I saw the most masochistic minds of my generation destroyed by madness, bare and bloodied, propelling themselves through chambers of whirring blades, serrated and menacing, all whilst looking for their bandaged lover. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Super Meat Boy, and thanks to the game’s addition to this month’s PlayStation Plus offering, I too have stared into this beloved eye of madness too. And while I feel that my time with Super Meat Boy has been well spent, veterans of this game may want to consider otherwise; though not entirely spoiled, this meat leaves a slightly sour taste.
The premise of Super Meat Boy revolves around the hero’s journey of its eponymous and fleshless sack of meat. In an effort to rescue Meat Boy’s love interest, Bandage Girl, from the nefarious Dr. Foetus, players must navigate through a series of increasingly difficult micro levels. Think of it as an irreverent late-night version of Mario, now readily available for the PS4 and Vita, with simple, responsive controls and a punishing level of difficulty.
Although originally released for Xbox 360’s XBLA and Steam in 2010, my first exposure to the twisted brainchild of Team Meat duo Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes was not until the 2012 documentary film, Indie Game: The Movie; after witnessing a first-hand account of their struggles and successes, I desperately sought to empathize with this likable team.
Unfortunately, that initial impressions only carried me so far into Super Meat Boy. The game possesses the same aesthetic charm and humour of the Flash-based portal websites it was borne of—namely, Newgrounds. This is especially apparent in the game’s cutscenes; thanks largely in part to the bold, bright color palette, thick character outlines, and penchant for slapstick humor, the game has a notably juvenile feel to it. Fans of games by The Behemoth, most notably Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers, will feel right at home in the world of Super Meat Boy, especially since characters from both of these titles make cameo appearances. However, whereas franchises by developers such as Nintendo manage to cater to younger audiences while still maintaining an adult appeal, Super Meat Boy instead opts to rely on a prepubescent level of shock value. The result is an off-putting mix that includes a character made entirely out of fecal matter, a fetus regularly flipping the bird, and a level of violence that is too graphic for Saturday morning cartoons but too tame for Happy Tree Friends.
Fortunately, Super Meat Boy may look and act like the snot-nosed new kid on the block, but there’s a lot more than meets the eye.
Just as this article’s introduction serves as a twisted love letter to Allen Ginsberg’s opening lines of Howl, Super Meat Boy offers countless nods to influential game-design gurus, both classic and contemporary. Many of the in-game references are allusions to games of yesteryear, including warp zones, glitch levels, and a clear nod to Mario with a rehash of the iconic “Your princess is in another castle!” phrase. Meanwhile, the unlockable cameo characters are from relatively newer franchises, including Commander Video from Bit.Trip and Captain Viridian from VVVVVV. Each character offers their own unique ability, helping add depth to the gameplay while simultaneously keeping things fresh. Similar to how many animated films contain multilayered jokes and double entendre to appease both adults and their children, Super Meat Boy’s homages and Easter eggs may appease those who don’t resonate with the game’s juvenile level of surface humor.
In terms of gameplay, when at its best, Super Meat Boy replicates the pixel-perfect platforming popularised by greats such as Mega Man, albeit at a much faster pace. The controls are tight and responsive, every platform and obstacle carefully placed. Levels are brief, often fitting entirely onscreen at once or viewable with minimal camera panning, and typically serve a singular purpose, offering players a specific task to tackle or a manoeuvre to master. As expected, later levels stack a variety of obstacles, ranging from buzz saws and laser beams to molten magma and homing missiles. These tried-and-true methods of game design work well and offer players a certain methodical comfort in a game that otherwise careens on the edge of madness.
While this reflects the case for a majority of levels, there are numerous instances where stages feel uninspired, seeming to rely on a specific set piece or obstacle as a gimmick. In early levels, this comes across more as clever level design and a way to pace the player; later, some of the more specific nuances of platforming seem to be lost, resulting in an unpleasant affair that comes across as being difficult for the difficulty’s sake. Although the inclusion of mechanics such as fluctuating anti-gravity devices certainly make the game more challenging, their unpredictable nature hinders the trial-and-error formula established within earlier sections of the game. Before, every death felt like my own mistake, a misstep of my reflexes. In later levels, the reasoning behind each death becomes less clear.
However, Super Meat Boy does have a brilliant saving grace in the form of its level progression. Most levels can be completed in a matter of seconds, with later stages typically requiring a minute or less in order to achieve top rank. The lack of menu navigation reduces the stress of repeated efforts, as restarting a level occurs instantaneously upon death. Coupled with the game’s leniency in stage progression, which allows the player to skip three levels from each world, any apparent frustrations are fortunately minimized.
Unique to the PS4 and Vita versions, Danny Baranowsky’s original soundtrack has been entirely replaced due to licensing agreements. In its place players will find original compositions by Ridiculon (The Binding of Issac: Rebirth), Scattle (Hotline Miami), and Laura Shigihara (Plants vs. Zombies). While enlisting a roster of such renowned musicians may certainly draw attention for a press release or promotional purposes, the new soundtrack feels merely adequate. Although a few stages certainly uphold a catchy groove or melody, a number of levels have tracks that loop over far too frequently and clearly, resulting in a jarring experience.
In a game that prides itself on challenging the player, the sense of difficulty is only valuable so long as the game itself feels fair. Super Meat Boy is defined in its first half as an irreverent platforming game that revolves around tight controls, speed, and precision; the later portions of the game, coupled with a seemingly impossible-to-achieve Platinum trophy, feel less like a worthy challenge and more like an exercise in patience and luck.
Well Done Meat
Though perhaps not as fresh as when released five years ago, Super Meat Boy is a challenging experience catering to genre enthusiasts, masochists and sixth graders.