Sumptuously Sadistic – Super Meat Boy (Retro Review)

Meat Boy was a 2008 flash game created by Edmund McMillen and Jonathan McEntee, the goal of which was to bound across treacherous platforms in an attempt to rescue the helpless damsel, Bandage Girl, from the clutches of the evil Dr Fetus. Renowned for its excellent mechanics and punishing difficulty, it was the duo’s most successful game yet, and an instant classic on the game’s original platform of Newgrounds. Wanting to expand his operation, McMillen started courting more mainstream distribution methods, such as Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, and PSN. So he said goodbye to Flash specialist McEntee, and joined up with chance friend Tommy Refenes. From this alliance, Team Meat was created and Super Meat Boy was born.

The premise of the bigger brother is very much the same. Across five themed stages, Meat Boy must make his way over buzz saws, avoid missiles and risk landing in medical waste to find a finish line in the shape of his lost love. As a being made up entirely of meat, without a single shred of skin to cover his medium-rare shame, Meat Boy will explode at the slightest touch of a saw, melt at the smallest lick of a flame and even dissolve once in contact with a single grain of salt.

There are hundreds of levels in Super Meat Boy and every one of them ups the level of sadism you’ll have to contend with. Maddeningly hazardous obstacles litter Meat Boy’s landscape. The ways to die are plentiful and densely layered; there is no space the two-man development team haven’t taken full advantage of to cause maximum carnage. Some levels look like the canvas work of the bastard child of M.C. Escher and Hieronymus Bosch; mind-bending marvels in a merciless vision of hell, some perfectly symmetrical but all intricately sinister. Paths twist in surreal and nonsensical ways connect like clockwork to create masterpieces in wicked level design.

There are many times you will simply look at a level and despair. You will have no idea how to even approach the 60mph projectiles scurrying across the floor and up the walls like rats on caffeine. Fortunately, the game has several design choices working in its favour ensuring that no matter how hopeless or helpless you feel, your drive to move forward will never leave you.

One of these driving forces is that – for all the sixteen-bit aesthetics – Super Meat Boy is a twenty-first-century game through and through. It’s taken old-school sensibilities and enhanced them with modern-day, technical prowess. Take, for example, the instant restart. After you die you get taken right back to the beginning of the level in less than a second. No button prompts, no menu visits, no getting dumped back down into the overworld; it just plants you straight back to the start with all the traps set back in place. And, as no level takes longer than two minutes to navigate, starting at the beginning never feels like a penalty. It perfectly preserves the smooth and speedy flow of the game; an essential requirement for what can be such a frustrating experience.

That kind of convenience makes Super Meat Boy a hard game to walk away from. It gives the game an ice-bath like quality. The difficulty stings at first, but after a while, you submit to the cycle of exasperating death and painless rebirth. You become numb, almost Zen to the process of playing.

The game also keeps you interested because of the sense of personal responsibility it imposes on you with every one of your failures. From the very first level, you get a feeling for the kind of control you have over the character. There’s a physics-defying level of movement you can apply to that little hunk of brisket. You can change direction mid-air, slide both up and down walls, and jump from any vertical surface. The controls not only provide extensive options for how to tackle a hurdle, but are so tight and obedient that the onus is on you to get it right. You are painfully aware that every single death is because you made a mistake, that the fault was your own.

It’s also greatly intuitive in the way it introduced its threats. A great deal of thought has gone into how the players are taught the game’s mechanics. It introduces them, it repeats them, it reinforces them, and it complicates them gradually, with the learning curve getting steadily steeper as you go. First, the saws are still. Then, they move along the ground, walls or ceiling. After that, they start rotating, and then you start muttering profanities under your breath. Super Meat Boy, like Portal, exists as a lecture on the intricacies of teaching the player how to excel at the playing through the act of play itself, instead of in an artificial tutorial model.

The game is so good implementing this, it’s almost arrogant about it. It gives you some of the most malevolent level design ever devised by man, but gives you every tool you need to get through safely. When you fail, you can practically hear the developers sigh in disappointment. After your eventual victory, you are treated to one of the most unique and iconic sights in all of gaming: The Running of the Meats. The win screen grants you a replay of every single attempt you’ve made trying to beat this level, all at once; hundreds of avatars racing towards the finish line, each one representative of a different path taken across the level. It becomes a tidal wave of red that flows from one side of the screen to the other, each doomed contender quickly whittled down to the last victorious challenger. It’s like watching a flock of sperm on its way to the egg.

Then there are the leader boards. On every level, you are judged by the time it takes you to complete it. Spurred on by these, you are inspired to scan the levels for the numerous shortcuts riddled throughout. It demonstrates just how much thought goes into the placement of every single pixel. Everything in a Super Meat Boy level has a purpose. Don’t believe me? Just see how much easier it is to make it through a level if you start running immediately after Meat Boy hits the ground. This isn’t a coincidence, it’s a feature of every stage.

But it isn’t just technical expertise that makes Super Meat Boy an outstanding game. It has a heart that exemplifies the love Team Meat has for the games industry. Each stage is introduced with a loving homage to a retro classic. The entire aesthetic of the game, from the Game Boy tinted warp zones to the Mario 3-esque overworld, is one big tribute to the era it derives the adjective ‘Super’ from.

But their love of the industry isn’t just reserved for the games that shaped their childhoods. Over the course of the game, you’ll find bandages that occupy the game’s hardest to reach places. You can always see them but you can seldom grasp them. They tease you into trying to make some seemingly easy feat of acrobatics, dooming your character on almost every attempt. The pursuit for these bandages have the potential to cause more death than any obstacle. Accumulating them will reward you with extra characters that come from some of the most celebrated and acclaimed independent titles from recent years. This mixture of old and new, iconic and obscure, shows a depth of appreciation for interactive art that will endear them to the most hardcore of gaming enthusiasts.

It’s also romantic in its own way. The idea of a boy, born without skin, vulnerable to the most trivial of injuries, is willing to literally go through hell in order to save his loved one. His loved one being – in a wonderful use of metaphor – made entirely of bandages. They complete one another. She heals wounds. He is a walking wound. Team Meat value this kind of togetherness. This is perhaps why it requires such a huge amount of dedication in order to complete the game, why it requires you to grit your teeth and bear so much vexation. Love is a difficult thing to maintain and its obstacles are plentiful. To prove your worth to such a lofty ideal that you must first prove yourself willing to go through fire. In Super Meat Boy you feel as if you do. The controllers thrown in rage are a testament to that.

Super Meat Boy is one of the most immaculate games ever crafted. Everything it attempts, it not only succeeds at, but it becomes the standard to which all other games of its kind will be judged. If any other games do instant restarts, they will be timed against those of Super Meat Boy. If any other game wants to be a platformer, the controls had damn well better be as tight. Throughout my entire time with the game (100 hours plus) I could only find one gripe. Once every fifty restarts or so, the level doesn’t trigger the timing of the hurdles correctly and it puts you off your rhythm. That was it. One glitch that happens once in every few dozen attempts. And when you compare that little gripe with the game’s achievements, you realise that isn’t bad. Not bad at all.