For those who complain that independent games are too arty and twee, Super Meat Boy answers with a big helping of red meat. In this unabashedly traditional save-the-princess tale, the hero is a cube of blood and animal tissue who splatters gore on every surface he touches. He’s also downright adorable. Meat Boy’s determination to save his fleshy lover, Bandage Girl, from an angry fetus in a robot suit is easy to admire. But the hero really endears himself to players by bounding across hundreds of 2-D obstacle courses with abandon, and reacting to button presses with a crisp, precise, yet carefree kineticism. The A button has meant “jump” for a long time, but seldom so emphatically as this.
The levels in Super Meat Boy are bite-size, with many taking less than 10 seconds on a successful run. There’s the rub, though—success. Naturally, the landscape is prosaic at the start, teaching players how Meat Boy can bounce off walls and ricochet around tight corners. Then come the buzzsaws, lasers, and jets of caustic salt, as the level design builds into a visual fugue of insta-death.
Difficulty in games has come to be associated with a certain sadism, but there’s none of that in Super Meat Boy. Even though it gets extremely hard, the game acts more like a giddy school-kid, setting up one crazy challenge after another, and each time marveling, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could do this?” When you die—which will happen thousands of times—Meat Boy immediately respawns at the beginning of the stage. The attitude could be described as “suck it up and try again,” except that there’s no time to suck it up. As soon as you’ve failed, you’re already trying again, and that goes a long way toward allaying the pain of defeat.
When you do prevail, the game fires up an instant replay of your winning run—simultaneously superimposing a few dozen of your losing attempts on the screen, too. The resulting effect is that among the many Meat Boys you maneuvered to a beef-splattering death, one miraculously emerges from the pack and survives against the odds. This moment of basking in victory never gets old, and it’s a rare break from the overall fast pace. As soon you’re done watching the replay, the next level sweeps onto the screen. The hardest task in Super Meat Boy is to stop playing it.
Designers Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes have included so many extras that the Easter eggs threaten to dwarf the actual game. Each of the 130 levels or so in the standard quest has a more difficult “Dark World” version; retro-themed warp zones, unlockable characters, and fake glitches extend the game even further. The funny animated cinematics get off plenty of in-jokes without devolving into scenesterism.
Super Meat Boy is one of the best platformers ever made. Yet that statement underestimates the game’s achievement, which transcends mundane considerations of genre. McMillen and Refenes deserve consideration as this generation’s Shigeru Miyamoto, but not just because they’re clever at placing platforms and bottomless pits. They’ve recaptured the enthusiasm of those Super Mario Bros. days, where a sense of wonder stemmed from the pure excitement of seeing what the game would show us next. Super Meat Boy expresses a deep faith in the joy of gaming for its own sake, and for those who keep that faith, it’s an extraordinary triumph.