Written By Ian Beeken
Platformers are a curious game genre, despite being one of the oldest and most well-known from classic franchises such as “Mario” and “Sonic the Hedgehog”, they all have a certain polish that’s hard to put together well. For a platformer to be considered high quality, it needs responsive controls, fantastic level design, a consistent set of mechanics, obstacles and visual styles and a feeling of real progression under stacked odds leading to a just and sweet reward. After almost 10,000 deaths and counting, it can be proudly stated that Super Meat Boy ticks all of these boxes with an unashamedly frustrating sheen.
Super Meat Boy is the first game of the indie development studio “Team Meat” and is currently available on Xbox Live and Steam/Direct-2-Drive for PC as well as a recently released retail boxed edition. The story of the game is deliberately basic and straightforward with the game putting its focus purely on gameplay and visual cues, the main premise being that the lead character; Meat Boy must save his unusual damsel in distress; Bandage girl from the evil Dr Fetus. The story is explained clearly in the opening with cute visual aids and text boxes akin to a silent movie with each character expressing their emotion and personality through body language and facial expression. It’s clear the characters don’t need to be able to talk to be understood, a feature the simplistic character design really puts forward.
The concept of the game couldn’t be simpler; run, jump, rescue. The difficulty of super meat boy comes in the forms of obstacles that stop you achieving just that, with saws, lasers, missiles and spike-pits amongst many more annoyingly inventive methods. The game is split into 6 initial chapters, each with their own unique visual style, environments and music with initially 20 unique levels for each chapter in addition to a boss level to accompany them. The first few levels are obstacle free for you to obtain a basic understanding of the controls, how meat boy moves and to get a feel of the momentum of running and jumping, the difficulty curve is smooth but steep, with levels containing over 10 saws near the final levels of the first chapter. Whilst this may seem daunting, the game makes sure you’re completely prepared for the challenges ahead.
It’s immediately apparent from the first level that the controls are sharp, responsive and a pleasure to use. Each button press provides an immediate result and the precision this allows means that even in the most frustrating scenarios you are likely to encounter; you’ll always have complete control over the character. This feeling of control is great because as a result, the game can never kill you unfairly. Any deaths that occur in this game are as a direct result of your control, meaning that you can rush through the levels as fast as you want without the controls slowing you down or ruining the progression you’ve made. This is especially prevalent in wall jumping whereby you can jump in-between walls with lightning precision or climb a wall with repeated jumps, the responsive controls make this feature and freedom of movement all the more impressive and fun to use. If possible, the game is best played with a 360 controller (either wired or wireless depending on your setup) over the keyboard since the game was designed originally for the Xbox 360. A keyboard is still a viable choice if that option isn’t available with near identical results however.
The level design in Super Meat Boy is phenomenal, with most stages only taking approximately 30 seconds to realistically achieve but potentially minutes to hours to master. The levels are designed with the idea of modular progression, meaning that when you can tackle a particularly challenging level in manageable chunks to a final sweet victory once all the levels mechanics have been conquered, making the final reward and progression all the sweeter. Being able to conquer entire levels that at first seemed impossible is a fantastic feeling that will ensure that you’ll see Meat Boy through to the end, no matter how many saws, missiles and pits there are, the game is designed around personal progression through skill and understanding rather than cheap mechanics and luck.
In Meat Boy, deaths are frequent, deaths are unavoidable and deaths are fair. As you progress through the game, you’ll die perhaps 10 times before completing the first section of a level and probably 100 before you complete the second. Whilst on paper this seems like a game that would result in broken monitors and shattered keyboards, the game rarely frustrates and is more a tool of education and dedication. The game has clearly been designed with keeping frustration and anger to a minimum. The game doesn’t have a life system, with deaths being a minor setback and more of an invitation to try again rather than a flat out declaration of failure, every pit-fall or saw encounter respawns you within seconds to ensure that you are motivated to complete your goal of saving bandage girl rather than insulting you for not. This sense of dedication is displayed most prominently at the completion of the level during the replay, showing every fall and death of Meat Boy for you to see in detail. The majority of the time, you’ll see almost hundreds of meat boys fall into the same traps over and over, making seeing the one remaining meat boy reach the target a fantastic experience, giving a direct visual representation of your dedication and success.
Outside of the initial content presented to new players, meat boy boasts a frankly criminal amount of additional content to keep you hooked on unlocking the next big thing the game brings to the table. Firstly, there are warp zones that you can unlock by touching them in the regular levels before they disappear. These levels are primarily retro styled in 16 bit, 8bit or familiar classic-Gameboy beige. Secondly, there are additional characters that can either be unlocked by completing these warp zones or by collecting bandages in select places throughout the levels. There are 100 bandages scattered around the levels and warp zones in all and each 10 provides a new and interesting character to the mix. All the hidden characters are based around other indie games and each have their own special abilities to bring to the table. For example, one unlockable character is “Commander Video” from Bit.Trip.Runner. His special ability allows you to hover at the same altitude for a few seconds, allowing you to maintain height over tricky obstacles. The diversity of the characters coupled with their special abilities in certain situations ensures that there are many ways to complete a level and with times being recorded for in-steam-leaderboards this is a welcome addition for any competitive and creative players.
A recent addition to Super Meat Boy (PC) is that of “Super Meat World”, an online Meat Boy portal whereby players can upload, play and rate user created chapters and levels. This functionality is also coupled with a level editor that is downloadable in order for players to create their own content to upload. This feature has been clearly well designed and is simplistic to use but retaining a great deal of design complexity. The levels and chapters that are uploaded are guaranteed to have a high quality due to the rating system. In addition, impossible levels cannot be uploaded since the creator ultimately has to complete the level they have produced in order to be eligible to upload it, further ensuring the quality of the content available. To accompany this, a feature introduced with Super Meat World entitled “The Unknown” allows players to randomly jump into a selection of user created levels for a new, unique experience every time you start the game, increasing the replay value of the game by a significant m