Super Meat Boy: A Love Letter to Everyone … Except Dr. FetusBy Jared Newman
One of Super Meat Boy’s most delightful flourishes is the way it ushers in each new batch of levels with the music from Dramatic Look. Why this allusion exists is anybody’s guess, but it epitomizes how Super Meat Boy, at times, wants to be about anything but itself. And for the most part, that’s okay.
Foremost, Super Meat Boy is platform-jumping masochism, a test of timing and accuracy as your protagonist leaps from wall to wall to save his girlfriend, Bandage Girl, from the evil Dr. Fetus. Along the way, he will be hacked up by circular saws, splattered by rockets, eaten by monsters and sizzled by lasers, always producing a splotch of blood and raw meat. Some of my fellow journalists are posting their final body counts to Twitter as perverse badges of honor. Mine? 4,396 deaths with a 75 percent completion rating. It is a fact that Meat Boy won’t prevail on my Xbox 360 without being butchered at least 5,000 times.
Trial and error is usually a pockmark on game design, a sign that developers can’t clearly communicate challenges and goals to the player. In Super Meat Boy, it’s part of the fun. After dying, the game barely gives you time to think before Meat Boy is back on his feet at the spawn point, so you can keep plugging away without letting frustration fester. When you do nail every jump, it’s a top-of-the-world feeling that lasts for maybe five seconds, until you’re on to the next level.
The trouble with Super Meat Boy’s learn-by-death pattern is that eventually, it starts to feel like a grind. To the game’s credit, each successive area brings new types of obstacles, but the game never deviates from the formula of brutally difficult platform jumping. And it probably shouldn’t. I just wish Team Meat had done more to stimulate the player along the way.
The groundwork is there. Super Meat Boy takes great pride in being a meta-game, constantly sending out props to other indie game makers, and to platform gaming’s roots. References to Ninja Gaiden and Street Fighter abound, and I particularly liked the levels named after King of Kong’s rival players. Maybe it’s coincidence that Super Meat Boy shares an acronym with another iconic platformer, but the game is, on some level, Super Mario Bros. stripped of the candy coating. Meanwhile, a parade of indie game characters, like Tim from Braid and Commander Video from Bit.Trip Runner, appear as unlockable characters with special abilities. Other independent game makers lend cover art to Super Meat Boy’s bonus levels, which are all presented as 8-bit games within the game. At times, Super Meat Boy feels like little more than big wet kiss to Team Meat’s heroes.
My beef is that, somewhere in the reverie, Meat Boy himself takes a back seat, and that’s a shame. For goodness sakes, the game stars a slab of raw meat with a Band-Aid girlfriend and an antagonist named Dr. Fetus, who is, well, a fetus in a monocled jar with a suit and top hat. This is a dark humor goldmine, and the animated shorts that grace the beginning and end of each chapter only scratch the surface of what’s possible. I wanted to see more of these characters, more of their world and more of the humor that makes Super Meat Boy such an entertaining concept in the first place.
In the absence of these things, Super Meat Boy is still a joy to play, especially in those fluid moments of perfection when your meaty protagonist seems like a Cirque du Soleil reject. With extra-hard versions of every level, characters to unlock and, at least on Xbox 360, a delivery system for more free levels, chances are you’ll get more meat than you can chew out of this $15 (but $10 for now) download.
Super Meat Boy was reviewed for Xbox 360 with a download code provided by the developer.