Infuriatingly difficult, yet ridiculously addictive.
Super Meat Boy is, very simply, psychotic. That’s the only way I can even hope to start describing it. It was clearly designed by total sadists with the blackest of hearts whose days must usually be filled with reading about how to make cadavers in slaughterhouses be neatly and efficiently sliced by rotating blades, or instructions on how make normal people start foaming at the mouth. Let’s get this straight right now: This game categorically hates all players with an unabated and everlasting fury. Super Meat Boy isn’t here for your entertainment. It wasn’t created simply so you can have some fun and fiddle away a few idle hours: It wants your blood. It’s here to teach you a lesson, and that lesson is that you are worthless and insignificant. The only way you can ever hope to prove yourself capable is by completing some of the most fiendishly difficult levels ever created in computer gaming. Perhaps, only then you can call yourself worthy. The game is I dare to say, catastrophically difficult, meaning that only through extreme repetition and literally thousands of deaths will you ever hope to advance to the next stage. However, the upshot of this is that when you actually do complete a really challenging level, the feeling of euphoria you get is simply fantastic and cannot be understated. That is, until the next level brings you crashing back to Earth as yet another microscopic chunk of fleshy meat, thrown to the wind. Nonetheless, in the quest to prove yourself capable, no matter how much ill-temper Super Meat Boy causes you, you’ll find it very difficult to stop playing this enormously addictive game.
Super Meat Boy takes the old-school approach to plot and storyline, meaning that there is very little of one. Any semblance of a storyline is roughly equivalent to that you would find in a typical Mario Bros. game. Meat Boy, the titular cube-shaped boy of skinless meat, is on a quest to rescue his girlfriend, Bandage Girl, from the evil and despotic Dr. Fetus (who is literally a foetus in a jar, wearing a robotic tailored suit and top hat). So far, so straightforward. Each level is a platforming obstacle course which Meat Boy must navigate to reach Bandage Girl, who each and every time is then whisked away by Dr. Fetus to the next level. These are usually filled with a variety of horrific contraptions which Meat Boy must avoid, including rotating saw blades, deadly spikes and much else besides. Levels are normally very short, usually under 30 seconds, but it will generally take many, many tries to complete one successfully. The game starts off relatively simply, with some easy early levels which help to build your confidence somewhat, before ramping up the challenge to such a degree that it will either infuriate or confound the majority of players. Indeed, it was only through a good many hours of gruelling hardship that I managed to reach the finale of Super Meat Boy, and there were several stages where I considered giving up altogether. If anything, the difficult of the game is both its greatest weakness and one of its strengths. The sheer terror you can feel just looking at a mind-bogglingly difficult level, let alone playing it, can leave you weak at the knees, and will definitely turn a lot of players off. However, for those who are able to persevere, they will be rewarded mightily by the feeling of managing to accomplish something truly great.
There are a tremendous variety of levels, character unlocks and other surprises to discover throughout the game. Alongside the normal Light World is a Dark World, which features even more challenging versions of the same levels you played through the first time. These can be unlocked by beating the par time on the Light World. There are also hidden Warp Zones whose entrances can be found in several places, which will take you to a retro-styled world of three levels, based on the look of games from the Commodore 64, Atari 2600 or the GameBoy, among others. In some of these Warp Zones you can unlock a variety of indie-game characters who are vying for a piece of the action, ranging from Commander Video from the Bit.Trip series to The Kid from I Wanna Be The Guy. Each of these plays and handles quite differently from Meat Boy, and many have a special ability (such as The Kid’s double-jump, or Jill’s ability to slow down in midair). Other characters are unlocked by collecting bandages, which are scattered through the levels in hard-to-reach places, and provide yet another reason for replay. There are many nostalgic call-backs in here, with some of the cutscenes referencing everything from Castlevania to Street Fighter II. Finally, if you manage to rescue Bandage Girl when she is “glitching” (a random occurrence in each world), you’ll unlock a special Minus World, which are categorically the most difficult levels in the whole game.
The control scheme for the PC version is definitely a tale of two cities. It is clear from the outset that the game was designed to be played with a gamepad, because the keyboard controls for Super Meat Boy are pretty abysmal. The keyboard is very finicky and either ultra responsive at some points, or not useful at all at many others. For example, controlling Meat Boy as he glides through the air is a major part of the gameplay in several levels, but doing so is rendered almost impossible using the keyboard control scheme. Running is almost a challenge because it is mapped to the Shift key, and since you will want to be running most of the time, this often involves pressing three or four keys at the same time. All in all, the lack of optimisation for the keyboard is certainly rather disappointing. Furthermore, this isn't helped by the fact that the developer actively RUBS IN YOUR FACE how bad the keyboard controls are in the opening loading screen, boasting about how you should be playing with a gamepad. Therefore, you must be willing to make the investment of buying a gamepad if you want to get anywhere further than World 1. With a gamepad however, the game certainly feels great. Meat Boy has a weight and speed to his movement that feels very intuitive almost as soon as you pick up the controller, and judging gaps, wall-jumps and other manoeuvres will become second nature once you get the hang of it. These controls, being both tight and yet almost loose at the same time, can allow you to perform some really cool jumps and tricks in the tougher levels which require precision above all else.
Graphically the game is stylised in a way which both looks and feels retro, but not overly so. From the design of the various menus to the levels themselves, there are definite shadows of Super Mario Bros. seeping through the paintwork and the blood splatter. Warp zone visual design is also superb, the aesthetics perfectly mimicking the look of the various classic gaming systems. The cutscenes look what you’d get in a Flash game, but they are orchestrated so well it doesn’t really matter. Come to think of it, one thing that can be praised without any reservation is the soundtrack. dB soundworks, who also scored the original flash game, have created an incredibly memorable musical score which perfectly invokes what Super Meat Boy is all about. It’s both homage to the early 4 and 8-bit music of classic games from the 1980’s, but also creates its own quirky, funny and original feel. Blending some orchestral sounds with a dash of Electronica and synthesizers, the tunes which loop during the different levels never get old, and are always a joy to listen to. Furthermore, when you are transported to a Warp Zone, the music similarly adjusts to the time period by turning into a retro version of the same theme, complete with authentic chiptune sound effects.Super Meat Boy is certainly the hardest game I’ve played in my life, and it has also probably caused more anger, verbal tirades and random outbursts than any other as well. At times, after dying for the 1,322 time on a particular level, I feel like I want to slam down the controller, shut down the computer and simply walk away forever, without looking back. But every time, something in this game keeps me coming back for more. The downright addictiveness of wanting to finish the next level never tires. It’s a game that takes the philosophy of “just one more go” to a whole new and almost frightening extreme. And that is really the true paradox of Super Meat Boy. You almost wish that the game wasn’t as good as it is, so that you could simply outright hate it. However, while Super Meat Boy may categorically hate me, with its charming personality and great soundtrack I’m finding it really tough to stop loving it.