Developer/Publisher: Team Meat
Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, PC
Super Meat Boy is that kid who went to your high school who covered up his savant-like intelligence with class-clown theatrics. A retro 2D platformer in the tradition of NES classics Mega Man, Ghosts & Goblins and Super Mario Bros.—the latter example, of course, a stylistic and acronymic cousin—the game all but defies you to take it seriously. Super Meat Boy casts the player as an anthropomorphic slab of meat, square as a Wendy’s hamburger patty. Meat Boy is determined to rescue his sweetheart Bandage Girl from a dastardly fetus in a jar, or die innumerable times trying. Such thematic silliness provides a brilliant misdirection from what is at its core two grown-ass gamers' attempt to perfect the platformer genre they adored as kids.
In terms of character design, Edmund McMillen’s Meat Boy is a fairly blatant knock-off of Japan’s Domo television mascot, albeit somehow both cuter (Chiclet-style chompers instead of fangs) and more grotesque (skinned alive). Swapping out Domo's cuddly exterior for Meat Boy's raw flesh is a subtle but powerful tweak. It's pivotal for the player's connection to Meat Boy that, in some fundamental way, the "boy" part of his name rings true. Therefore Meat Boy is flesh. And as any PETA activist will gladly remind you, meat can be murdered. (Based on the apparently dismal OSHA rating of these levels, they might as well be kill floors, at least in a meat processing plant run by Willy Wonka.) Meat Boy is as vulnerable as a boy could possibly be. He doesn't even have skin, a person's most rudimentary level of insulation. There's something vaguely heartbreaking about his longing for Bandage Girl. It's plain to see, given all the blood Meat Boy leaves behind on the floor and walls as he traipses across each level, that no amount of bandaging will ever suffice.
Every hero deserves a memorable foil and Team Meat delivers once again. Keeping with the game’s deadpan literalism, Dr. Fetus is naturally a spiteful fetus floating in a jar—a bit of lurid futurism that calls to mind the glorified petri dish sustaining Mother Brain in Metroid. But a scowling, bird-flipping fetus in a jar isn’t quite weird enough so the game’s creators dandied him up in a tuxedo, top hat and monocle to give him some Bond-villain panache. Personally I like to imagine Dr. Fetus being part of some alternate-universe Family Guy prequel—the prenatal version of megalomaniacal toddler Stewie Griffin.
The level design boasts a difficulty curve as steep as a skateboad half-pipe, but Team Meat tempers this reality with a simple gameplay formula: Bandage Girl awaits you at the end of the level; it doesn't matter what path you take, just rescue her as quickly as you can! (Now where have I seen a red-clad hero rescuing a pink damsel in distress before?) Traversing each level will test your resolve. You guide Meat Boy sprinting and leaping through increasingly treacherous obstacle courses—spinning saw blades, lava, spikes, pits, etc. The feeling of elation upon completing each level is short lived, however. Meat Boy’s evil nemesis Dr. Fetus re-kidnaps Bandage Girl every time, whisking her away to the next level.
Team Meat wisely decided to keep levels short enough that having to restart at the beginning following a lethal mistake doesn’t erase too much of the player’s progress. Plus each follow-up attempt begins instantly so you only have enough time to spit maybe one or two expletives before you start chewing your tongue once again with renewed focus. Even so, the levels get very hard, very quickly. Any Super Meat Boy junkie will tell you: the average gameplay session evokes more profanity than you'd hear in George Carlin's saltiest comedy special (may he rant in peace).
The experience of playing Super Meat Boy felt most akin to the 50-something hours I invested in Atlus Software’s notoriously unforgiving RPG Demon’s Souls. The core similarity between Demon’s Souls and Super Meat Boy hinges on what game critic Kirk Hamilton refers to as “skill-grinding,” which is markedly different from the mindless stat-grinding of JRPGs such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Skill-grinding is basically a fancy way of saying “dying a lot”—attempting a level over and over and over until you’ve sufficiently memorized the patterns of its enemies and environmental snares.
I must’ve played the first eight minutes of Demon’s Souls' opening stage Boletaria Castle at least 100 times before I became skilled enough to progress further. Skill-grinding is the gaming equivalent of Buddhism's reincarnation. Each time you die, you’re reborn until you learn the lessons the game teaches with schoolmarm sternness. In the case of Super Meat Boy, each level—at least once you’ve cleared the unofficial tutorial stages at the start of World 1—is designed to look impossible. But after getting savaged enough times, you gradually finesse your path through the level to such a degree that you feel like the real-time version of Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix. There’s visual poetry to a successful Super Meat Boy run that’s magic to watch replayed, especially since the replay function overlays a dozen or so of your failed runs. This device neatly encapsulates all your striving, but it also helps you relive the triumph of that last meat standing. The feeling of accomplishment is pure gaming nirvana.
Super Meat Boy’s co-creators Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen regard the videogames of their childhood with the same kleptomaniacal admiration that mashup DJ Greg Tillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk) does popular music. Critics bandy the word “derivative” about as a means of slapping down a work of art for wearing its influences too proudly on its sleeve. Contemporary mashup culture snorts at this notion, recasting personally formative artistic works as friends who exist in disparate social circles. Sometimes you just want to have a party and invite all your friends over. Maybe they’ll get along famously. Maybe they’ll claw each other’s eyes out. Either way, it doesn’t matter, the experiment itself is what’s most compelling.
Super Meat Boy offers jumping, bleeding proof that style and substance aren’t part of a zero-sum artistic dynamic. And it might just forever explode the stereotype of the slacker indie game designer. Given the grueling 18-month development cycle and nearly 400 levels on offer (plus dozens more on the way via free internet downloads), it’s astonishing that each level feels as freshly conceived as it does. I couldn't plow through a single stage of Super Meat Boy without being consciously aware of the passion and creativity the game's creators funneled into their work. Tommy and Edmund’s affection for this project is just as nakedly displayed as the fleshy interior of Super Meat Boy’s now-iconic protagonist.