And there we all were pondering over Limbo’s penchant for death dealing. 4990 was the final tally, for me; the number of encounters with the Grim Reaper I suffered at the hands of Team Meat’s masochistic 2D platformer Super Meat Boy. I made it 63% of the way through before bursting into tears.
While out on a romantic stroll with Bandage Girl, the game’s hero Meat Boy (who, incidentally, is a sickly red slab of meat) finds himself on the receiving end of a beat-down at the barely-formed hands of Dr Fetus. Dr Fetus kidnaps Bandage Girl. Game on.
From here you enter a world of degradation and torment. You are not good enough. This death-fetishist platformer harks back to the days of old where checkpoints and casual difficulty were little more than the pipe dreams of arcade losers.
But Team Meat has the decency to ease you in gently, dedicating the first couple of levels to teaching the basics. Meat Boy can run and he can jump. He can also sprint. Mastering the controls and the subtleties of sprinting and jumping is key to making it beyond the fourth level (there are over 300). Luckily the controls have been fined tuned to a level of precision reserved for the kind of perfectionist who’d line his socks up in regimented rows after ironing them. Magnificent controls are what make Super Meat Boy tick but they’re so flawlessly precise that when you find yourself in the inevitable scenario of grasping for something to blame for your own inadequacies, the controls won’t be it.
The hundreds of levels are split into distinct worlds that boast themes like “The Forest” and “Hell”. Most of the worlds play host to 20 individual levels (the “final” world home to significantly less). Completing 17 of the levels unlocks a boss fight and defeating that boss opens up the doors to the next world of misery. There are no checkpoints so dying means an instant restart in the same speedy vein of Trials HD, so no exasperating loading screens or ‘YOU ARE DEAD’ messages. The urgency that has you hurled back into the fray means there’s precious little time to actually get irate. Levels rarely surpass the 30 second mark – until nearer the end at least – thus creating an unholy level of dependency. Succumb to its glorious ways and you will lose sleep over this game.
It’s tough, but it’s also rewarding. Stringing together that one fluid set of moves that finally dance Meat Boy through grinders, missiles, crumbling floor panels, spikes, fire balls, endless pits and oceans of lava is ecstasy. And that’s a rare thing to feel with a controller in hand nowadays.
And you learn to relish the victories and use their fading memory to spur you on through the brutally difficult levels. Even the tiniest triumph becomes a gargantuan tale of success, the “save replay” option clearly there for that reason as well as to record immense Meat Boy genocide.
At the end of each level you’re graded on your performance (a simple matter of how quickly did you make it to the end) and beating the par time earns you an A grade. Hurrah, you cry, as that first “Grade A” adjourns the screen, elation stifled moments later as you learn earning the A grade unlocks a “dark” version of the level you just conquered. But the ranking (as well as hidden bandages and the leaderboards) ensures that when you find yourself hopelessly stuck (and you will), you can always head back to a previous world to improve older scores. Suffice to say though, the dark levels are no pushover, piling in more death-inflicting devices to make the journey even harsher.
Even more challenging are the warp zones sprinkled throughout the worlds. These rarely placed portals transport Meat Boy back in time (aesthetically at least) and have you working your way through three levels with a paltry three lives for each. Failing any level kicks you out of the warp zone completely. Some warp zones feature characters from other much-loved indie titles (among others are The Kid from I Wanna be The Guy, Tim from Braid and Alien Hominid from, well Alien Hominid). Each of the bonus characters are a little nod to the rich catalogue of indie gaming, can be used in the normal levels and come with their own bonus moves; Tim can turn back time, Alien Hominid has a blaster for shooting floaty enemies. Few of these unique traits are as useful as Meat Boy’s unbridled speed and agility but they infrequently have their uses.
Overall though, the warp zones work with mixed results. The pause between deaths, forced lives system and loading screens at the start are all at ends with the lightning paced dynamic of death-continue-death-continue that makes the main crux of the game so easy to devote hours to. Sure, they’re a throwback to the halcyon days of arcade gaming but Meat Boy has its own brand of punishment and it’s a preferable one.
Boss battles tell a similar story and tend to be based entirely on learning the attack patterns of poorly designed bosses. Fights with these giant beasts should be brief intermissions but are instead frustrating and at odds with the superlative design seen elsewhere. In these infrequent encounters, luck rules – until you learn said pattern – and the pinpoint precision and satisfaction of conquering a fair challenge is M.I.A.
But that’s probably the bitter grumbling of someone who’s yet to conquer this irksome game. Do I like it? No. Do I recommend it? Hell no. Is it inarguably brilliant? Yes.
Super Meat Boy is an infuriatingly charming, face-meltingly difficult love letter to the golden age of platforming (complete with its own unforgettable soundtrack). It’s an astonishingly tight game and while its psychotic difficulty will more than likely cause the majority to flee in the direction of mummy, those unruffled by its demanding disposition will find themselves wickedly addicted to one of the most rewarding and inspiring games of recent memory.