GameCrank: Super Meat Boy (XBLA, PC) Review

Patrick

I can honestly say that I do not spend much time playing flash games. Typically, they’re too short, have very few ideas that let them stand up on their own, and generally just are not very good whatsoever. Of course there are exceptions, and this, most certainly, is one of them.

Meat Boy first originated as a flash game on the Newgrounds website. A bunch of other complications sprung up, and eventually, we got a totally new downloadable sequel for both Xbox Live Arcade as well as a version for the PC. I can honestly say that I enjoyed the original Meat Boy for what it was, and seeing a fleshed-out version on the big screen is an awesome concept. Ports of flash games have almost never produced anything of positive quality in the past, with the exceptions of the games produced by Meat Boy’s sponsor, Newgrounds. Castle Crashers and Alien Hominid by The Behemoth both had great aesthetic originality as well as challenging old-school gameplay. It is also kind of weird to think that Super Meat Boy did not come from the same company because they are  all so similar in style.

In Super Meat Boy, there is a premise, but it barely exists. You play as an anthropomorphic cube of meat called Meat Boy whose girlfriend gets kidnapped by an evil and maniacal villain whose name is too crude too print and perfectly indicative the game’s brand of crude humor.  The cut-scenes are flash-animated and are rather rare, but each of them is genuinely funny no matter what you happen to find amusing.

I despise Super Meat Boy just because I love it so much. It is really kind of hard to tell just exactly who the game is trying to appeal to: either brainless Newgrounds junkies or hardcore 30-year-old video-game enthusiasts who have never seen a video-game character in any greater detail than in eight-bit graphics. Meat Boy, just like Castle Crashers and Hominid, is packed to the brim with retro references and design ideas that will go right over the heads of most gamers today. They are great if you are coming at it from a nostalgic or educational standpoint, but it felt like they were added a couple months before the game was shipped out just to make the game seem like it had charm.  The big problem with Super Meat Boy, ironically, is that nothing really sticks together.

There is no denying that this is an I Wanna Be the Guy clone. You control a microscopic character that can jump extremely high and dies with only one hit from anything. Being killed forces you to start a stage all over again with no checkpoints, but levels are rarely longer than a few screens. At the end of each stage and upon reaching your kidnapped damsel, she’s instantly teleported away from you every single time, effectively destroying any sense of accomplishment. It really is kind of funny, though, to make it through a nearly impossible level and then have all your work stomped into the ground at the end, and I am not joking when I say that. Perhaps it is funny merely due to the fact that I have  gone nearly ballistic several dozen times while playing this game.

Meat Boy can run and jump and that is pretty much where things begin and end. You can wall-jump off just about any vertical surface as many times in a row as you want, and you can easily scale one wall by doing this after a bit of practice. But there is some depth to the controls despite how shallow they may at first seem. Levels are packed with little obstacle courses that require very specific paths of progression. This inevitably leads to you trying to run through the stage, failing ten times in a row, and then experimenting with different ways you can get to the goal. When everything works well, playing Meat Boy can feel like the execution of elegance, but that elegance needs to be earned through a lot of trial and error.

The controls are simple but take a little getting used to. The 360 version must be played with an analogue stick, which is always hard in a 2-D game, and my character never stopped feeling slippery. Given the precision needed to make most of the insane jumps in these levels, this is an area that you’re going to have to get over real quickly. The 360 version includes leader-boards and “Teh Internets”, a meta-game that the developers constantly update with new levels free of charge. I do sort of wish the option of playing with a D-pad was available.

There are  no bones about it–Super Meat Boy is a hardcore game. Mega Man 9 and 10?  What, those pathetic examples of hardcore gaming? This is one of the most difficult games released in the last decade, and that is no lie. You will  die in Super Meat Boy almost as often as you fire bullets in a typical shooter game. Spikes, gears, monsters, salt, water, rockets, lava, and a whole lot more are here, and they will all kill you many, many times. 90% of these stages have more bottomless pits than ground and about the same percentage of each screen is filled with instant kills. While the people who made this game may love video-games in general, you can tell that they wish death upon anyone who’s ever played one.

Super-hardcore games are really an acquired taste, and Super Meat Boy is no different. You need to be able to enjoy repetitiously replaying stages over and over again, mastering the landscape and memorizing every obstacle in order to progress. Beating difficult stages in video-games has always offered paramount levels of accomplishment, but when there are so many of these levels, the accomplishment you feel after beating each stage starts to diminish. This is an incredibly frustrating game that still somehow manages to be very absorbing. Every time you die, you just want to give it another go, and then another, and this makes it extremely addictive.

A theoretical deathless play-through of Super Meat Boy would probably take less than 20 minutes, but content will never be your biggest issue. There are literally hundreds of levels, with each containing a dark-world counterpart available after beating a specific level requirement, and there are actually hundreds of small collectibles all over the place. Every single level feels unique with dozens of stage concepts, and you will often find yourself cursing at the screen before you even start playing a level when you see how much stuff they fit into it. This is an extremely well-crafted game–but maybe it is  a little too well designed. Levels have absolutely no flow from one to another, and they all feel very synthetic. Nothing in this game looks like it was actual terrain set up with traps, but instead seems, perhaps pointedly, like something produced by a depressed video game designer. The aesthetics work perfectly well with the level designs, but I could never really see anything natural about the game’s construction.

Art-wise, like the rest of the game, it is hard to tell if Super Meat Boy is trying to be a flash-inspired game or a retro NES one, but it succeeds on both fronts. The music is fantastic, which is good news considering the amount of time you have to spend listening to it as it loops over and over again in each level. This is no big-budget game, but at least it knows that it does not have to be one.

After beating Super Meat Boy, I felt like I was done. I conquered the game while unlocking only about one-tenth of the collectibles, but I was simply finished with it. I have nothing against difficult games, but I do have a problem with the fact that there could have  been some way to make it more accessible to a wider audience. I’m not saying this just for myself–Super Meat Boy is one of the most original and wholesome 2-D games I’ve seen in a long time, with genius level design and top-notch quality. It just requires a very specific taste, and I consider myself at odds with it. If difficult games don’t scare you and you’ve got some spare hair to pull out, go ahead and check this game out. I wish Super Meat Boy could have been incredible, but it just is not quite on the mark in a lot of respects. The controls are good, however it takes too much time to master for a difficulty curve this acute. The game looks nice, but it does not know what to specialize in. It is frustrating, but also. in theory, rewarding. Some will love it, some will hate it, and some will put it through a grinder. Anyway, if it looks like your cup of tea, then chances are it is.

Super Meat Boy is rated T for teen.

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