jeffrud's Super Meat Boy (Steam) (PC) review

Super Meat Boy for Linux: Masocore for the Masses

I’ve yet to see Indie Game: The Movie. This is probably a sad state of affairs, and puts me at something of an informational disadvantage to people who are passionate about Team Meat’s debut title Super Meat Boy. Games are not developed in a vacuum; I feel that the context surrounding a game’s development is usually worth consideration, and while I can speak a little bit about the history of this particular title, this is by no means a retrospective.

Having said all of that, I honestly feel that Super Meat Boy is worth more attention that this review affords it. It is one of the most important games of the last hardware generation, perhaps even of the last decade, and I will be installing it on every computer I own until I am ground to dust by this cruel universe.

I have not beaten this game. Where I am in my life, SMB is perfectly suited for breaks between doing graduate school work. I say this because I can actively handle this game in rough, twenty minute chunks before I begin to foam at the mouth. Incredibly difficult games have become more appealing to me with time, as the reward for overcoming actual challenges outweighs the reward of, say, a game with wonderful story writing and droll gameplay. The story of Super Meat Boy is barely that: a fetus in a jar and tuxedo kidnaps your mummified girlfriend, you save her. It’s a nonsense conveyed with brief cutscenes at the top of each world, but more often than not you’ll be slamming the jump button to get past them and on with the punishing gameplay. This is a breakneck speed game.

SMB is the heir to a lineage of incredibly difficult platformers dating back to the Japanese Super Mario Brothers 2 (our Lost Levels on the Super Mario All-Stars compilation), NES ROM hacks, and more recent “masocore” titles like I Wanna Be The Guy. This is a game where you are frequently expected to perform a perfect ten second sequence of jumping through obstacles to reach an end point, here the romantic interest to the titular Meat Boy. With few exceptions, there is essentially one correct line to collect a bandage hidden in some terrible location, and reach Bandage Girl under a “par” time provided for each level. This begins with some fairly ho-hum early levels, but by the end of the first world you will start to fray. Then, if you are like me and a bit of a dullard, you will notice a button at the bottom of the level selection screen that says “Dark World.” Dark Work, dear readers, is actually Super Meat Boy. It is at its most challenging that this game becomes brilliant.

It could have been an absolute disaster, were it not for how this game handles death. Even as recent a game as New Super Mario Brothers 2 (a different style of game, but stay with me) handles player death with a little death jingle, and dumping the player off to a level selection map. The entire cycle takes seconds, but when you’ve just learned something about the level prior to death, that wait feels like an eternity. SMB deftly avoids this pitfall by respawning the player at the start of a level instantaneously. It is difficult to emphasize how much of an impact this has on a game as difficult as this one. Playing through most of the levels is an iterative process; you’ll often find yourself mumbling about not holding down the run button to the end of a vertical wall slide, or letting off the directional pad a little less, or perhaps that you never want to see another circular saw again for your entire life. Eventually you learn a line through each level, only to die of one final, poorly timed jump. If that death were a process any longer than the nanosecond it takes in SMB, it would be a demoralizing trudge back into the meat grinder of a level you just failed. Instead, it feels more like the developers are rooting for you to take one more crack at it.

SMB’s existence on so many platforms is an interesting story. The game was originally to come to Nintendo’s sadly ill-fated WiiWare platform, but wound up being too large for that system to support. It was brought instead to the Xbox Live Arcade service, where it gained a steady cult following. Sales for the game were said to have dramatically increased upon the game’s release on Steam, where you will probably be able to purchase it for less than five dollars during the inevitable Christmas sale. The game was first made readily available to Linux gamers in Humble Indie Bundle #4, and has since reappeared in HIB #5, the Ubuntu Software Center, and the Steam for Linux Beta (for those fortunate enough to have received an email from Valve). The Humble Bundles provide a fairly simple bin file for installation, and all told the game takes up roughly 200 MB of hard disk space. This is a 2D game with simple yet attractive spritework, so it goes without saying that it runs well on almost anything with discrete graphics. When combined with a surprisingly robust set of in-game scalers for graphics, I’ve also had decent experiences with this title on my Samsung N150 netbook. The only real wrinkle is that any interested players would do well to take Team Meat’s advice and use an actual controller; here, Ubuntu’s baked-in support for the Xbox controller shines brighter than a thousand suns.

Ultimately, this is a game for people who are looking for a challenge. If you are put off by the site of gallons of digital blood splattered across levels covered in spinning saw blades and used needles, you might give it a pass as well. At a certain point, games like these are less about ability and finesse than they are about patience and experimentation. Players who can enjoy the latter are no better than players who would struggle to find anything to like about SMB, but they are the ones who will find themselves coming back to it for repeated abuse. It isn’t so much that this game is “too challenging” for some people; rather, Super Meat Boy is a game that is joyfully “too challenging” for everybody. It is a game that gives you insane goals, and leaves it to the player to decide if they are willing to die dozens and dozens of times in attempting to accomplish them. You are no less of a person for having no interest in this sort of ordeal, but those of you who are should already own this masterpiece.

Note: At the time of writing, this game is available on Steam for $2.99 USD. Windows and Mac OS users should take the plunge immediately, and Linux users in the Steam beta would be foolish to pass up this opportunity!

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