Super Meat Boy

Released in 2010 for the Xbox 360 and the PC
Developed in the United States by Team Meat
Distributed by Microsoft (Xbox 360) and Valve (PC)

Synopsis: Super Meat Boy plays to the same foible as 2010’s VVVVVV, utilizing a checkpoint and death system that, in conjunction with the exceptionally short levels, is nearly analogous to the save state function featured in system emulators. With no punishment for death, there is no difficulty level. With no difficulty level present, the player has to look at the rest of the package, where they’ll find a rule set that is no more complicated than 1985’s Super Mario Brothers and a game that is no better looking than 1990’s Super Mario World or 1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog. Sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “I can’t hear you!” doesn’t make those games go away. Nor does calling yourself “indie” and ignoring the dozens upon hundreds of platformers that were much, much better. – ML

Note: This review was edited for structure, word count, and readability in September of 2015. The arguments remain unchanged.

News flash: Super Meat Boy is not hard. It is an easy game. It is built for the moron who loads up an emulator, launches a game, and hits “Save State” every ten seconds. In this twisted version of the Nintendo platforming experience, death is punished with “restart at the beginning of that incredibly short level”. And once you complete a level or a world, you can move ahead. It doesn’t matter if you succeed on the first try or the hundredth try. No difficulty level exists in Super Meat Boy because no meaningful punishment for failure exists.

Compare this with the eighties videogaming experience. When you lost all of your lives or failed the mission or whatever, you were often grateful when a development team gave you continues or a password system. More commonly, developers would say “You suck. Until you prove to us that you don’t suck and that you can beat this game, you get to start from the beginning.” Even with the help of those continue systems, those games became benchmarks for difficulty because they required lengthy stretches of flawless play. And nobody is going to tell me that any level in Super Meat Boy requires a longer stretch of flawless play than the eighth world in the Japanese edition of Super Mario Bros. 2.

But difficulty aside, those old side-scrollers would still be more entertaining. Because for starters, when it comes to Super Meat Boy‘s simple controls, there seems to be a complete disconnect between run inertia and air inertia. Mid-air control of the character is quite awkward and rather inexcusable in a game where completing a level requires minimal margin for error. All of this is then made worse by the inconsistent mechanics for wall-jumping, where the player will hug and proceed to slide up the wall, rather than simply jumping straight up. This is critical because these two states of animation (“wall-sliding” and “falling”) maintain different rules for gravity. And since the only way to cancel a wall-slide is to jump, you can expect to die numerous times before figuring out that the game should have never been programmed this way.

And in Super Meat Boy, the character has no direct method of attack. You’re not supposed to be assaulting levels, you’re supposed to be surviving them. Whether that entails getting from Point A to Point B without a scratch, waiting for a gate to unlock so you can escape from a nasty predicament, or outrunning the falling ceiling of death has all been determined by the level design ambitions of Team Meat. Ambitious these ambitions are not, with the developers readily recycling and reusing these tropes throughout the game’s 250-plus levels. Player movement cannot be used to turn projectiles against their creators or other enemies. Enemies can’t be coaxed into attacking each other. Anti-gravity devices can’t be used against your opponents. Portals can’t be manipulated and can’t be redirected into more favorable outcomes. The only thing you can do is keep running, moving, and wondering why the hell you have absolutely no right to interact with the game world that’s trying to murder your block of blood.

With this setup, Team Meat has actually done the impossible: In parodying 1985’s Super Mario Brothers, they have actually created a video game that is less complex than the father of the side-scrolling platformer genre. Let’s think about it. Super Mario Brothers allows you to attack enemies. It gives you numerous ways to kill enemies. You can jump on them, you can set them on fire, you can destroy them with an invincibility item, you can even kick enemies into each other! The game even has what we would today call “destructible environments”. Whereas in Super Meat Boy, enemies, projectiles, and monsters can’t be killed ever. (Even the boss fight in the fourth world ends after the boss monster has gone through his pre-programmed animations and inflicted three successful attacks on himself. You do nothing to create that outcome.) And Super Mario Bros. used its toolkit—destructible environments, power-ups, hidden items, hidden blocks, and half-a-dozen enemy types that were all used to create diverse, complex, and memorable levels. Compared to what? A dozen enemies, a couple of terrain palette swaps, and level design featuring the bare minimum for meaningful environmental interactions?

While the best games in the eight-bit era of video games won fans by taking their diverse roster of moving parts and placing them in locations that became more devilish with each level, Super Meat Boy does not have the legs to sustain memorable and diverse level design past the one-hour mark. Super Meat Boy does not have enough moving parts. And as the game moves on, you are using the same timed jumps to conquer the same moving saws that you saw in the first and second and third and fourth and fifth and sixth worlds. The first thirty minutes of the game exploit every mechanic you’ll ever face. So no surprise that in playing hundreds of levels, I can remember perhaps a dozen of them. Very few of the levels are memorable because they’re never complex enough to become memorable.

And that’s what makes the visuals in this game so bewildering, because the game is built on the absolute vulnerability of the player-character. So immediately, one would think inspiration could be found in the bloody world of survival-horror video games. (Or, in the case of a game with less-than-realistic graphics, you could pull your inspiration from violent cartoons.) One would think the first consideration in art design would be “How can we design a world that becomes even more disgusting every single time the player dies, ultimately transforming the environment into a monument of blood and guts dedicated to the incompetence of the player?” However, whenever Super Meat Boy dies, he explodes into a harmless splatter that’s been long outdone by the trails of blood that wash onto everything the player touches.

From there, it’s not difficult to figure out that the visual design of Team Meat is limited by “proficiency”. Their art design is not a stylistic decision. Their art design and their ability to create that art is simply limited. (The 2011 release of the bloody Zelda/roguelike/whateveryouwannacallit The Binding of Isaac should affirm that.) Much like hundreds of aspiring mobile game developers, Team Meat looked at their limited art capabilities and decided they could market these limited art capabilities if they called them “retro graphics”. So while VanillaWare and Arc System Works are creating beautiful game worlds with beautiful, hand-drawn art, Team Meat can simply claim they are appealing to the childhood video game memories of those who grew up in the eighties.

Well, here’s their fatal flaw in “We’re just being retro, we promise!”: Super Meat Boy‘s “hidden” Warp Zones and Minus Worlds replicate the limited color palettes of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Team Meat even uses these bonus levels to replicate both the color clusterfucks seen in software for the Atari 2600 and the monochrome graphics on the Game Boy. By extension, we can conclude that Team Meat wants their game to be compared favorably with the sixteen-bit video game consoles. And upon an immediate inspection, Super Meat Boy does not even compare well with 1990’s Super Mario World and 1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog , the two platforming experiences most closely associated with video games in the early nineties; two games designed to showcase the potential of the hardware, two games that saw their graphical fidelity outdone by dozens and dozens of other products during the course of the hardware’s shelf life. Super Meat Boy doesn’t even achieve the bare potential of art schemes that were done over twenty years ago by developers that were just starting to stick their feet into the sixteen-bit swimming pool. If you’re really looking for a recent videogame that satisfies your unconditional love for the style of pixel art present on the Super Nintendo, Super Meat Boy is a grand leap behind 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game, a game that throws a nod to its eight-and-sixteen-bit influences and then firmly carries itself on its own legs.

Super Meat Boy is a rather unremarkable world of washed-out-yet-saturated colors, a game whose only creative leaps in art design come an even more liberal use of saturated colors, where everything in the foreground is painted black and placed upon the background. That color saturation only becomes worse when you’re dumped into one of those retro worlds. And while the music can actually be quite good from time to time (the World 5 music is a particular standout), the chiptune music in the Warp Zones will shoot straight into your ears and steal your soul. Not to even speak of the meager sound effects that lack a required “oomph” to convince the player that every level is a menacing, grinding, terrifying chamber shop of horrors. Quite simply, the sound and visuals are a step back from what we expected in 1991, even when compared to the rather wretched world of “indie game development” that has spawned Super Meat Boy.

So contrary to what mainstream video game journalists have declared (journalists that apparently started playing games about four or five years ago), you can’t toss average controls, wonky physics, and sloppy graphics into a pathetically simple game model and call it a 2010 Game of the Year candidate. And if you think I’m being harsh, I apologize. I’m not going to give a small development team a pass because they have limited resources and limited manpower. Smaller development teams have proven capable of creating some of the best works in the history of this industry, and they did it while being judged against gigantic companies and their gigantic budgets, and not just a bunch of amateur projects that pop up on Newgrounds or TIGSource. Expect better.

★★