Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Run, Meatboy, Run

Lo-gooooo!
Weak, weak, weak.

Expect this to be your mantra while you play Super Meat Boy, the latest downloadable platforming treat on the Live Marketplace. Like Braid a couple of years ago, it's an indie-developed love poem to old Mario games, with a twist on the classic formula. Braid's twist was time travel. Unless you were Soulja Boy, it was a game that demanded a thoughtful approach to most of its levels: as much time was spent with hand on chin as on the controller.

Like Braid, the levels are inventive and will often take several replays to solve. Unlike Braid, that's not because your brain needs time to puzzle out the solution: Super Meat Boy demands only your body. Every level is an endurance test of reflexes and, by your hundredth squishy death, of muscle memory. The game is a chain of hundreds of small levels, each taking less than half a minute to finish. In theory.

Because you'll be reliving those half-minutes over and over again. Normally, that counts against a game: difficulty spikes, having to play unnecessarily hard bits repeatedly, equals bad design.
Truest comic adaptation ever
The genius of SMB is that it's all one big difficulty spike. The short and perfectly-formed nature of each level make it hard to get frustrated with Super Meat Boy. No, it’s not the game that’s flawed. It’s you. SMB will smack you down time and time again, but you can see it waiting impatiently for you to get better.

Because each level is short, there's little punishment for failure - except becoming a messy red blob on the landscape - and a lot of room for practice. Saying that SMB has none of Braid's puzzling isn't quite fair: it's easy to see, in most cases, that there is a perfect solution to every level. Every failure teaches you something. Play enough and you can see the cogs at work. It's like testing yourself against a huge creaking machine, like one of those Japanese game-shows, as hosted by GLaDos. The levels are perfectly designed so that going back once you've finished them, they suddenly seem easy.

And go back you will. There's …ahem, excuse me… a lot of meat on the bones of this game. Levels have hidden warp zones and collectible bandages which unlock bonus characters and retro 8-bit minigames. But leaning heaviest on that easy-when-you-return feeling is the Dark World. which provides a twisted, even more curse-inducingly variant on every level. These variations are unlocked by A+’ing - beating a set completion time for - the original level.
Flash a Meaty Smile
Playing for the A+’s completely changes the game. Tentative steps are exchanged for a furious blur of action. You’re truly in control of this slippery red blob, vaulting and flipping and bouncing off walls, leaving a victorious red wake. When you've mastered the levels, it feels triumphant.

So it's easy to forget that, just round the corner is another unbeatable level. You might just be able, on attempt #237, to scrape through it. But you'll never get the perfect time. And what about that bandage?

Remember: the game will beat you, eventually. After all, you’re just tired weak flesh. Just meat, boy.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.