Review: Super Meat Boy (XBLA)

Recently, I’ve been making a push in my life to go vegetarian. There are a lot of reasons that I think it’s the right decision for me: I feel healthier, nothing has to die just so I can have a snack, and it lowers my environmental impact. But nothing has driven me to despise meat as much as Super Meat Boy. I spent the better part of eight hours running a sprawling gauntlet stacked to the brim with deadly traps and implements of destruction, leaving a meat-stain behind with every step, jump, and gruesome death. Under my guidance, Meat Boy has been splattered, slashed, shredded, and vivisected a grand total of 1,431 times. It was pretty disgusting.

But that's not to say it wasn't fun; in fact, that couldn't be farther from the truth. Thanks to its perfectly tuned controls, broad range of diverse levels and undeniable charm, Super Meat Boy is also one of the best platform games I've ever played.

The game follows Meat Boy through more than 300 levels of finely tuned, run-and-jump action as he attempts to save his girlfriend, Bandage Girl, from Dr. Fetus, who is a fetus in a tuxedo-clad robot suit. So, uh, yeah.

These levels are split across eight worlds, six of which comprise the main game. Each level was designed to be brief and highly intuitive, and in that regard Team Meat succeeded admirably. A level is completed when Meat Boy reaches Bandage Girl by avoiding obstacles and solving relatively straightforward puzzles. Of course, just as Meat Boy is about to save her, Dr. Fetus whisks her away in classic Donkey Kong fashion.

What you've got here is some of the most well-designed platforming action this side of Super Mario, and there's plenty of it to go around. In addition to a lengthy single-player mode, there are tougher versions of each level in what's called the Dark World. However, Dark World versions are only unlocked when you beat a par time for each level. Most levels also have collectable bandages that are used to unlock additional characters. These characters — an ensemble cast from many of the best new indie games out there, including Commander Video from the Bit.Trip series, Alien Hominid and Tim from Braid — each control in a unique fashion and are generally fun to use. And the icing on the cake is an unlockable world dubbed "Teh Internets," which is a repository for free new downloadable levels that Team Meat is committed to releasing on a regular basis. There's already a pack of 20 levels available as of this writing, and they present a different sort of challenge from the rest of the game.

It's impossible to overstate just how great of a job Super Meat Boy does at keeping the game flowing along. When your game is so fiendishly difficult that, on certain stages, dying hundreds of times isn't unusual, you need to do everything in your power to keep the player from feeling frustrated and quitting. Fortunately, Meat Boy has an indomitable sense of progress that emerges from lots of little nuances and smart design choices.

First, there's no penalty for dying: within moments of death, Meat Boy pops back into existence, meaning there's only a fraction of a second between lives where the player's not in control. This means less time wallowing over your mistakes and more emphasis on doing a better job. And the music, by Canabalt composer Danny Baranowsky, is up-tempo and well-suited to repeat listens. And although worlds have 20 standard stages, not every one needs to be completed to unlock the boss stage for the world. So even if you end up stuck on a particularly difficult level, it's no problem to just move on to the next.

Essentially, Team Meat did just about everything conceivable to make a tough-as-nails video game accessible to as many people as possible, and they succeeded.

If there's one thing the average consumer has plucked from press releases and blog chatter, it's that Super Meat Boy is a hard game. That's an understatement. Yet for being so unflinchingly difficult — for example, the last level alone took me almost an hour — I never once got angry. (This is because Nick is a robot — Ed.) That's because I was constantly reminded of two facts: The game was never at fault when I died, and each death taught me enough to remind me that I can do this. It might sound silly to talk about a game as an exercise in self-affirmation, but Super Meat Boy does a bang-up job at converting even the biggest slouch into a twitchy, speed-running platforming savant.

I can guess what sort of image just popped into your mind, but trust me, you want that to happen. It's a good thing.

When I compare that to my experience with Ninja Gaiden (screaming and cursing), N+ (screaming and cursing at my co-op partners), or I Wanna Be the Guy (screaming and cursing at everything, because everything kills you in IWBTG), the difference is clear. Super Meat Boy does for the hardcore platformer what Mass Effect did for the American RPG: it refines it, streamlines it, and opens its doors to a massive new audience.

Yeah, Super Meat Boy is hard. When I think about it, it's probably the most difficult game I've ever managed to finish. But with its clever sense of humor, impeccably designed levels and excellent pacing, it's also a game that just about anybody ought to have a blast with. Just bear in mind that you're gonna have to work a bit to make it through to the end -- but as they say, nothing that's worth doing is ever easy.

Recommended for:

  • Fans of classic platform-based games like Super Mario Bros. — Super Meat Boy is tougher, but it's a deeply rewarding experience
  • Those battle-scarred, sequence-breaking platformer fanatics who thrive under the pressure of a ruthless challenge; the Dark World was designed to give your masochistic tendencies a run for their money
  • Its massive suite of levels, winning charm, numerous clever nods to NES classics, and everything else that makes this game shine

Super Meat Boy is available on Xbox Live Arcade for $9.99/800 Microsoft Points for a limited time; after November 1, the price will rise to $14.99/1200 Microsoft Points. The reviewer purchased a copy for himself. He completed the regular world and about half of the dark world levels, earning seven of a possible 12 achievements.

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