Games are by their nature infuriating. Just like a good thriller, a good game sets us a problem then frustrates our attempts to solve it. For some, the frustration can become too much: the red mist descends, controllers are thrown across rooms and household pets flee in terror.These people should not be allowed to play Super Meat Boy.
While Xbox owners have been able to enjoy two months of teeth grindingly tricky gameplay as skinless hero Meat Boy, PC gamers have had to wait to get their masochistic thumbs on the year’s most talked about platformer.
A collaboration between Edmund McMillen, of Gish, Braid and Aether fame, and programmer Tommy Refenes, creator of clever fluid simulation game Goo!, Super Meat Boy has an impressive lineage. If there were such a thing as a canon of indie games, Team Meat’s collective output would be top of the list.
Super Meat Boy knowingly draws on 30 years of platform gaming heritage, so it seems only appropriate that the opening cut scene features a damsel in distress. Like a grand guignol Princess Peach or mummified Zelda, Bandage Girl has been kidnapped by the monocled Dr Fetus to lure the titular hero through a series of fiendish traps. There the story ends, but what follows is over 300 levels of some of the hardest gameplay released this year.
The controls seem deceptively simple: you can walk, you can run, and you can jump. That’s it. But this disguises a great deal of subtlety. Meat boy has real weight and is nuanced in the way that makes the Mario and Sonic franchises such a joy to play. Lacking skin is not just a macabre visual gag; Meat Boy’s glutinous physique allows him to stick momentarily to vertical surfaces. His gooey residue allows him to gradually climb walls by jumping repeatedly; releasing jump allows him to slide downwards.
Taking this finely crafted control scheme, Team Meat has created maps that will take you to the very edge of your sanity. The aim is simple: manoeuvre Meat Boy from the beginning of the level to find Bandage Girl at the end.
If you are successful, each level could be completed within a minute, but the design is such that many, many attempts are required. A jump might take 20 knuckle-biting attempts to get right, but the feeling of satisfaction when you finally succeed is worth the effort.
All the platform clichés are present: spinning blades, vats of lava, spikes, fans, collapsible blocks and a range of cutesy NPCs. If a game was popular in the last 30 years, you can bet Team Meat has made reference to it. Despite the familiarity, the game never feels tired. The levels have been designed meticulously and the learning curve is very smooth.
Completing a level within a set time awards you an A+, and unlocks a dark alternative – a more difficult version of the level, with added extra traps. A nice touch is that the changes are rendered semi opaque, allowing you to see how the originals have been modified.
The art design manages to tread a difficult path between cartoony cuteness and gross-out comedy. The gore is sufficiently abstracted to avoid being distasteful and keeps the humour to the fore. Meat Boy’s simplistic large eyed character design makes him without a doubt the most endearing gob of raw flesh on any platform.
Being skinless does have its downside. Everything you touch is covered in a veneer of blood, so as you navigate the level, walls, ceilings, and floors turn a cardinal red. The stains endure even after you die, and act as both a totem of your failed attempts, and a clue to help you learn from your previous mistakes. Coupled with the various squelching, splashing and splattering effects, this raises otherwise retro feeling graphics to something quite contemporary.
If you manage to complete a level you’re rewarded by a rerun of all your previous attempts played simultaneously. Seeing several hundred Meat Boys lured to their doom by your impatient unskilled thumbs is a sobering sight. Deaths in Super Meat Boy are often horribly violent comic affairs, so the ability to save and share your countless demises is good for a few laughs with friends.
Extra characters, all borrowed from other prominent indie games, can be unlocked by either collecting bandages scattered throughout the levels or completing retro-themed mini games accessed via hidden warp zones. It’s not just the sprite that is borrowed but the control scheme too. Play the levels as Captain Veridian from VVVVVV, and you can no longer jump, but instead flip gravity to walk on the ceilings. Play as Tim from Braid, and you are able to rewind time and undo previous mistakes.
Playing with a different control scheme adds enormous replay value, as each level presents a fresh set of challenges. Add to this the fact that some bandages are positioned so that you can only reach them if you switch character, and you have a game that will last well into the new year.
The action is complemented by a wonderfully reminiscent crunchy-8 bit inspired soundtrack. Created by Danny Baranowksy who composed the music for the excellent Canabalt and Gravity Hook, the soundtrack provides a uniquely nostalgic chip sound with a modern guitar twist that you’ll be humming long after the game is over.
It’s testament to the popularity of Super Meat Boy that animal rights group PETA has seen fit to create the parody Super Tofu Boy to promote a meat free lifestyle. It’s not the first time PETA has courted controversy by reimagining popular games. Cooking Mama had a bloodthirsty facelift to promote a meat-free Thanksgiving, and Super Mario Bros. became Super Chick Sisters to protest against inhumane slaughter practices carried out by McDonald’s.
It is probably the first time, however, that game makers have fought this misappropriation. Typing the cheekily coined “petaphile” code unlocks Tofu Boy for use in Super Meat Boy, but unable to jump as high or move as fast as his carnivorous cousin, you’ll find him an ineffective character – a swipe by the developers at what Team Meat appears to see as a toothless organisation.
Though the spat is rather juvenile (and doesn’t hurt publicity), the ability for a game to respond within one day, and through gameplay rather than press release, is really quite exciting. If updating the games is this fast and simple on PC, then I look forward to seeing which topical game characters might be added in the future.
For the uninitiated, Super Meat Boy is an accessible way in to the wonderful, quirky world of independent gaming. It introduces a roster of characters for you to play, and encourages exploration of the original games. For seasoned indie gamers, the pleasure is in spotting the references and revisiting old favourites in a new context.
Add to this great gameplay mechanics, an irreverent sense of humour, plus some deliciously annoying level design, and you end up with what has to be one of the best games of the year.
Super Meat Boy is available now for PC on Steam and Direct2Drive, Xbox Live Arcade, with Mac and Wii versions to be announced.
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