I’m old enough to have played Meat Boy, the Flash game that started it all. It sucked.
I remember when Super Meat Boy came out in 2010, and while everyone else was losing their minds over how brilliant, hilarious and challenging it was, I took one look and said “not for me, ta."
I don’t particularly like dying, see? Generally speaking it’s the outcome I do my best to avoid, in games and in life, but SMB is nothing without death. Having taken the (entirely reasonable) decision not to embrace that once before, now - a whole decade later - I’m patting myself on the back for the choice I made.
First: context. Super Meat Boy: Forever was supposed to be a mobile game, but somewhere along the way Team Meat presumably arrived at the conclusion that this was a terrible idea, and opted to whole-hog a sequel. They beefed up the development team and, y’know what? I’m going to quit while I’m ahead with these meat puns.
Meat Boy and Bandage Girl return, and having apparently spent their time off procreating, are living a life of joy and fulfilment with their new baby, Nugget. Series villain Dr. Fetus drops in on an idyllic family picnic, making off with Nugget and setting the stage for your almighty struggle to the finish.
And it is a struggle. SMB:F is brutally, relentlessly difficult.
For the uninitiated, it’s essentially a platformer, just one with incredibly fine margins. This time around they’ve torn up the script somewhat, introducing auto-run gameplay and procedurally-generated levels to spice things up. It’s a bold twist on a system that still has a fanatical fanbase, which is always a risk, but they’ve pulled it off with the same level of polish and precision that SMB was lauded for. If you were slick at the original I can only assume a lot of that skill will transfer, but as with any substantive changes in a beloved series, they won’t please everyone.
The aforementioned auto-running just brings the nightmares to you faster, and the array of obstacles and traps they’ve cooked up is remarkable. There are buzzsaws, obviously, but the addition of pulleys, switches, pipes and more pretty much guarantee that you’ll be spending most of the time holding your breath and clenching your teeth/cheeks. It’s a blessing that the control system is both simple and super-responsive, because rough edges there would result in many a joypad-meets-wall scenario. As it is, you can only blame yourself when things go wrong (note: when, not if), and while the mechanical trial-and-error approach to getting through a level isn’t my cup of tea, there’s no doubt that stringing together jumps, slides and punches in harmony to (finally) complete one of these hell-scapes can be exhilarating.
Then there are the boss fights, which made me want to cry.
Hundreds upon hundreds of deaths later, reflecting on what I took out of my play-through of SMB:F and what it took out of me, it was these that offered the least and hurt the most. They’re clever too, don’t get me wrong, just absent the sweet mercy of checkpoints. The game is breathless by design but throughout ordinary levels, respawning not-too-far from where you just stacked it is a micro-victory that keeps your spirits up, and against the bosses you’re on your own. As is consistent with the rest of the game, it’s harsh without ever being downright unfair, but I was definitely on the verge of quitting more than once.
I didn’t though. Granted there’s a whole ‘dark’ world to unlock if you’re unhinged enough to go back through and perfect your score on every level, but I’m not. Vanilla is plenty, thanks.
And so, with no opinion on the Pandora’s Box of endgame anguish awaiting the real Meatheads, and no allegiance to its predecessor, I can respect this for what it is: an extremely solid, inventive and tricky time-waster. It looks, plays and sounds great, has got a tonne of replay value by virtue of being so damn hard, and is undeniably a new direction for everyone’s favourite fleshy cube. Whether it’s a refreshing evolution or lazy deference to the false-start mobile project is all a matter of perspective, but in a weird way that I’ll have to unpack with a therapist somewhere down the line, I liked it. If you’ve got quick hands and a strong stomach, you probably will too.
I’m not reviewing the next one though.
Special thanks to Vince at Plan of Attack for the review code.