Super Meat Boy
Developer: Team Meat
Release Date: 11 January 2018
Price: $14.99 / £11.99
Reviewed By Bryan Auer
Before you jump into it for the first time, you should know that Super Meat Boy is a serious platformer. It is going to slowly introduce new mechanics, obstacles, and enemies as it goes along, before expanding on those concepts until you want to pull your hair out. After eight years, the game hasn’t lost a step. It’s still charming and funny; it still looks good and plays well. It’s definitely still hard as hell.
Often times, when we as critics revisit old games, there is the chance that one or more aspects of it have soured in some way. Something about the mechanics, story, visuals, etc that reveal it to be a product of its time. More on that later, but I first wanted to say something about 'its time'. So let’s go back to 2010.
Games as art
Have you looked at the list of games that were released that year recently? It’s epic, and furthermore, it’s filled with amazing single player campaigns. Super Meat Boy went toe-to-toe with them that year, appearing near the top of many game of the year lists. The sheer volume of rich single player experiences alone should prove how great this game was when it came out.
Something else was happening in 2010… well, a lot of things really. I’m specifically talking about that time that Roger Ebert decided use his soapbox to trash on video game designer/producer Kellee Santiago’s TEDx Talk, which was about how games already are art. Maybe "trash" is a bit harsh, but this wasn’t the first time he made his feelings on the topic known. This was, however, the first time the collective internet took notice and descended upon him for said comments.
At the heart of all discussions on the 'games as art' debate is each side’s inability to agree on the very definition of art itself. I found Kellee Santiago’s attempt a little lacking, as did Mr. Ebert, who spent the majority of his piece picking her arguments apart. However by that summer, he was walking most of this back, holding fast to his beliefs while admitting that he never should have said them out loud.
It’s a little embarrassing, however, to read such an accomplished and intelligent critic completely fail to understand the medium of gaming, trying to hold games like Braid under the same lens that he uses to inspect film. In the end, it was never his place to do so, and, in all honesty, his first attempt to define his objections back in 2005 may have been his most concise.
Why am I prattling on about this? Well, to be honest, I think it is both humorous and infuriating that this discussion was going on during a year when so many amazing single player games hit the market. There are a number of titles from 2010 that I would’ve put forward as art, had I thought it was a winnable argument. One of these games happens to be Super Meat Boy.
One true path
Super Meat Boy is an intense game. I say intense because the levels are short, but brutal. It is not uncommon to die 20+ times as you slowly figure out what the stage is asking of you. There are buzzsaws, lasers, lava, spikes, fireballs, and a plethora of enemies, all waiting for the opportunity to end your run and send you back to the beginning.
While the controls feel a bit floaty, they are, in reality, very tight. At first, it’s quite difficult to understand the limits of Meat Boy’s movements. Once you have the mechanics down, it feels like every mistake is your own. By that, I mean when you die, you have no one to blame but yourself.
The levels themselves are excellently constructed. In many of them, there seem to be multiple ways to tackle it, but after you begin to really understand the physics of the game, a true path will emerge in your mind’s eye. Soon, you will be worrying about cycles just like a speed runner, as you carefully plot out your course through trial and error.
When I first began playing Super Meat Boy, I was a bit turned off by the memorisation of it all. It seemed as though freewill was an illusion, and if I wanted to see all that the game had to offer, I was going to have to play ball, so to speak. Almost as if Team Meat was saying, “you’re doing it wrong. Now try it our way, if you want to succeed.” It was when I went back to the beginning, with all of the knowledge I had amassed, that I began to see the beauty of it all. This is where my thoughts on Roger Ebert come in.
Over time, the more he tried to define his objections, the muddier they became. But in their purest form, they boil down to this comment: “video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.” It’s the final part of the argument: authorial control, that many like minded people decide to rest their case. However, authorial control is the perfect way to describe some of Super Meat Boy’s best levels.
Earlier, when I was lamenting the illusion of freewill, I mentioned how I eventually had to give up and do things the way the developers wanted me to. When I went back with a deeper understanding of the gameplay, these levels started to click in my brain. The line I needed to take became clear, and the game became easier somehow. It became fun, and it is because of authorial control. The levels become set pieces instead of playgrounds, and when you are flying through a single screen stage, perfectly and effortlessly, hitting every jump the way that it was set up, its true artistry is revealed. I’m not going to say this applies to every level or even most of them, but hidden within are some real gems, which I would consider art.
A fine, meaty wine
It achieves this with the sum of its parts, and here is where I tell you that Super Meat Boy has aged extremely well. The controls are timeless, the ideas are solid, and the stages are where it all comes together. There’s something magical about watching Meat Boy crisscross the level when you know you are in complete control.
Finally, as this is a port for a new system, I should talk about how this all feels on the Switch. I probably played 50/50 in portable and docked mode, and while portable mode works very well, I found myself having more fun playing on my TV. Maybe it has to do with my digital failures not being directly in my face, taunting and laughing at me, but it felt a bit better on the big screen.
The two player mode is fine, but it lacks a local co-op mode using multiple Switches. Racing in split-screen is a real detriment to the flow of the game. With the reduction in screen size comes a reduced ability to properly plan two or three steps ahead, bringing the action to a halt as you figure out your next move. I’m all for couch co-op, and the idea is great. Patching in local races across two Switches, or even online races, would really bring the mode to life, but perhaps we’ll have to wait until Super Meat Boy Forever to do that.
With deep mechanics and clever levels, Super Meat Boy surprised the hell out of me. It takes real skills to make a game this hard without making the player want to rage quit. Every time I failed, I just wanted to jump back in for one more try, and sometimes I would play a stage again to get a faster time. It’s put together so well, as all of the parts have a purpose. There’s nothing extra to get in the way. Team Meat’s classic is an easy recommend on the Switch.
Pros & Cons
+ Excellent mechanics
+ Great level design
+ Addictive gameplay
- Split-screen multiplayer hinders the experience