consoles. Meat Boy himself oozes charm, thanks to the wonderfully gooey sound effects, his expressions, and his dashing animations. Even the “supporting cast” of Dr. Fetus and Bandage girl are precocious, in their own way (and isn’t the idea of a fetus as a villain amazing in of itself?), but none of this is what makes SMB stand out. Sure, it’s a love letter to old-school platformers, but what really makes SMB superb is the incredibly deliberate design. SMB stands strong on its core design without any of the “features” bloating modern titles. And it’s all the more bold, outstanding of a title for it. Team Meat knows, well, where the meat of the gameplay is.

Meat Boy must run, dash, jump and wall jump at high speeds–nothing new, as far as platforming mechanics go–across worlds designed to be microcosms for your own personal hell. These actions are all governed by simple controls which follow the ‘simple to pick up, difficult to master’ paradigm. The thing about the game is, Team Meat knows where you want to hide your family heirlooms, your children, and your dignity. But I will tell you right now: there is no escape. The only way to come out alive is to have the precision of a madman. Have I mentioned there are no checkpoints in any of the levels? Because there aren’t. Hence, the need for near perfection. Don’t take this to mean that SMB requires specific precision–levels aren’t (always) linear, and can often be approached in a number of ways. Some of the more creative approaches require nerves and reflexes of steel, though. In my current playthrough, I’ve died over two thousand times. Normally, that sort of death count would cause me to give up playing a game, but while each death brings me a little closer to heart attack, it strengthens my resolve to beat the level.

I feel that at this point I may be overstating the difficulty in an unintended manner, possibly scaring folks who want nothing to do with a masochistic title. The game is difficult, yes, but there is no doubt in my mind that it can be picked up and enjoyed by anyone–masochist and regular ol’ joe alike. The difficulty is manageable, and this evaluation is coming from someone who is terrible at platformers. This slick ease into mastering the core mechanics is thanks to the well-designed learning curve and its pick up and play nature. Once you delve into a world, you can play any level you want to, save for the boss battles. Feel that level is too hard? You can skip it. Plus, some of the difficulty stems from sheer lack of patience. Most levels can be completed within 15-25 seconds, half of that if you’re going for the time trials; combine this with Meat Boy’s penchant for speed, and what you start seeing is that you will try to default to the fastest solution possible. Why wouldn’t you, when Meat Boy moves halfway across the screen with a small tilt of the control stick? Incidentally, the fastest routes are always the most dangerous, so take your time at first.

When playing, the prize is always in sight, but just barely out of reach–there’s always a small, but damning mistake to make, a wrong direction to go, a trap to fall for. All of these things are purposely there. Mistakes like these are causes for frustration, but also for learning: every new life sees you going through old obstacles with incredible speed and finesse: only to find a new obstacle, of course. As such, though at first you may find the time trials listed for each level impossible, after a dozen levels or so, you start to really get a feel for the way Meat Boy moves. I can’t count the number of times I’ve stopped to marvel at the precision with which you learn to move with. The fluidity of this game cannot be stated enough, moments when you are “in the zone” abound once you start getting the hang of the lil’ butterball. Hence there is nothing like beating a level which has taken you a few dozen attempts, and finally watching the replay at the end depicting all the failed Meat Boys plummeting to their death, only to have that one, singular Meat Boy defy all odds and somehow reach the end. Suddenly there’s a moment of lucidity to it all, and the rage fades away, in its stead comes a strong sense of accomplishment. You did it! Here’s proof. You can save the evidence to your hard drive, but you can’t share them with other people, which is a shame.

It’s this fleeting feeling of accomplishment which fuels the “just one more” sentiment that always accompanies sessions of SMB. Yes, the game may border on masochistic, but it’s been designed to keep you playing, mostly thanks to the well-designed difficulty curve. To this end, it is not necessary to beat every single level to advance the game: you may skip a certain number of levels per world. Additional reprieve comes in the form of alternate characters–like Tim from Braid or Commander Video from bitTrip runner, which have specific powers meant to help you tackle levels in a different way. Unlocks are governed through either collection of bandages in levels, or via warp zones–just know that it will be difficult to unlock all the characters….nevermind 100% the game. This is especially true when you consider that there is a “dark world” equivalent of every level, which amps the difficulty up even more.

The most memorable aspect of SMB are the boss battles, hands down. Thing is, it’s not about the bosses themselves (though I’m sure that the Poo Boss will make a lasting impression on some folks) which are noteworthy, but rather the design of the levels. A playthrough of these levels becomes a sheer frenzy of adrenaline. They’re the most infurating, nail-biting, kill-your-children levels…but also the most gratifying and enjoyable of what SMB has to offer.

Yes, there is plenty to keep you busy in the game…with even more incoming. Right now, Team Meat plans to release a ton of DLC called Teh Internets, a “specific chapter for Xbox 360 that takes advantage of Title Managed Storage (TMS) through the Xbox LIVE service that allows us to add new chapters whenever we feel like it to the game. Pretty awesome, but the best part is that it is absolutely 100% FREE. Each internets chapter contains 20 levels and can be tailored to allow all characters to play them, or lock in a specific character allowing us to create levels that only certain characters can defeat using their special abilities.” The kicker? They plan to support Teh Internets as long as they possibly can.
I don’t think I’ve made clear just how addictive this game is, so I’ll say it plainly here: expect to spend many-a-night losing track of time, only to find out it’s almost 5am and you’ve been playing this game for hours despite the noticeable drop in your reaction speed. But hey, at least you beat one more world! That’s the kind of game Super Meat Boy is: addictive, infuriating, and, above all, devilishly delicious.

Super Meat Boy is released on October 20th for both XBL and the Wii.