Review: Super Meat Boy

If it wasn’t for Bayonetta at the beginning of the year, Super Meat Boy would be my “Game of the Year”. Perhaps I can just slide Bayonetta back into GOTY for 2009. Whatever, such distinctions are silly anyways. Super Meat Boy is a wonderful 16-bit style platformer made by Team Meat, featuring the beautifully bearded Edmund McMillen and the wonderfully bald Tommy Refenes. Together they produced what has to be 2010s best independent game (or in my case, best game of the year, period). Sure you got Minecraft, but it’s barely a ‘game’ (Best …computer…thing? of 2010 would be the appropriate award?) and Limbo is cute and artsy but just doesn’t have a ton of real gameplay like Meatboy does.

The Gameplay (And why it’s so good)

The game follows the Story of Meat Boy. A boy. Who is made of meat. His girlfriend, Bandage Girl is kidnapped by a fetus who lives in a glass tank that wears a monocle and a suit. Dr. Fetus kidnaps Bandage girl because he hates you, hates Meat Boy, and if the developer’s twitter is to be believed, is a heavily closeted homosexual (Not being open with your self can lead to a lot of emotional and behavioral issues! D: ). The premise of each stage is simple. Use Meat Boy to get to Bandage Girl (Whom is then swooped away by Dr. Fetus) to advance to the next level. Levels tend to be short, almost always being less than a minute to complete on a successful run. The game is separated into 5 primary worlds, each containing 20 of these levels (each with an alternative hard mode), 4 warp zones (Each with 3 8-bit style levels and one unlocking a secret character) and a boss fight. There is also an end chapter with 5 super long stage and a Boss level, an alternative Chapter with Bandage Girl (only lacking warpzones and a boss fight). I believe the total for all of the content stands at 316 levels.

Meat Boy himself is an extrapolation of the “Mario Ideal”. Mario is slippery, he is fast and he’s somewhat hard to control. He never feels to ‘cheat’ you with his controls. He feels like a nuanced tool you come to understand the nuances of.

Meat Boy is faster. Meat Boy is more slippery. Meat boy can wall slide and wall jump. Meat boy can jump absurd distances. Meat boy is difficult to master, but is always reliable.

The game has two buttons. Run and jump. When running, Meat Boy makes Sonic look like a sissy. He hauls ass at a speed that starts off as intimidating. He can easily clear half a screen length with a running jump. Meat Boy is also an expert wall jumper. When slammed up against a wall, he falls at a reduced speed and can rocket off the wall at a speed that exceeds his normal run speed and jump distance. He can also do short wall hops up only one wall. Meat Boy is fast and mobile and has to be. Super Meat Boy’s stages are often consumed with dangers. The minute-or-less levels get you a lot of mileage, as mastery of them can sometimes take hours for weaker players. The level design, while not entirely immaculate, still strikes with stunning consistency. It also plays to Meat Boy’s inherent difficulty to control. Stages do not have to be cramped with danger, like stages in I Wanna Be The Guy, where the Kid moves with precise and exact pixel precision. This allows for more nuanced challenges, relying on intuition on how Meat Boy moves. The levels are made to Meat Boy. When playing, I always strove to see what the developer saw when making it. An optimal path of play in which the stage intends for you to find and sometimes even surpass. Timings and tricks in the stage seem to fall in place as the elements and sizes of things seem exactly chosen to create fluid gameplay. There are no goofy jumps or weird distances or timing. In fact, a lot of times you can trust things to work out when trying to play at the highest possible speed. This makes competition for time extremely fun. You can compete on the leader board, or just try and score a low enough time to score a “A+” on a stage.

The Dark World versions of levels take stages you thought were hard already and makes them even harder. Yet somehow it does it in a way that doesn’t feel unfair. They tend to be visually more intimidating, but only require a little more precision and a few more jumps. They say “If you could do this before, there is no reason you can’t do this now. You just have to push your self further.” Many stages also have ‘Bandages’ on them, a single item that you can collect that is often cleverly hidden. They’re only really used for unlocking characters, but they are rewarding to find. Sadly the game doesn’t tell you what levels they’re on, but you can rely on the internet for that if it bothers you (it bothered me).

Super Meat Boy’s Bag of Tricks

Super Meat Boy’s primary hazard is the ‘immobile thing that kills you”. Generally circular saw blades, but other time lava, medical waste, blood and….. salt (Fridge horror!). Saw blades can also move up and down or spin with around a center axis. These movements are consistent. Nothing you do ever causes saws to start or stop moving. There are also saw blade launchers, which periodically shoot sawblades (about one character size) in a straight line. Most things seem to be timed together. Generally if a stage has moving saw blades and shooting saw blades, the shot will fire when the moving saw blade is in the same position. No temporal desynchronization of hazards. When it does happen, it is minor and generally not a big deal and is done for some particular reason. This makes it a breeze to learn how to deal with each jump and hazard on a stage. The scenario won’t be glaringly different just because you got there a minute later.

Areas of interaction include buttons and keys. Buttons cause a chain reaction of blocks to disappear. A target block disappears and then all adjacent blocks next to it that are disppearing blocks also disappear, causing a chain reaction. After a set time, the blocks restore themselves. This can be used to open passageways, or used to create collapsing bridges or other obstacles. Sometimes these switches are automated, creating Mega Man style disappearing platform segments. Keys do he same, only they destroy the blocks in question forever. There are also your classic style ‘crumbling block’.

There are some enemies too, of varying quality. Blobs that bounce around at 45 degree angles (and thankfully tend to behave very consistently, timing wise). There are also wall crawlers and homing enemies (Both flying and on the ground). The homing enemies are one of the few things that bug me. These, and the homing rocket launchers (one of which shoots monster things that explode with 8 way bullets) are elements that seem a bit too ‘random’ for fair play. You can come up with techniques to product consistent results against them, but it is unintuitive. The homing of the rockets is also too strong. Sometimes when a rocket misses you, if the angle is perfect, it can loop back around and 180 at you. This seem massively unfair and arbitrary when it happens. Still, with good technique you can remove the minor ‘luck’ element. It’s not a big deal, but it seems out of place in a game that seems to be about performance and consistency.

There are a ton of other minor elements. There are fans and ‘gravity orbs’ that are annoying in the same way homing rockets are. There’s conveyor belts, which when laid vertically can launch you to obscene heights. Theres bouncing balls and portals that teleport you while maintaining your momentum. Oh also lasers that cycle on and off. You GOTTA have those.There is enough stuff to keep engaged and give each stage it’s own feel.

Artistry and Music

McMillien made some lovely tile sets for this game. They come off as very 16-bit, but contain enough depth, color and detail to maintain the feel of a modern game. Stages are often tinted with various colors to set certain moods and create unique visual effects without going overboard. The background elements neatly break up the rigorously square design the game ascribes to for consistency sake. The tilesets tend to have the feel of urban decay, but also include stuff like forests and hell. The last Chapter, “The End” contains art work and style that, when combined with the soundtrack leads to something legitimately epic. McMillien understands basic things such as the use of color and composition to make very visually effective and stylish stages. Danny Baranowsky soundtrack pops with a retro charm without relying on retro effects and sounds. The game also has some flash made cutscenes, many being throw backs to old video games. They tend to be brief and funny. Each stage as an intro cut scene, a boss cut scene and an ending cut scene, as well as a cutscene for each World’s unlockable character. Again, none are too long and almost all of them are funny in some way, just enough to frame an exceedingly simple but cute narrative with no dialog.

Loose bits and Final Thoughts

The characters in the game are fun, each coming with unique abilities. Some examples: Captain Video can hover but is way slower than Meat Boy Runman is super fast(he walks slightly slower than Meat Boy Runs, and his run button is a temporary boost button), but can’t walk slowly or jump as high as meatboy. Jill can mash jump to glide and The Kid can of course Double Jump. Some characters seem designed to make levels easier to complete (Like Captain Video or Jill), while others can be used to get bandages or exploit shortcuts (all the multijumpers like The Kid, Osmo and Flywrench) and some can be used just to optimize play time (Mostly either Run Man or The Kid). Captain Viridian can even flip gravity. But the all have a handicap (outside of usually being slower or have worse jump height/distance than Meat Boy) — the levels were not designed for them. So often even absurd abilities like changing gravity are not as fast as just playing levels straight with Meat Boy. It’s good stuff. Meat Boy is always one of the best characters for a level (in fact, time wise, he’s probably the best character 80% of the time at least). Warpzones are cool and bring in the concept of lives. Each of the 3 stages of a warp zone gives you 3 lives to complete it (unless it’s a character warpzone, in which case you have infinite). This is fine through most of the game, but near the end it just leads to tedium. It’s also annoying to have to go through the warpzone intro every time you lose all 3 lives on the first level. It’s a minor point, but as I was trying to complete the Skyscraper warpzone to unlock the Golden God achievement (Yes, for once I cared about an achievement: Total Completion), it would have been so nice to be able to skip that shit. Outside of that and the homing elements, there was thankfully few painful stages (Though they do exist!). I guess the boss fights could have been better? But who cares, they were mostly cinematic stages so it all worked out. Also the replay feature at the end of a stage where you see all your attempts at once is neat, but people seem to care too much about this adorable feature. The GAME is the best part, not the knickknacks.

I ran this game into the ground. For awhile I was around top 50 on Steam for Overall time (now people have pushed me up to 100 and something, but whatever). I played everything this game had and loved it. Despite it’s few rough spots, it’s easily my favorite game since Bayonetta come out. It’s a great example of how control can be used in a game to make platforming more interesting. I highly recommend it to anyone who is even slightly interested in 2d platforming still.