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Review – Super Meat Boy (Binned)

Super Meat Boy

Developed by:  Team Meat
Published by:  Microsoft Game Studios (Xbox 360), Headup Games (PC)
Released: 2010
Platforms:  Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows, Steam (Played), Linux, Mac OS X

I must regrettably dump Super Meat Boy into the boiling pot’s ‘Binned’ list.  I walk away genuinely saddened;  it was an abusive relationship, but one that I had considered tough but fair.  The rare moments of joy had convinced me to keep returning, even though I knew I would eventually find myself being mistreated again.   I remained dedicated and faithful until the moment Super Meat Boy went too far.  I had to take care of myself.  I had to leave.

SMB now shares the same space as ‘Deathkings of the Dark Citadel’ as another uncompleted game on The Boiling Pot.  To clarify however, SMB is not as offensively obtuse as the Hexen expansion, however it pushed it’s challenge too far by adding randomness to it’s difficulty.

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The Setup

You are the titular Meat Boy, an animated cube of meat who must traverse many challenging levels to rescue your girlfriend ‘Bandage Girl’ from ‘Dr Foetus’, a foetus/baby living within a robot suit.

You can probably imagine the tone of the game already.  It’s concept is as silly as that of a mid 2000’s Cartoon Network series, including the subtle adult/horror tones.  The aesthetic is wonderfully colourful and cute but also soaked in morbid humour.  The games second chapter for example, takes place in a hospital containing masses of discarded syringes, saw blades and cute bacteria that will instantly kill the player on contact.  The bright colours come from red rich rivers of blood and the purple twilight of the sky.

Blood remains splattered in spots where you previously died and as you re-attempt the same level you will likely find almost every surface covered in a reminder of your multiple deaths.

I found the tone/aesthetic to be refreshingly bold and confident.  The creators seem to know that the context of which the action takes place is too silly to be taken seriously or cause offence.  It’s quite cheeky in some regards though, as Dr.  Foetus regularly smacks Bandage Girl around before whisking her off to the next level.  One title screen replicates the opening of classic Street Fighter 2, where two men in a crowd are squaring off and one punches the other.  In SMB it is Meat Boy, Bandage Girl and Dr. Foetus, and while a similar theme tune to Street Fighter 2 plays, Dr. Foetus turns to Bandage Girl and squarely socks her in the face.  Horrific, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t splurt out a sudden shocked laugh.

Again, SMB gets away with this via it’s bizarre context and I find it difficult to imagine people interpreting this as misogyny while also including the words ‘Meat Boy’ and ‘Dr Foetus’.

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Retro Love

Street Fighter 2 is not the only game that SMB references.  It throws back to many 8-bit/16-bit consoles and arcade games.  The graphics are reminiscent of Super Nintendo/Mega Drive Platformers.  Introductions to worlds and levels are greatly influenced by the look and sounds of games such as Castlevania, Kirby, Mario, Ninja Gaiden and others.  Admittedly these references may be lost on those unfamiliar,  but those that remember the classics will likely feel the pleasant nostalgia that I experienced.  A feeling that could only be invoked by creators that had a genuine love and fondness for these old games.

Game play

The main adventure contains multiple chapters, each consisting of many levels.  There is a potential 300 levels to experience throughout the main story (when including secret stages and warp zones).  Some of these stages contain guest characters possessing different abilities used to tackle their level’s obstacles.

A typical level will contain deadly surfaces, traps and enemies – all of which instantly kill on contact.  As Meat Boy you must run, jump and slide through each level’s platforms and hazards to reach Bandage Girl and progress to the next stage.  Levels are generally quite small, but many attempts are required to succeed and each stage may take much longer than you think.

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Released in 2010, SMB maintains a reputation of being extremely difficult and it is obvious why, failure is constant.  The one hit kill mechanic, as well as the many lethal surfaces, blades, traps and enemies will result in an obscene amount of deaths.  Level’s may be small, but almost every move or jump can result in failure.  Near absolute precision is required to successfully traverse a stage and though this may sound off-putting, the perfection of movement becomes the games most addictive and satisfying element.

Once you die you are instantly respawned at the beginning of the stage.  There are no loading screens, no ‘You died’ messages, no extended death animations or anything to delay the next attempt.  You die fast, but you get back into the action just as quick.  The immediate ability to re-attempt the stage aides in preventing death from becoming frustrating.  The general small level size means you will be back to where you died in no time.

To me, this is the secret ingredient and great deception of Super Meat Boy.  It play’s itself as being punishing and difficult, but the constant dying is actually your key to success.  Every death informs you of timing, or helps further refine the intensity of your jumps, increasing your accuracy.  Dying is not a punishment, it is an educator.  The only real punishment is that you need to restart the level, the reward however, is the added knowledge of what killed you and what you can change to succeed.

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Most levels are intensely challenging and at times seem impossible, but the more you re-attempt a stage the more your timing and jumping precision is developed.  Eventually you perfect every jump and slide to reach the end and the sense of satisfaction will have you fist pumping the air in sheer admiration of your mastery of the level.

Then it ruined everything

I found myself genuinely excited for each new level.  Each time I restarted the learning process and died all the way to success.  However, the second boss suddenly drained all my enjoyment and caused me to un-install the game shortly after.

As challenging as the game is designed – you will succeed given enough attempts, and by developing your understanding of the level.   You encounter an obstacle which results in failure, you restart and try a different jumping angle, different timing or jump intensity.  If you fail you simply try again using a different approach.  This is repeated until you work out the best way to get overcome the challenge and is the typical trial and error game play used throughout the game.  What is of vital importance is that obstacles and enemies behave consistently.  It is around these threats that you base your decisions and time your movements.

The second boss disobeyed this rule.  In the final stage of the second chapter you need to traverse upwards through the level avoiding a rising pool of blood, jumping between platforms and obtaining keys to unlock next section.  The boss ‘C.H.A.D’ is the primary threat.  C.H.A.D appears out of the pool of blood, jumps across the screen and immediately kills on contact.  He can appear in either the left, middle or right side of pool and the choice of location seems to be random.

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I could not learn from my deaths.  I timed my jumps and pacing to avoid the rushing blood but kept dying to the boss appearing just at the wrong moment.  You MUST pick up a key to make progress – a key close to the surface of blood.  If you happen to grab the key at the moment the boss appears on that side – you’re dead.

Successfully obtaining the key causes the blood to rise, forcing you to travel upwards.  If the boss happens to jump at that moment or sticks his head out before you can move then you are also dead.

The next section requires another key to be obtained and again, if you happen to grab the key at the wrong moment then the boss will kill you.  Obtaining the key again causes the blood to rise forcing you to move and whether or not you will cross paths with the boss seems to be down to luck.

The fact that the location of the boss is randomised meant that I would die regardless of my timing.  Perfect timing was irrelevant if the boss happened to spawn in the wrong place.

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I researched the level on Youtube for any trick or method that would help, but there was nothing I could see that I was missing.  Any sucessfull attempt I viewed involved the player moving exactly as I moved.  The only difference was that the boss happened to jump in locations that were not problematic for the player , something of which the player has no control.

I tried searching for any predictable patterns in the bosses behaviour, but there were no obvious queues or indications that a previous jump would effect the next.

An attempt at a level can last seconds and I was trying for nearly an hour.  I had learned to jump between platforms almost consistently successfully but the boss would just decide to appear in a position in which I needed to stand.

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The final straw

I feel frustrated when failing due to elements others than my own performance.  If I fail due to misjudgement then I will accept the mistake and try to improve, albeit feeling a little disappointed, but if I die because the game simply decides that I must – then the game is wasting my time in an attempt to maintain it’s difficult image.

I know that had I kept playing that fortune would simply fall my way and I would succeed.  There may even have been subtle, difficult to see hints about the required timing – but the frustration reached a point where I simply stopped caring.  Even if this was the only level that had such a fickle mechanic and every level after was the usual Super Meat Boy goodness, it no longer mattered – all good will had been zapped.  I felt genuinely disappointed as the game was so fun and intense prior to this moment.  This one level completely blocked off the rest of the game and killed my interest.

I understand that there are many levels other than the main story, levels created by the community and include different characters and mechanics, but it was only the adventure that I was interested in seeing to the end.

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Conclusion

As disappointed as I feel, I cannot bring myself to say that Super Meat Boy is a poorly designed game.  There is a lot to like, the humour, the aesthetic, the intensity and satisfaction of beating a challenge and the massive amount of additional content available.  To me however, it made the mistake of removing my actions from my success.  Even if this was the only incident of this mechanic – it was a fatal misstep.

I appreciate the difficulty in Super Meat Boy.  I understand and even experienced the draw and satisfaction of mastering an intensely challenging game. I had completed around 40 levels, so it would be disingenuous to say the game ‘wasn’t ‘for me’.  However, when the skill I have developed is no longer a factor in my success, then I find the game to no longer be respecting my time,  which I find unacceptable and something in which I will no longer partake.

SMB can be purchased for very cheap during a sale and if you feel that you can push through the randomness of certain parts then you may get more enjoyment out of the game than I experienced.