Review: Super Meat Boy (PC)

I had originally intended to publish this review within a week or so of Super Meat Boy becoming available on Steam, so that I might stand a chance of influencing a few purchasing decisions during the inevitable Christmas sales.

Now, with the sale – and Christmas itself – long since over, I have clearly failed miserably at this goal. Nevertheless, here’s my review.

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It’s time to come clean. I’m in an abusive relationship.

It started innocently enough, as these things do. I met Meat Boy when he was young, just another in a long line of flash games that I used up and threw away. I was a player – I took what enjoyment I could get, and then I left. I’m not proud of it, but that’s the way things were in those days.

Imagine my surprise when, just the other day, he turned up at my door and asked me to join him for a drink. I was hesitant, of course – who wouldn’t be? But the price seemed reasonable. And he’d clearly matured over the years; he was stronger, faster, and running at a much higher resolution.

We passed the first few levels tentatively, still finding our feet. Then we did another, and another, faster and faster. Before I knew it, we were running, jumping and dodging like never before. It was exhilarating. Little did I know that once Meat Boy had me in his fleshy grasp, he would stop at nothing to keep me there.

Before I carry on, I’d probably better clarify a few things. Super Meat Boy is a 2d platform game from developers Team Meat, their first commercial game. It’s essentially a reboot of the original Meat Boy, a flash game which can still be played for free on the internet.

There’s even a backstory, which I shall quote directly from the developer’s website, because no summary can do it justice: “Super Meat Boy is a game where you play as a boy without skin whos girlfriend who is made of bandages gets kidnapped by a fetus in a tuxedo wearing a top hat and a monocle.”

Yes. Well. Anyway, the setup is fairly simple. In each level, you control Meat Boy – or one of several other unlockable characters – and all you have to do is navigate your way through a two-dimensional level to Bandage Girl, at which point the level ends. There are platforms to jump between, bosses to fight, and a princess (of sorts) to save. Sounds fairly normal, no? Here’s a short video, showing the game in motion:

In case you couldn’t work it out from the video, let me state one thing very clearly: Super Meat Boy is HARD. Not hard like a Call of Duty game, where ‘difficulty’ is synonymous with ‘MOAR BAD GUYZ PLZ’. No, Super Meat Boy is hard like a brick wall. A brick wall covered in deadly spikes, with spinning saw blades at either end and a pile of used needles on the floor beside it. After the opening tutorial section, once you’ve proven yourself capable of the necessary violations of the laws of physics, you’re expected to fling Meat Boy around arenas littered with hazards, some of which are moving, and bounce between the few safe platforms at near-light speed with, at best, a miniscule margin for error. Oh, and some of the ‘safe’ platforms move, too. Sometimes, they disappear once you touch them. Others will only be safe at certain times. All of this forces the player to leap from hazard to hazard at ludicrous speeds and pray to whatever dark gods have influence over this sort of thing that their timing is spot on. Which it won’t be. Past the initial training levels, it’s almost impossible that you’ll complete a level of Super Meat Boy on your first try. There are no mid-level checkpoints to be found here, oh no. If you die at the very last hurdle, you have to go through the whole level again, from the beginning.

Luckily, the levels are quite short.

One of the easier boss fights. Really.

There’s a comparison here with Valve’s classic first-person puzzler, Portal. When someone first starts playing Portal, they are invariably awful at it. They’ll stumble through the levels, constantly falling into acid and generally making a mess of things; it’s a real struggle to wrap your head around the fact that the room you’re standing in is currently wrapped around your head. But gradually you learn, you adapt, you start Thinking With Portals™ and before you know it you’re popping through floors, into walls and out of ceilings, committing heinous crimes against gravity without batting an eyelid. This same journey of discovery happens on every single level of Super Meat Boy. Generally, the first thing you see will kill you. Then, it’ll kill you twenty more times. But soon, you’ll realise that if you jump at EXACTLY the right spot, you can make it past the thing that keeps killing you. And it’ll work. And then the next thing will kill you. This process will repeat itself, obstacle after obstacle, until you’ve committed the whole of the single safe route through the level to muscle memory. The feeling of elation as you finally make it through to Bandage Girl unscathed is worth the price of admission every single time. Then you load up the next level, and start the process all over again.

But Super Meat Boy doesn’t just end a level once you’ve completed it. Here is a game that knows exactly how hard it is, and recognises the effort that you’ve put in. So you’re treated to a replay of your performance. The trick is, you don’t just see your final, successful attempt – you see every single attempt that you made, all at once. A hundred Meat Boys pour out of the start point, and only one will make it to the end. You can see a brief example of this in the gameplay trailer posted above. It’s incredibly rewarding to see the entire process of trial and error that you’ve just sweated and screamed your way through laid out before you like a blood-drenched map of your own inadequacies.

There were a lot more of me to begin with.

If all of this sounds a bit intense, fear not – one thing Super Meat Boy has in droves is variety. Yes, there’s a linear set of chapters, which you must complete to progress through the story, but the order in which you tackle the twenty levels each chapter contains is totally up to you. On top of all this, if you fancy an extra challenge, some levels have hard-to-reach collectibles, in the form of bandages and ‘Warp Zones’. Bandages are simple pickups – a hundred in total, scattered throughout the game. Some will take only a few tries to reach, and some will take hours. Once you reach a certain number of bandages, you’ll unlock a new character that you can use in any non-Warp Zone level. These extra characters are all guest-appearances from other indie titles, and each has a special ability – for example, double-jump, or the ability to fall slower than normal. These abilities are often the only way to reach certain bandages or Warp Zones. These special abilities ensure that each unlockable character is unique, and genuinely worth having on your team.

The character roster for the PC version. A prize to anyone who can identify all of them.

The Warp Zones themselves are hidden sets of levels, unlocked by finding a portal. All of the Warp Zones are thematically different – some are clearly based on old-school platformers or consoles, such as a black-and-white zone in the style of the original Gameboy, while others showcase the talents of a specific guest character, unlocked when his or her levels are completed. Others are just abstract, clearly born of ideas that simply didn’t fit into the main game. Whatever their origin, these extra levels offer a refreshing change of pace in a game that would otherwise be capable of giving a ten-year-old a heart attack.

Yes, this is from the same game. Really..

Most of the challenges in Super Meat Boy are an absolute joy to tackle. In the later stages, however, there’s a jarring transition which seems slightly incongruous – the inclusion of mobile, unpredictable enemies. For me, the enjoyment in a Super Meat Boy level comes from observing a series of predictable challenges, obstacles that move in a certain pattern, and working out the best way to navigate through them to the other side. Any failures are therefore entirely my own fault. As soon as enemies are able to directly attack, it becomes much harder to work out what you should have done differently. Worse, there’s often no way to stop them from following you. Meat Boy has no way to directly attack and some enemies, such as the Carrion Kings, can even float through walls and deadly hazards alike without batting a foetid eyelid. While it’s entirely possible I’m just suffering from a severe need to Man The Fuck Up, I can’t help but find this a little unfair.

While I’m moaning, it’s important to note that I played through Super Meat Boy using a keyboard. This is not a good idea. While I’m normally the first to defend the PC and all its trappings against any sort of rubbish console malarkey, the fact is that this is exactly the sort of game that should be played on a controller. Using a keyboard, I found myself having to take frequent breaks – not out of boredom, or even tiredness, but simply because the pain in my fingers was in danger of becoming unbearable. In its defence, Super Meat Boy does make a point of telling you to use a controller every single time you start the game, but it’s a pointless warning if, like many PC gamers, you simply don’t own one. Don’t get me wrong – the game is still perfectly playable with a keyboard, but after a long session you’ll begin to wish you’d bought the XBLA version instead.

Ultimately, Super Meat Boy is a game that will frustrate, insult and torture you to the brink of self-mutilation, but one you’ll keep coming back to. At times, you’ll hate it, you’ll curse and swear at the screen and want to ragequit harder than ever before. But once you finally get to the end of the level, your victory will feel all the sweeter for it. And if there’s a particular level you just can’t pass, there’s always a new warp zone to try, or a new character to unlock. And I haven’t even mentioned the ‘Dark World’ – extra hard versions of each level that are unlocked when you complete them within a certain time.

So, if you’re not the sort of person to shy away from a challenge, by all means play Super Meat Boy. But please, if you can, play it with a controller. I don’t want to be indirectly responsible for ruining anybody’s hands. At the very least, do a few stretches before you start. Seriously.

Oh, and one last warning: Once you start, you won’t be able to stop. As it turns out, failure is quite addictive.

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Super Meat Boy is currently available on Steam for £11.99, but has been on sale for as little as £3. It can also be found on the Xbox Live Arcade for some arbitrary number of Microsoft SillyPoints.

There’s no official demo, but the original Meat Boy can still be played in its entirety HERE.

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