Saturday, February 12, 2011

Super Meat Boy Review

In October of 2008, I purchased Super Mario Bros. 3 off the Wii Virtual Console, nearly three years later, I still have yet to complete it. After repeated deaths, I find myself only on World 3. I appreciated very much the game’s high difficulty, but the high punishment for failure turned me off from the game. Having to restart each world after losing all lives was frustrating, and that was highly unfortunate. Super Mario Bros. 3 was one of the finest-designed 2D platformers that I played, with fun levels and physics that were near-perfect. Despite that, the NES’s inherent lack of save options prevented me from having the opportunity to ever enjoy the game’s full potential.
Channeling the spirit of extreme challenge of 8-bit platformers, the indie poster-child Super Meat Boy aims to be the hardest game conceived since I Wanna Be the Guy. Its one of the hardest platformers this critic has played, but its also one of the best.
Super Meat Boy at first glance heavily influenced by indie platformer N+, which, by a considerable margin, was one of the most popular Flash games ever made. Channeling precise controls and exellent level design, Super Meat Boy does indeed feel highly influenced by N+.
However, considerable differences set Team Meat’s creation on a level more impressive than that of N+’s indie Flash team. For one, Super Meat Boy’s physics engine handles far faster and tighter than N+’s floaty ninja physics. Despite Meat Boy’s speed, the game also controls very well. Every jump is precisely controlled through the spacebar and arrow keys, critical wall jumps are easily preformed. The simplicity of the controls makes Super Meat Boy a very easy game to learn and enjoy, thus, the primary difficulty comes directly out of the level design. A forgiving difficulty curve eases you into its most diabolically challenging levels with grace.
And the said level design is incredible. Continuously pushing the player to the limits of their skill and constantly challenging the player to improve, Super Meat Boy balances its design delicately, and despite the hundreds of deaths that players will incur, the game seldom feels overly punishing or frustrating. Ample hidden areas and secret characters from other indies make bandage collecting a desirable mechanic and add an even greater level of challenge to the game.
That said, the game does not always run well. Super Meat Boy has ridiculous system requirements for a 2D platformer, and performance frequently hiccupped when playing on old machines. Running in windowed mode helped, but certain levels were rendered unplayable by clipping glitches.
Given the game’s small-studio development, Super Meat Boy possesses a simplistic graphical style that remains easy on the eyes and very playable. Certain levels pay homage to retro 8-bit games in their art direction. One Warp-Zone secret area in particular stands out with an 8-bit “pea-soup” aesthetic reminiscient of the original Game Boy. Thus, Super Meat Boy quite definitely goes for an extremely stylish, tongue-in-cheek approach to its art. The game’s humor thus makes the extreme difficulty considerably more bearable and fun.
That said, the game’s music is significantly more memorable than even its art-direction. 8-bit rock music serves as the background music, and while repetitive while looped, is great fun to listen to and provides the humorous mood that Super Meat Boy aspires for.
Perhaps what sets Super Meat Boy apart from some of the more rage-inducingly difficult games I have played is how it approaches its difficulty. In a recent lecture, Jonathan Blow highlighted the distinction between meaningful and arbitrary difficulty and how each can be achieved. Meaningful difficulty forces the player to learn from their mistakes and allows the player to retry new strategies immediately whereas arbitrary difficulty punishes the player for failure and sets high thresholds for frustration. Having come from unpleasant experiences with Call of Duty’s online multiplayer and Monster Hunter’s high level of punishment for failure, I found Super Meat Boy’s difficulty well balanced and in the realm of “meaningful difficulty”.
Perhaps the infinite number of lives and the instant respawns allotted to players distinguished Super Meat Boy from the frustration I dealt with while playing Super Mario Bros. 3. NES platformers greatly punished players for failure by sending them back to the beginning of the game or world upon the loss of all their lives. Having the opportunity to get back on my feet after being knocked down repeatedly allowed me to complete many of the game’s challenging levels in spite of many, many deaths. And despite the 800 plus Meat Boys I sent to their gory, pixelated demise in the first few hours I played, I seldom felt like quitting out of frustration. This delicately balanced difficulty makes Super Meat Boy a highly enthusiastic recommendation. 4.75/5

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