Review: Super Meat Boy

In the last twenty years video games have expanded their narrative range immeasurably. We’ve seen storied film directors like Steven Spielberg speak at length about the capacity for gaming to tell compelling tales, and we’ve seen digital characters grow from tiny collections of square pixels to incredibly life-like avatars that can express the entire gamut of emotions through complex facial animations.

But while this progress is fantastic, it seems that in the process of enhancing the art of games the mechanical side of gaming has been left to atrophy. These days it’s rare to see a console game that is almost completely focused on offering a challenge derived solely from highly refined gameplay mechanics but Super Meat Boy is just such a game.

The story line is scant at best. You take control of Meat Boy, a small red cube of meat, who must rescue his girlfriend, Bandage Girl, from the presumably evil Dr. Fetus. The game is divided up into six sets of levels, each with it’s own visual theme ranging from derelict cities to Hell itself. Each of these worlds contains 20 levels that can be played in any order.

This is handy if you find yourself stuck and you probably will because the difficulty level of this game is best described as “Controller-Chewingly-Hard”. The suite of tools at your disposal is limited, Meat Boy can only run and jump, but the way the game forces you to use these abilities is masterful. Each level is an obstacle course. You’ll have to make pixel-perfect jumps where being a millimetre out of line in any direction means instant death.

And you will die a lot, maybe hundreds of times on one 20-second level, but you will persevere because ultimately you know you are failing not because the game is unfair but rather because you are just not good enough yet. It never feels like the game is cheating you, each level is a puzzle, and each attempt you make at solving will usually take you closer to the goal. And when you beat it, the thrill is one that only games can provide.

Once a certain number of levels has been cleared you can fight that level’s boss. These boss levels are something of a mixed bag.  An intense race against another meat boy through a labyrinthine construction is excellent but a dull test of your rote memorisation abilities harkens back to a dark time when games were designed to take your money at arcades. Each set of levels is bookended by some brief but funny cutscenes rife with Internet humour that recall the game’s origins on the flash game site Newgrounds.

Beating a level in good time unlocks an even harder version of it for you to challenge yourself with and each world also hides several bandages for you to collect and secret warp worlds that allow you to try some extremely challenging levels with just three lives to get you through. Overall, there are around 350 levels on offer, which should keep you busy for quite some time.

This is a game made by gamers, for gamers and it’s filled with little nods to other games, like a fantastic Street Fighter 2 homage in the intro and entire levels inspired by other games, particularly other indie titles like the flash game Canabalt. There’s also a large number of secret characters, unlocked by finding bandages or completing warp worlds, and all of them have been taken from other popular indie titles so expect to see some familiar faces.

Super Meat Boy is a punishingly difficult but ultimately highly rewarding game that is guaranteed to hook any gamer who cherishes carefully constructed levels and tight mechanics. It’s a work of game art created with scientific precision.

Super Meat Boy is currently available through the Xbox Live Arcade and will be released for PC and Mac later this month.

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