For a lot of older gamers, gaming in our youth meant playing games that didn’t just test your patience and pixel-accurate skill but, even at times, your sanity. This was a common practice; sadistic Japanese developers would come up with games like Ghosts and Goblins, Ninja Gaiden, Contra, or Gradius, games that required weeks, if not months, of unforgiving practice in order to master them.
Hardcore design used to be an everyday thing, but in today’s world of streamlined, filmic FPSes, regenerating health, and copious checkpointing, it’s somewhat of a lost art, outside of the occasional niche bullet hell shooter or old-school ventures like Demon’s Souls. Super Meat Boy is a game designed with this audience in mind. In fact, I would even go so far as to say a good number of younger gamers simply won’t have the patience for it. For the generation that grew up getting chewed up and spit out by brutal game design, though, Meat Boy will be like an old-school drug; I recently had a chance for some extended hands-on time with the XBLA version of the game at PAX and can attest to that.
The design itself, adapted from the original flash version of the game that debuted on Newgrounds a couple years back, couldn’t be simpler. You play the titular Meat Boy, who is a piece of meat that can jump and dash. The point of each level is to rescue your girlfriend, Bandage Girl, by avoiding various obstacles and overcoming platforming challenges. That’s basically the gameplay in a nutshell. Outside of the gameplay, which I’ll return to in a minute, Meat Boy is also one of the most unique games I’ve come across in a long time. Sporting a simple aesthetic, you might not even be interested in it at first. But when you see that little piece of meat in action, leaving a trail of pixellated blood his wake, you can tell Team Meat has put in a lot of time giving the game a unique look. The drawn cutscene art, which looks something like a cross between The Behemoth’s minimalist, stylized drawings and the Evan Dorkin’s manic dairy product duo Milk and Cheese, translates well to a simple retro visual conceit, and the sound of Meat Boy splish-splashing through a level is priceless. Team Meat clearly has a wicked sense of humor, as Meat Boy’s nemesis is a fetus in a jar (aptly named Dr. Fetus), who appears at the end of each level, punches Bandage Girl in the face, flips our hero off, and disappears to the next level. The dark humor in the cutscenes (which I often found myself laughing out loud at), as well as Meat Boy being shredded by buzzsaws, exploding in a pit of discarded hypodermic needles, or fighting an AIDS monster is a welcome addition as well. It’s an innocuous enough game, but much like the difficulty itself, there’s a level of adult humor that gives Meat Boy a nasty charm all its own.
Yes, the game is hard; like so many classic examples of old-school design, Meat Boy is all about the difficulty. This one isn’t just contemporary designed, controller-throwing hard, it’s downright from another era. The level of sadism Team Meat has incorporated into the game isn’t immediately apparent, at least within the first few levels of the game, when you’re just getting your bearings. Here, you’ll learn how to use Meat Boy’s dash to slide up walls as well as wall jump. Only the terrain will be your enemy for now; there won’t be any of the game’s billions of instances of death the game throws at your later. Soon, though, you’ll be learning to master Meat Boy’s dashing jump, which covers a considerable amount of distance compared to his regular jump at the cost of total control.
Being made of meat, Meat Boy has a tendency to slide all over creation, and sailing through the air with momentum working with you can make his tender little body unwieldy to control with any degree of accuracy. Naturally, accuracy is precisely what you’ll need in many of the game’s innumerable challenges, and the game quickly throws you into the gauntlet with plenty of levels designed to test your skill and timing against the aforementioned saw blades and needles, levels with few correctly placed platforms that can only be accessed using Meat Boy’s dash jump. Basically, if you’ve played any hardcore game ever, you probably know what’s going to be in store here. Meat Boy’s levels are also short, which may be the only bone Team Meat throws at you. Some levels can even be beaten in less than five seconds, though doing so requires a lot of skill, precise timing, and a little luck. In order to compensate, though, Team Meat has crammed a lot of levels into the game, and believe me, they start hard and only get harder.
An example of a level I played involved wall jumping from side to side up the left side of a three-sided platform made of keys, with the key that unlocks the area where Bandage Girl is being held on the right side. As soon as you grab the key on the right, the entire platform rapidly disappears, so you have to outrun it back to the opposite side of the level or face death. Another level had Bandage Girl trapped in a locked area at the bottom left of the screen whose key is being held high above in another locked cage. After making your way to the right side of the screen, no easy task given there’s no floor and only a couple of air streams keeping you from exploding in a sea of needles, you have to grab the key, use Meat Boy’s dashing jump to fly up to the other key, grab it, make your way safely back down to Bandage Girl, and rescue her. Not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. Needless to say, you will die a lot. As if that wasn’t challenge enough, Team Meat also has included a “dark world” that takes the already-challenging normal levels and makes them extra sadistic. Best of all may be the game’s warp zones, though, which are a retro-styled bonus for skilled players that can get to them before they close, giving different graphical interpretations of Meat Boy in homages to Game Boy, Turbo-Grafx 16, and other systems. These are practically worth the price of admission alone, but certain levels even unlock additional characters with different abilities, such as the Bit.Trip series Commander Video, Braid’s Tim, or The Behemoth’s eponymous Alien Hominid. It may grind you up and spit out the pieces, but Super Meat Boy has the potential to be one of the coolest self-reflexive indie games ever. Needless to say, if you’re not a skilled or patient player, you may want to pass on this one. But for hardcore fans, Meat Boy is shaping up to be a godsend when it hits late October.