Super Meat Boy Review

   04/11/2010 at 18:41       Dave Jones       4 COMMENTS. - Score 5/5
 - Super Meat Boy, XBLA, Xbox Live Arcade, 2D platformer, Team Meat

Like any good torturer, the sadists responsible for Super Meat Boy know how to take something seemingly innocuous and turn it into an instrument of exquisite pain.

On first glance SMB appears nothing more than a polished tribute act to the 2D platform games of yore, playing a note-perfect medley of all your favourite levels from the 8- and 16-bit eras.

But make no mistake, this is very much a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Because for all its cheery retro stylings, Super Meat Boy is a game that actively enjoys doling out pain and suffering – both to its protagonist and, by extension, to the player.

Having designed a hero without skin, Team Meat revel in every opportunity to pour salt into the wound – often literally – in some of the most twisted and mean-spirited levels ever seen in a platformer.

To reach such giddying heights of difficulty, the developers have had to take some liberties  with the genre conventions of the games from which they draw their inspiration.

Most notably, Meat Boy enjoys infinite lives. Back in the good old days this would have been squarely condemned as cheating, but here it's nothing short of essential – deaths come within seconds of each other and, if lives were still charged at 10p for three, my first playthrough of SMB's Light World – supposedly the “easy” part – would have set me back £150.

I know this because, rather than keep track of how many hours you've been playing, Super Meat Boy records your total number of deaths. It's that sort of game.

With virtually every level completable in under 30 seconds, it's a game that superficially lends itself to a quick 10-minute play. But that turns into a 10-hour session, by the end of which you're a scowling, twitching wreck on the brink of mental exhaustion and nursing throbbing thumbs, pushed to breaking point by a hundredth consecutive attempt to execute a sequence of pixel-perfect wall-jumps through a sea of whirling saw blades while being pursued by a barrage of homing missiles.

By most conventional definitions of the word, then, Super Meat Boy isn't enjoyable. It sets you up to fail at every turn, then taunts you when you fail. It starts out as a stern challenge and inexorably ramps up the difficulty to the upper limits of human endurance. Then it “rewards” you for mastering a level by unlocking another, harder “Dark World” version of the same level so you can start the process all over again.

But somewhere in the middle of the first chapter, a funny thing happens. You start to fall in love. This game beats you up, it destroys your sense of self-worth, it embarrasses you in front of your friends, but you just can't quite imagine life without it. It's gaming Stockholm syndrome, but in an odd way it makes perfect sense.

You see, Super Meat Boy trusts in your ability to complete the challenges it sets, and it demands the same level of belief from you. It never dumbs down or offers a helping hand, and as a result the pay-off when you finally complete a particularly taxing level is a feeling of genuine accomplishment that's rare in modern gaming.

This is where Team Meat expertly walk the tightrope between being horrible sadistic bastards and being wonderful sadistic geniuses. For all its punishing difficulty, Super Meat Boy rarely stoops to actually being unfair.

Controls are intuitive and precise while the levels, on the whole, are fantastically designed. Each is a bite-sized assault course where every mis-step means death, but where death seems simultaneously inevitable and avoidable – you die because you're not good enough, but you can feel yourself getting better on each run.

The gameplay, then, takes tried and trusted ideas – kidnapped girlfriend, check; fiendish yet oblique villain, check; instadeath, check; collectables, check; unlockable characters, check – and turns them into something greater than the sum of its parts. The same is true of the presentation, which is nothing short of immaculate.

Super Meat Boy looks, sounds and feels astonishingly slick, doubly so considering it's the work of just four people – two of whom only worked on the sound. Cutscenes, sound effects, music, environments and character design combine to evoke an atmosphere that's recognisably in thrall to the 16-bit era but at the same time thoroughly fresh. For gamers of a certain age the overall effect is irresistible.

It's fair to say that I've developed a love-hate relationship with Super Meat Boy, but the love outweighs the hate. If this was a full-price boxed release it would still be one of the games of the year. As a cheap XBLA download – and one complete with large amounts of free DLC – it's a must.

Funny how a game defined by constant death can make you feel so very alive.

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