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Review: Super Meat Boy

Oct 17 // Jonathan Holmes

My middle finger has been partially numb for over two weeks. I may have permanent nerve damage. I blame Super Meat Boy for this. The game doesn't actually requires use of the right middle finger (though I'm sure that wont stop a lot of you). Still, I'm 99% sure that Super Meat Boy is to blame for this new found injury.

While playing some of the harder levels of the game, I had to block out internal and external stimuli in order to survive. You could have poked me with a hot iron during those levels and I might not have felt it. I think that I was holding the controller in some tense, awkward way during one of these white knuckle game sessions. Hours later, and my hand was all messed up. All other fingers have more or less recovered, but the right middle finger seems to be traumatized for good.

Though it's tempting to file a lawsuit against Team Meat for failing to warn me that this game might be hazardous to my hand health, instead, I just want to thank them. This one numb finger works as a constant reminder of how awesome Super Meat Boy really is. Read on for my detailed analysis on the game and its finger killing ways.

Super Meat Boy (WiiWare, PC, XBLA [reviewed])
Developer: Team Meat
Publisher: Team Meat
Released: October 20, 2010 [XBLA], TBA 2010 [WiiWare, PC]
MSRP: $15

Super Meat Boy is a game about a sentient cube of bloody flesh that's on a mission to reunite with his lady love; a girl made from bandages. Just like with the best of 2D mascot platformers of the 80's and 90's, below this simple premise lies a wealth of gameplay potential. Super Meat Boy takes the very best aspects of the genre and concentrates them into a focused blast of pure, unadulterated run-and-jump bliss. All of the now useless leftovers from the arcade era and stale tropes of console days past have been cut. What's left is a game that feels like a "best of" compilation of classic platformers, while remaining 100% fresh.

This is master level craftsmanship in game design. The ingredients that make up Super Meat Boy aren't new, but the recipe is brand new. At its core, the game is really only made from two things; character physics and level design. In the hands of lesser developers, that could lead to a repetitive, stale experience. Luckily, this is Team Meat we're talking about. Their love and understanding of the  platforming genre shows in every inch of this game. That's a lot of inches. There are hundreds of levels here, and more than 12 characters that all play totally differently. The amount of mileage they get out of these simple building blocks is nothing short of astounding.

Out of those 12 characters, Meat Boy is the most straight forward. He walks, runs, and jumps; that's it. Still, it took me weeks before I felt like I had come to be an expert at "driving" him. Learning the way he handles, how far he can jump, how fast he can drop, it all takes time, but after a while, you'll be pulling off amazing moves with him without even thinking about it.

Holding run accelerates Meat Boy regardless of if he's on the ground or in mid air, which takes some time to fully grasp. He's also slippery as hell, with a touch of stickiness (from the constant bleeding and all), so he can both stick and slide up walls. But how fast do you have to run, and what angle do you have to hit the wall, in order to slide far enough up said wall to clear those spinning blades? Will wall jumping off the side of the ledge give you more horizontal distance that jumping from the top of the ledge, and even if it does, do you have the skill to make the jump without falling to your death?

These are the types of questions I was constantly asking myself while playing Super Meat Boy. The game never stops throwing new problems at you, and remixing old problems in new ways that you never could have expected. Just when you think that you've seen the worst that the meat zombies, laser eyes, missile launchers, lava pools, giant fans, poison globs, white worms, salt avalanches, and other assorted death dealers that populate this world offer, suddenly, they'll come at you in a way that you'll feel completely unprepared for.

You'll be dead in an instant, and you'll be sure that there was no way you could have survived. You'll feel totally defeated... for a second. Since the game usually respawns you no more than ten seconds away from what just killed you (or 30 seconds on the very last stages of the game), you'll be face to face with your former killer in no time. From there, you'll need to get psychological. You have to refuse to accept your preconceived limitations, trust your instincts, and combine your muscle memory with your analytical mind to find a path to survival. Sometimes it just take seconds, and the previously impossible obstacle course will feel like child's play. With that, you'll have become a better Meat Boy player, and it feels good. Then it's on the next level, where your mind will again be blown with the seemingly insurmountable obstacles before you, and double-blown by your ability to survive them, using levels of skill and creativity that you didn't know you had.

Sometimes though, you wont be able to get through a level with just guts and determination alone. You might need a new character to get you through. Through secret warp zones and collectible bandages, you'll unlock a variety of platforming icons from other independent games. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, but none of them stray too far from the "run and jump" basics.

Jill from BDSM platformer Mighty Jill Off can slow her descent while falling if you mash jump. Tim from Braid is always moving at full speed, which frees up his jump button to activate his patented time reversal potion. Commander Video from Bit.Trip RUNNER can float like Peach from Super Mario Bros. 2, while the Pink Knight from Castle Crashers has a struggle-kick double-jump like Yoshi from Yoshi's Island. Some characters are definitely more useful than others (I ended up using the Kid from I Wanna Be the Guy as much as I could after unlocking him in Chapter 5), but they all have their moments to shine.

There was one level that I was sure that I could never beat. It seemed flat out impossible, and it might have been with the character I was using. It involves jumping over a set of spikes while staying with a moving platform, and dodging black globs with teeth (reminiscent of the Isz from The Maxx) which can also explode into a spreadshot of smaller, equally deadly toothy globs. I tried that level with every character I knew how to use, and failed repeatedly, until I tried Flywrench. He/she is the heaviest, most sluggish character in the game. Turns out, the weird little abstract hero was perfect for the job. Thanks to his/her triple jump and accelerated decent speed (due to wrenches being heaver than meat?), I was able to get through the level fairly painlessly. At that moment,  I fell in love with Flywrench, at least a little bit.

That was just one of literally hundreds of memorable "Eureka! I love you!" moments that I've experience in my play through of Super Meat Boy. Out of the game's 7 chapters and 300+ levels, I've managed to clear a little over 290. I've beaten every "lightworld" level, but the semi-optional "darkworld" stages are something else. These hard-as-hell, remixed versions of initially unlocked Super Meat Boy stages are only playable once you beat their lightworld equivalents within a predetermined time frame. You don't need to beat them all to see the first ending, but to get the "true ending" you must clear at least 85 of them, and beat a tougher version of the last boss.

But that's not all. There are special warp zones and minus levels that can only unlocked via secret methods. You can try to unlock those at any time. Then after you beat the game, there's a set of 40 new levels that feature a new playable character (and incredibly hilarious, inappropriate pop music. On top of all that, there are currently 20 free XBLA-exclusive DLC stages, grouped under the name "The Butcher Boy." These stages are part of a larger, free DLC initiative called  "Teh Internets." Team Meat has pledged to continue to give us new levels through Teh Internets for as long as they possibly can. I've also heard that there is a 13th character that is unlocked once you get a 100% on the entire game. Sadly, I think it will be a long time before I see that character for myself, but I'll have a great time trying to get there.

So that's the heart of what makes Super Meat Boy amazing; thousands of tiny 2D platforming adventures that together form more than the sum of their parts. Beyond that, you've got all the gravy; the amazing hand-animated cut scenes, the replay system that shows you all of your (likely many) deaths at once, the 4-color, 4-bit, and 8-bit retro warp zones, the phenomenal soundtrack, and the game's multiple boss battles.

If there is one part of the Super Meat Boy experience that doesn't quite hold up to the rest, it's these boss battles. All of the bosses are masterfully designed from a visual standpoint, but they are not all truly memorable gameplay experience. Some of the boss fights are fantastic, while others feel exactly like playing a standard stage of the game.

That's by no means a bad thing, as a standard stage in Super Meat Boy is still a lot of fun, but I couldn't help but expect that the boss fights would offer something different. That's partially because  a lot of the boss fights are really different. Taking on a giant blob of amorous, kissy faced clotted blood, and later, an enormous Meat Boy devil zombie, are both fantastic experiences. Other battles, like running from a giant chainsaw robot, or racing against a Brownie who has all of Meat Boy's platforming skills, both feel a little less thunderous in comparison.

Yeah, that's about all I have for complaints regarding Super Meat Boy. In every other regard, the game just nails it. Unlike a lot of games from a small team, it doesn't try too hard to be different. Instead, it just strives to be the best at what it does, and it gets there. Team Meat has done more here to refine and evolve the genre that started with Donkey Kong than the real Donkey Kong sequels (including the Super Mario series) have done in ages. For that alone, I can say that Super Meat Boy stands amongst my favorite games of all time.

First there was Donkey Kong, then came Mario, Mega Man, and Sonic. Now we have Meat Boy. The world's newest 2D platforming legend has arrived.

Score: 9.5 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)


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