January 22, 2016

Game Critique Redux: Super Meat Boy

In December 2010, one of my all-time favorite games was released. I remember hearing little murmurs here and there about this game earlier that year. It was another one of those New Grounds flash games that was about to make it to the big time. I mostly dismissed it, but the game stayed in the back of my mind, if only because of its weirdness. Finally, towards the end of October it released, and at the promotional price of $10, no less. So I thought "What the hell, why not give it a try?" and I downloaded the demo. I nearly passed it up because I thought it would be too difficult for me to enjoy. I've never been more wrong. And so a game I almost didn't give a chance ended up becoming my Game of the Year pick for 2010. I am, of course, talking about Super Meat Boy.

True old-school challenge.
Yes, Super Meat Boy is damn hard. But it's also damn fun. There's something magical in the design of it. It's challenging but not punishing, and I often find myself spending hours on only a handful of levels. The game constantly pushes you to try again because there is no lives system. You simply die and respawn at the beginning. I can't even describe how much I hate it when I try my very hardest in a game only to die and get a message like "Mission Failed", "Too Bad", or "Next time, try for a trophy!" (I'm looking at you, Mario Kart.) It's almost insulting. But Meat Boy isn't like that. And the fact that it's harder than most games makes it all the more baffling. How could a game that should be extremely frustrating somehow be so relaxing? I think it lies in the blending old school and modern design philosophies. The premise is simple: navigate to the end of the stage. The stages are short but riddled with danger and all you do is run and jump. But it's all so tight. Success involves the kind of practice and precision that, after a while, puts you into a trance-like state of concentration. I can only name a handful of games besides this one (Bit.Trip Runner, Geometry Wars, Dyad) that have done this to me. Instead of becoming increasingly frustrated the more attempts you make, you become increasingly absorbed in it. The more you play, the better you become. Memorize the layout of the level. Make sure your movements are executed with the right amount of precision. When you think about it, Super Meat Boy was actually designed to be very accessible. I believe it was made in such a way that anyone can master, because the game teaches you how to succeed as you play.

And when you finally make it the the end of a particularly challenging stage, you're rewarded with a sense of accomplishment that is rarely seen in gaming. If I've felt anything close to this it's because I've made it through a brutally difficult section of some game that wasn't a true challenge of my skill, but rather a matter of luck. I've found that most games today have a sort of unfair difficulty to them that takes a "more is harder" approach. The more complex the game, the more susceptible it is to unfairness. AI is built to be smart and unpredictable, yes, but I often find that it makes things cheap, especially when developers "ramp up the difficulty" by simply throwing more of those intelligent enemies at you. It's an issue I've had time and again with games like Uncharted, Gears of War 3, and Halo 4. At times, I'm simply faced with so many powerful enemies that I have to either hide in a corner and try to do my best, hope any available AI companions survived long enough to kill most of them, or face them head on and hope my AI companions survived long enough to revive me.


Lotsa meat boys!
But in Super Meat Boy, as in most every retro game, what you see is what you get. There are no "smart" enemies or friendly AI. You know exactly what to expect every time you play a certain section of the game. It comes down to your own skill. How well can you time your button presses? How successfully can you maneuver around obstacles? You finally get passed a certain obstacle only to die at the next one, but the next time you try it you know what not to do. In a way, it becomes sort of a mind game. I would often complete a level only to think "Well that definitely wasn't the way the developers intended me to do it!" And that's the beauty of it. The more you play Meat Boy, the more it becomes your game. You don't just blast through 20 waves of enemies to get to where the guy barking in your ear tells you to go. You can forge your own path through the danger. Frankly, it's surprising how many ways you can complete such short, liner stages. Having a replay at the end of each stage is genius. It really adds to your sense of accomplishment seeing upwards of 100 Meat Boys fighting against each other to save the princess. In the end, you get to see your many failures and that one sweet victory. It's truly a sight to behold.

And then they take the old fashioned approach to extra content. It's included in the game and must be unlocked! Crazy, I know. Believe it or not, all games used to do this and it adds a ridiculous amount to the value and challenge of the game. Super Meat Boy's myriad of characters are not easy to unlock, and they all play differently. Some of them even have their own set of stages. On top of that, the game times you so that if you complete a level in under a given time you get an A+ and unlock an even harder version of the level in which you can also achieve an A+. Team Meat even went so far as to include a free level editor in the PC version and free stages in the Xbox version that are constantly being added at no charge and without downloading a thing. Now that's dedication! There's a lot to do in Super Meat Boy and completing it all is a true achievement. It's the reason achievements were invented, in my opinion. If you unlock the aptly named "I'm A Golden God!", then you should treasure it as the most well deserved 20G you've ever gotten. 

Yes, Super Meat Boy is an all around enjoyable experience that is meant to last. I'm not ashamed to admit I haven't completed the core game. I'm stuck somewhere in "The Rapture", but the game is designed in such a way that I never want to give up on it. There may never be a sequel to Super Meat Boy, but that's ok with me because what we've got is so strong, a sequel is not even necessary. So here's to you, Super Meat Boy, one of the crowning achievements of modern gaming that takes me back to the good old days.

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