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Something strange happens to me every time I play Super Meat Boy; every muscle fibre within my arms and hands contracts, my heart beat increases and my palms clam up around the controller. The sheer nerve shredding tension of flying through Team Meat’s sadistic level design has a genuine physiological effect on me. A stress inducing one which probably isn’t too healthy and yet I keep on playing, because, whilst it may be fraught with the constant and inevitable failure, Super Meat Boy is also one of the purest and most compelling platformers released in some time.
You are an anthropomorphised square of meat with a rather fragile composition, instantly disintegrating into a schlocky splatter of blood should you come into contact with anything but a flat surface. Dr Fetus, a fetus in a goldfish bowl and a suit, has kidnapped your girlfriend, Bandage Girl, and to get her back you must safely traverse 300 thematically varied stages of treacherous design.
A familiar sounding set up for a platformer isn’t it? And in many other ways Super Meat Boy’s design is as pure a 2D platformer as the early Super Mario Bros titles. Yet in style and execution Super Meat Boy is its antithesis, unflinchingly hardcore and punishingly difficult in comparison to Nintendo’s jaunty, family friendly platformer. If Shigeru Miyamoto had the temperament of Kratos, this is how the original Super Mario Bros would have turned out.
Each stage is a 30 second platforming gauntlet across terrain peppered with lasers, homing rockets, huge gaps and rotary saw blades, all of which makes death a practical inevitability. But what might sound like irritating and off-putting difficulty is balanced by three things; Team Meat’s finely tuned level design, impeccable controls and instantaneous re-spawns.
The lay-out of platforms and traps is a precision piece of engineering, with the rigidly angled nature of each fitting perfectly with its cuboid protagonist and his abilities. Later levels introduce a few modifiers to the basic toolset of designs, such as gravitational distorters and Portal inspired warp tunnels, but the basic make up of all stages is point A to point B platforming upon a series of rectangles and triangles.
Meat Boy’s own mechanics are equally as simplistic in their design and refined to the point at which he is an absolute joy to control. He can run, sprint, jump and wall jump with absolute fluidity as there is not a second of discernible lag between your input and the onscreen action, which is essential because of the speed at which Meat Boy moves around his treacherous surroundings.
Your first few encounters with a stage will commonly be an education of its dangers and a deciphering of the safest path to take (of which there is rarely more than one). Numerous deaths are to be expected then, but you will soon learn that failure in Meat Boy is all part and parcel of the learning process and not a punishment, with finishing a stage on the first run feeling as rare and fluky as a golfing hole in one.
Constantly dying would have made for a mightily frustrating experience if Meat Boy were not instantaneously re-spawned at the beginning of each level after death. This allows you to fly straight back into the action were you will notice your past failures and successes are displayed, as every piece of terrain you run on becomes permanently painted red and every implement of your death covered with blood. Far from just a visual nicety, this staining of each stage becomes a useful visual cue, allowing you to map your previous actions and possibly highlight the reason of your failure, as well as turning that failure into a compelling taunt.
Whilst the actual design of each level may be 30 seconds in length, this level of difficulty can easily turn some into a 30 minute frustrate-a-thon, which will be Super Meat Boy’s greatest issue for many. Its design of trial and error progression will undoubtedly see some players to frustrated ends, regardless of how brilliant the controls or level design are. As such it reminds of a retro level of platforming difficulty like Ghouls’n’Ghosts or Megaman, although its punishments are far less obnoxious.
Persist through and you will find Super Meat Boy’s greatest satisfaction comes surprisingly not from finishing a stage, but from the replay that comes after each stage completion, in which every single one of your failed attempts is played out alongside the singular successful one. It provides a satisfying and rewarding piece of feedback to see how much you have improved, watching your numbers of Meat Boy’s slowly dwindle as they progress through a stage.
Team Meat has concocted an addictive gameplay formula of punishment and reward then, one wrapped up in a charmingly slapstick and stylised aesthetic design. Short comical cut-scenes introduce boss fights and each of the themed world’s, which range from a Salt Factory to the lava pits of Hell. Hidden warp zones found in some levels transport you to a 16-bit reinterpretation of the game, and there is an unlockable cast of characters from fellow indie titles, each with their own special abilities; Braid’s Tim able to rewind time for 3 seconds and Alien Hominid given use of a gun to boost jumps and soften landings. As a package Super Meat Boy has plenty of extra’s with a special world unlocked after rescuing Bandage Girl, ridiculously difficult dark world versions of every level and free DLC maps.
Super Meat Boy is an extremely challenging title and consequently one that will alienate those who are easily turned off by failure. But Team Meat’s greatest success is their utilisation of death as a training mechanic; through its sheer inevitability and lack of punishment, it becomes a necessary gameplay element in improving your platforming.
Finishing the game I felt like a ninja, deftly flitting between toothpick wide platforms and undulating rotary saw blades, all because Super Meat Boy punished me into being a more skilled player, which was, surprisingly, a very well rewarded and enjoyable experience. Not to dissimilar to stockholm syndrome really…