There’s much to be said for candour on the part of developers concerning what they wish their game to be and how they wish to it to be experienced. In the PC port of the Xbox Live Arcade platform hit Super Meat Boy, Edmund McMillan and Tommy Refenes make it perfectly clear that one aspect of the game was certainly not going to change between the Xbox 360 and PC versions was the controls – a decision that they were aware may incur ire, given that they went to the effort of including a pre-game warning on the issue, and making clear their prescience as to their annoyance at anyone who would declare that the PC’s keyboard and mouse solution is superior to a gamepad. This candour is diffused through the entirety of the game, and is all the better for it.
Some may be undeterred by McMillan and Refenes’s cautionary warning, and these would suffer for it: the game is virtually unplayable when using a keyboard. The default key bindings do not help in this matter, with the controls being arrow keys for movement, Space for jump and Shift to run – hardly the most ergonomic layout – but even after a little fiddling around with configuration files to set this to something more sane, there is something lacking in a keyboard to bring out the real meat of the game. Switching to a gamepad, the platform mechanics of the game make so much more sense: it is suddenly easier to run and jump simultaneously to make it across the gaps between platforms and avoid the hazards, which include disposed needles and saws of all varieties; it is suddenly easier to make the precision jumps required in some levels merely to land at the intended target, rather than falling short or sailing past; it is suddenly easier to utilise Meat Boy’s uncanny skill of being able to ascend walls merely by jumping at them repeatedly, and jumping from one wall to another to climb. Once a gamepad is used, the game plays with the intuition of the Mario series, while incorporating sometimes perverse difficulty bordering on Life is Hard.
The levels are impeccably designed, and well realised through the vector-esque graphics that illustrate Super Meat Boy‘s world. All levels are fair, if some are incredibly difficult: it is always possible to reach the goal of reuniting (albeit briefly) Meat Boy with Bandage girl to complete the level, so long as the player understands the game mechanics sufficiently, and is patient enough in parts to allow for enemies to move around sufficiently. Even with just the commands to run and jump being afforded to the player, there is a lot of variety to gameplay due to the mechanics of jumping from walls and being able to slide down walls. The level design incorporates all available mechanics and does so well, with instances of the necessity of the application of each technique being fairly well signposted.
Super Meat Boy allows for the rewarding of risk-taking play through the collection of in-level bandages which tend to be located in areas that are either difficult to get to, or where getting to them requires coming incredibly close to one of the level’s hazards. Obtaining these in sufficient quantities will unlock characters other than Meat Boy for the player to use, each with their own particular attributes and some with their own special abilities. The selection of characters gives a nod to several other indie games, with Commander Video being included from Bit.Trip and The Kid from I Wanna Be the Guy. The inclusion of Half-Life’s headcrab in the PC version of the game is a nice bit of platform-oriented fan service and is again symptomatic of the passion and honesty of the developers. Further replay value is added to the game through each level having a target time, the achievement of which will award the player with a “Grade A+” rating for the level. Given that the game makes no other reference to this grading system, it seems like this is just an arbitrary manner in which to score timely completion of levels, but it is an incredibly immersive one for any overachiever in education. These time trials do seems a little unfair for some of the more complex and taxing levels, which does take the polish of what is otherwise an incredibly fair, balanced game.
The graphical aesthetics of the game are a cross between eight-bit blocky and flash-game vector, and it is something that seems fitting to the gameplay: it feels like a modern, sped-up homage to Super Mario Bros. (which, incidentally, shares an acronym with Super Meat Boy) with more gore, and the vector stylings of the game follow trends in 2D platforming. Admittedly, there is nothing graphically that hasn’t been done before, but the game plays smoothly and with no visual complications – a laudable accomplishment given the variety of visual styles on offer throughout the game. The sound, on the other hand, is a little hodgepodge in its direction throughout the title: there are startling shifts from metal riffs in the background to chiptune to muted minimalist electronica. While this does occur in line with changes in visual setting, it can take the player somewhat by surprise and distract from the gameplay.
As stated, the game is solid and the developers have clearly taken a lot of enjoyment from its production. The only dimensions in which it suffers are its eschewing of the standard peripherals of a platform on which it was released (pretty much akin to releasing a Move-only PlayStation 3 title), the sometimes erratic difficulty changes between levels and its somewhat haphazard sound design. These are minor niggles, though, and Super Meat Boy is a fantastically rewarding game that has a sense of humour: it is not everyday that squirrels will for no reason walk into circular saws to leave one unfortunate fellow alone in a cutscene. Yes, in places it may be a little psychopathic, but it is always laughing.
GAME OVER SCREEN ANALYSIS: There isn’t much of one, really: the player is just kicked back to the start of the level, having seen our poor hunk of flesh be turned into a liquid with very little surface tension. PETA would be displeased.