In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we die literally so many times playing Super Meat Boy
Man, remember when I used to just straight-up not finish games? In the early days of this series, I would play games like Pitfall!, Pac-Land, and Prince of Persia, and not even be able to get close to completing them, due to how difficult and/or obtuse they were. And these were all mainstream hits!1 A bit later I was beating games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Donkey Kong Country only with the help of emulator trickery like save states. Video games used to really demand mastery from you. They expected you to grind away for days, weeks, months, getting just a little bit better each time. They didn’t particularly care if you never reached the end, or even got particularly far. Old video games were harsh masters.
Once we cross into the PlayStation era though we stop seeing this problem. There’s a gradual change in philosophy, where developers begin to actively want as many of their players as possible to complete their games. Reaching the end goes from being a mark of mastery to the expected experience, and there is a drastic reduction in difficulty and friction to accomplish this. Games start implementing saving, checkpoints, large health bars, dynamic difficulty adjustments, all sorts of stuff, all in order to let the player win.
This style was not without its discontents, however. Players who had been around since the old days were, by definition, fans of the old style, difficulty and all, and some felt that something had been lost with the friendlier modern approach to game design. Some games, such as 2009’s Demon’s Souls, even became cult hits based on a reputation for old-school difficulty. However, it’s worth pointing out that the difficulty of old-school games wasn’t always a pure artistic choice. Arcade games used difficulty as a monetization method, forcing most players to lose (and pay another quarter) after only a minute of play. And throughout the 80s and early 90s difficulty was used to stretch out playtimes on would-be short games, both to ensure players felt like they got their money’s worth and (especially in the 90s) to cut down on the attractiveness of rentals. So, what’s the purpose of difficulty in a world without those realities? When it exists for its own sake, what do you want that to look like?
This is the core design question at the heart of Super Meat Boy. SMB wants to be a brutally difficult platformer, but it doesn’t want to jerk the player around. Levels in Super Meat Boy are very short, almost never lasting longer than a minute and often being 15 seconds or shorter. Lives aren’t a thing; die as often as you want. And death itself has been made frictionless. There’s maybe 1 full second between dying and respawning, just enough time for the player to recognize what killed them so they can adjust in the future. The whole philosophy here is to reframe the way the player thinks about dying; it’s not a failure, it’s an opportunity to learn. Whenever you beat a level, the game even treats you to a parade of all your previous attempts, to illustrate how far you’ve come.
And amazingly, it works. Like, don’t get me wrong, Super Meat Boy is a brutally difficult game at times. And yet, it’s also one of the least frustrating games I’ve played for this series. And it’s not just the approach to death. SMB is also very good at teaching the player and ramping up difficulty. This game features lots of gimmicks/level elements2 and always makes sure to introduce them cleanly before getting fancy. Even deep in its run, when things are going crazy and the difficulty is quite high, the game makes sure to pull back and give easy wins when introducing something new. It’s very smart design; knowing that even an intentionally difficult game needs to modulate like this is quite mature.
Unfortunately that’s about the only part of Super Meat Boy that shows any maturity. This game is a quite literally a product of Newgrounds, a website/community that hosted Flash videos and games back before Steve Jobs nuked that whole scene to protect the iPhone’s walled garden. And Newgrounds is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it was3 a great incubator of talent. Lots of artists got their start posting to Newgrounds; Super Meat Boy itself started life as the Flash game Meat Boy, a favorite on Newgrounds. On the other hand, 00s Newgrounds was predominantly men and boys in their teens/early 20s, with a culture that reflected that. Super Meat Boy is sometimes gross for the sake of it, such as with “Brownie”, a doppelganger of our protagonist who’s made of shit, or with primary antagonist Dr. Fetus. And the game’s simple plot (your girlfriend was kidnapped and you have to rescue her) is, let’s say “unexamined”4
This Flash origin also shows up in Super Meat Boy‘s controls. There’s effectively no momentum to speak of; you can stop on a dime, and you hit max speed instantly. Additionally, the jump is quite floaty; from what I can tell you fall just as quickly as you ascend. Partially, this is because these are the easiest, most barebones ways to implement running and jumping. Super Meat Boy lets you short jump by tapping instead of holding the jump button, but that’s about it for fancy tech. And as someone who’s tried her hand at platformers5 I get it. Mario-level movement and jumping is a pain to implement. But while skipping it can make Super Meat Boy a bit twitchy and slippery sometimes, I think it plays to the game’s strengths. This sort of movement system can let the player make large sweeping jumps, stretching the boundaries of what feels possible just a bit. It’s a way to nudge you into taking big swings and really going for it; no need to play scared if you don’t fear death, right?
Really, Super Meat Boy is a spectacular piece of design. “Make a game that’s difficult but not frustrating” sounds like an intentional contradiction, but this game absolutely pulls it off. It would have been easy for Super Meat Boy to abuse its image as a hard game, to get away with sloppy design with a shrug and a “well it’s supposed to be hard, git gud”. But instead, it isolates what it is that makes difficulty so interesting in games, and in so doing codifies a new style of platformer: the masocore6. By removing the empty calories of difficulty Super Meat Boy is able to really turn up the heat, creating truly ridiculous gauntlets that its NES forebears could have never dreamed of. In a way, SMB isn’t really a rejection of modern design philosophy after all. It’s a synthesis.
- Super Meat Boy features unlockable characters from other popular indie games, which feels very Of Its Time. Back before anyone with a laptop and a cracked copy of Unity could upload to Steam, and back when most of the popular games ran in the same Newgrounds-y clique.
- There’s a lot of bonus content here, with optional bandages that unlock even harder Dark World levels, post-game Bandage Girl levels, Warp Zones…heck, even the core levels are slightly optional, as you only need to clear 17 out of 20 in each world to unlock the boss. Another good way to reduce frustration potential.
Other 2010 platformers of note:
2010 also gave us Super Mario Galaxy 2, and the fact that I passed up a ready-made opportunity to replay this game should tell you everything you need to know about how much I respect Super Meat Boy. SMG2 is an incredible experience, even more chock-full of fun ideas than the first game. I think it’s the first game to have the “blocks that blink in and out of existence on a beat” mechanic, which I’m a huge fan of. The overarching structure is a little disappointing though, replacing the Comet Observatory and Rosalina’s story time with a glorified menu. Supposedly this was at the behest of Shigeru Miyamoto, who felt that the first Galaxy had too much story. A reminder that even universally beloved titans of the medium are sometimes just crochety old men you have to humor because they were big shots in the 80s.
Super Meat Boy wasn’t the only indie platformer to make a name for itself this year. I could be talking about Limbo, or Bit. Trip Runner, but I like to keep these segments short, so instead I’ll give that honor to VVVVVV. VVVVVV7 has a unique twist where you can’t actually jump; instead, you can press a button to toggle gravity. It’s like a jump, but also isn’t, and learning to master this mechanic is quite fun. Also the soundtrack here is incredible.
Next Time: We check out Rayman Origins, the beautiful and beautifully unexpected revival of 2D Rayman.