Super Meat Boy

Super Meat Boy is a game I've been curious about for years. It's a fairly major indie success story, it's difficulty is infamous, and beyond that anytime I ran across allusions to it or descriptions of it I didn't know much of anything beyond 'probably a Mario-ish platformer'.

It happened to be available for free recently, so I grabbed it, 'cause hey why not.

The beginning was... odd. The game uses a minimalistic approach to tutorialing the player on the basics of gameplay, which I appreciate the concept of but the execution was shakier as the minor visual aides were consistently a little ambiguous on their actual meaning. The game was also poor at understanding what was critical information to convey and what was not: for example, it was not actually obvious that I had zero offensive capabilities and should just assume anything that moves will kill me if I touch it. It was frustrating stumbling around, trying to figure out what, if anything, was my offensive capabilities, which was a simple thing that could've been conveyed in an instant.

Unfortunately, little things that added up to more serious problems was a recurring trend with the game's design.

Let's start with Bandages. Bandages are the game's idea of secrets, optional things you can find in levels that serve primarily for bragging rights/100% completion, with a secondary component of being involved in unlocking additional characters. Now, most games with something equivalent to Bandages do one of two things: they either have a pattern that, once understood, allows the player to consistently infer correctly where the secrets are and are not (eg 'every level except boss levels has exactly 1 secret') even when the interface is not informing the player directly, or they explicitly tell the player this stuff outright. (eg hovering over a level telling you '0/1 Bandages collected')

Super Meat Boy doesn't do anything so sensible. Bandages are distributed across levels with no rhyme or reason beyond 'levels only have 1 Bandage, except Warp Zones which always have 2 Bandages if they aren't a Warp Zone for unlocking a character'. Plenty of levels have no Bandage at all, and the game's only interface elements in this regard is indicating which levels you've found Bandages in and how many in a world you've found out of 20.

This is a giant pain. I made a point of always trying to collect the Bandage in a level the first time I completed it if I spotted it just to ensure I wouldn't have to go manually combing through the levels again at some later point to figure out which level I missed a Bandage in. There's really no reason for the game to work this way, and even just making it so that grabbing a Bandage without successfully completing a level would update the map to indicate there's a Bandage you haven't collected successfully would've taken away this pain. Better yet, just tell me whether a level has a Bandage up front.

The same basic rule of thumb applies to Warp Zones, only the game doesn't bother to tell you how many Warp Zones a world has. By the same token, I made a point of activating a Warp Zone before trying to complete a level to avoid losing track of it if eg I didn't have a chance to play the game for a while and forgot where the Warp Zone was.

Then there's controls. For Meat Boy -and several other characters- you've got a run button, because this is a classic platformer like Super Mario Bros I guess. And just like classic platformers, the game is designed so that 99% of the time you should be holding down the run button. There's exceptions, but frankly the game should've had a walk button, not a run button, which would've accommodated the exceptions just fine. Having to constantly hold down the run button was physically harmful to no game design benefit.

Then there's how the game approached difficulty. There was a stretch of the game I genuinely enjoyed as reasonably interesting and challenging -that stretch was about a third of the way into the game. Past that, the game's approach to 'increasing difficulty' was largely to force you to do what you'd already done, but more precisely, punish you with death for failure more consistently, and make the levels longer so that being punished with death is much harsher than in the early levels where you should've completed it in literally 10 seconds.

This intersects nicely with the physics problems.

In a game where increasing difficulty is associated strongly with demanding greater precision in the player, you cannot have the physics inconsistent. They should be both intuitive and, you know, mechanically consistent, where if the player does the same thing twice the output will be the same both times. Super Meat Boy fails both those criterion and it fails them hard.

Normally I'd be inclined to be generous and think my feeling the game is inconsistent is just me being bad at the game. I've played dozens of games where what initially seemed inconsistent was actually me failing to account for some factor that's deliberate. However, there was far too much evidence to the contrary. The two most notable examples are fairly glaring.

Firstly, the game has a replay feature where once you complete a level it will replay all your attempts, including potentially dozens of failures, all at the same time. I have seen this replay feature depict my successful run taking too long to get an A+ (In cases where I'd just gotten an A+), the successful run walking right through buzzsaws and other mobile obstacles without taking harm, etc, even above and beyond the replay feature's more understandable failures. (eg anything that responds to player action will, in the replay, only correlate to the successful run's events, if that) This could just be the replay feature itself being horribly inaccurate, rather than a result of the engine producing different results when running the same thing twice, but...

Secondly, there was a very early incident in my play where I was repeatedly retrying a level because I was trying to get the Bandage and kept botching it and getting killed. After my first few attempts, I discovered I could simplify my process by, instead of making a jump at the beginning, simply running directly to the right at full speed, which caused me to land perfectly on a lower platform without touching the hazards above and below it. Then when I was on my twentieth try or so, this suddenly stopped working: from then on, running directly to the right without jumping instead caused me to smack my face into the platform and immediately die to the hazard just below it, instead of landing on it. This wasn't a finicky timing thing where I had the rhythm five times in a row and then lost it. This was as basic as you could get; hold run and right until after you've landed on the platform. No possibility of error on my end changing the results.

Nonetheless, the results changed on their own.

So take that variability where the game just behaves differently at random, and apply it much later in the game when the game is expecting you to perform pixel-perfect jumps two dozen or more times within a single level, where each pixel-perfect jump will force you to restart the level if you botch it.

Yeah. That's awful.

But this also combines in an ugly way with Super Meat Boy's inconsistent-as-in-unintutive physics. Corners, for example, were my nemesis, far more than any of the touch-of-death hazards per se. If you get just slightly off, possibly through no fault of your own, you can find yourself going from 'land on platform and jump a split-second later' to 'smack into side of platform and immediately perform a walljump that somehow or another ruins everything'. Not only that, but if you jump up at a platform, bumping into the platform's edge and then rising up enough to go over it? I hope you were still holding toward the platform, because touching the wall killed all your momentum.

Speaking of momentum, the game applies it inconsistently, so much so I honestly couldn't tell you how much of it is 'inconsistent as in buggy' vs 'inconsistent as in why would you consider this intuitive design'. Momentum is A Thing when you're in the air, of course. It's also A Thing when you're on the ground, except kind of not except when it is except when it isn't.

That's not a joke or an exaggeration. Super Meat Boy's ground physics are actually that demented.

Sometimes, letting go of a movement button will cause Super Meat Boy to come to a complete stop nearly instantly, so long as you're on the ground. (In the air you'll just decelerate some) Other times, doing so will cause Super Meat Boy to go sliding far enough to go shooting right off your two-block platform to his inevitable death. The latter seemed to occur much more often if I was coming down from the air beforehand, but there were plenty of times I was moving at speed in the air and made contact with the ground and instantly stopped. I never identified any rhyme or reason to this pattern, and, to reiterate, I honestly cannot tell if it's because of bugginess or because the basic physics are that unintuitive.

And, let's reiterate: combine the above inconsistency/ambiguity with the game placing extremely tight demands on your precision as you go forward.

A secondary disappointment related to all of the above is the character system itself. You unlock most characters by either finding and completing hidden Warp Zones, with one per world up until the last couple of worlds which have no Warp Zones at all, or by collecting large numbers of Bandages. This means at the beginning of the game you have one character -Meat Boy himself- and your character access is very much backloaded. This is a problem because alternate characters are at their most legitimately interesting in the early levels.

In early levels, you can be having trouble collecting the Bandage, hitting the Warp Zone, beating the level at all, or getting the A+ with a character, and go 'well okay how about this other character, maybe they'll be better-suited to this task' and it's fun and interesting. Except... hold on, you have barely any options at all, particularly if you're not taking advantage of the code-input characters the game makes no references to. So unless you come back much later, when you're probably much more skilled and can handle the situation with Meat Boy anyway, this playing around with characters thing barely applies.

In later levels, the tuning of levels is simply too tightly tuned to Meat Boy in specific. Most later levels are either impossible to beat or at least to A+ with most non-Meat Boy characters due to them moving slower than he does, making jumps tuned for Meat Boy impossible to complete (Because the alternate characters are simply unable to replicate the specific arc that is the only way to Not Die) or leaving the level possible to complete but not possible to complete quickly enough for an A+. The exceptions are instead completely broken by key characters having behavior the level simply wasn't designed to accommodate, often resulting in a level being designed with 40 seconds as the par time being possible to effortlessly complete in under 20 seconds because you can completely ignore half of the level.

So the character selection system starts out seeming cool and interesting and like it's adding replay value and whatnot, but ultimately becomes largely irrelevant except when it's being used to break the game. The last two worlds drive home the flaws with the system by refusing to let you pick different characters at all -and even before then, Warp Zones of any kind disallow character selection, as do boss 'fights'.

Speaking of the boss 'fights', they're pretty consistently a low point in the game's design. A couple of the boss fights are centered around just running away and are pretty good if you ignore that the second of them was so broken in its coding I was initially unable to complete it, and I still have no idea what I did that caused it to acknowledge my victory, but the rest of the boss 'fights' lean pretty heavily on 'hurry up and wait' design. You don't attack things in Super Meat Boy, after all, so boss 'fights' that aren't centered on fleeing to a specific point instead revolve around basically waiting for the boss to kill itself while avoiding being killed by it. The result is really boring.

In the end, I'm actually fairly close to accessing the secret hidden bonus final boss, but Super Meat Boy is so consistently unfun and stressful the thought of coming back to it fills me with dread. I only got as far as I did because of stubbornness; I largely stopped enjoying myself halfway or so through the non-Dark World portion of the game. (Which is to say that I was something like a quarter of the way through the overall game when it stopped being fun)

I'm left unclear why this game gets such rave reviews. This isn't about me being turned off by the difficulty curve. I like difficulty in a game, and am routinely frustrated by how modern AAA games run much easier than historical games, above and beyond the change that would be expected by having improved ergonomics and whatnot.

This is about Super Meat Boy being riddled with flaws that are 'small things', but are such critical 'small things' that they completely overshadow the things it does well.


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