Saturday, May 24, 2014

MeekinOnMovies On...Super Meat Boy

My relationship with “Super Meat Boy” isn’t unlike an early 90’s romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan. Despite spending years in my peripheral vision, and being told over and over and over again how great of a guy “Super Meat Boy” was (Yes, I’m Meg Ryan in this scenario), I didn’t have the special kind of feelings a lass needs to warrant a commitment. You can’t blame me, right girls? I mean, by design “Super Meat Boy” is the very definition of a high maintenance relationship. It’s a flabby, 2D, sprite-based side-scroller in a world of sexy 3D beach-body graphics and man-scaped polygons. It prides itself on its socially awkward high difficulty level and trial-and-error gameplay.

It was also $15.99 at the time of release, and, if we’re being honest here, who needs the cow when you can get the milk for free; “Super Meat Boy”’s less super predecessor, “Meat Boy” is available completely free, completely legally, in a variety of locations across the world wide web.

Simply put, In today’s day and age, “Super Meat Boy” is no woman’s idea of a man.

Then, one lonely night I took survey of all the games I’d been out with recently…and felt empty. “Madden” was strong and engaging, but X’s and O’s hate to cuddle. “Borderlands 2” and it’s associated add-ons were expansive and well crafted, but so much time spent treasure hunting together left me callous and greedy. “Need For Speed” had all the thrills but I couldn’t get over it’s anti-climactic car crashes. “WWE 13’” was too banal, “NBA 2K13” too intense. These were all quality games I enjoyed my time with, but in one way or another - that night, anyway - they left me cold.

I took to the XBLA arcade and browsed games I’d never played for a diamond in the rough. “Fight Night Champion”, “Shadow Complex”, “Spider-man 3” and a few others caught my wandering eye, but…I don’t know.

Nothing felt right. Did I really want to play a *boxing* game after playing sports games all year? Did I want a side-scrolling, “Metroid”-esque shooter considering I always got lost and frustrated in those games? Was…was I seriously considering “Spider-man 3”? Yikes, that’s like the gaming equivalent of calling up your blue-balling, club-legged prom date for a quickie after leaving town for a few years.

Between October of 2010 when I first heard of “Super Meat Boy” and January of 2013, a lot had changed for me, as gaming turned from hobby to something a bit more substantial. True romance was no longer about the tightest bump mapping and or how large the outline of a game’s intersecting polygons looked on the back of the box. I no longer rode that hype train - and seeking out quality and hearty experiences became a passion. It was about the soul. A game that kept you up until 6am on a work night. A game that had you working out the machinations of a particularly difficult level in your head 45 minutes into a 10 hour work day you were late for.

I didn’t want a game to go out with. I wanted a game to come home to. And it never occurred to me Meat Boy would provide that in spades.

But then, that night in my room, during that temporary crisis of confidence, I saw him. His big, dark, beady eyes, his maniacal and semi-toothless smile; after all these years, he was still there, waiting for me. He had changed, too - he was a little less expensive ($5 dollars cheaper to be exact), and seemed a bit more appealing; he seemed funny without trying to impress me, his art style was charming without intruding on the gameplay, and suddenly the phrase “tough-as-nails platformer” whirled around my ears like a breath of fresh air.

First impressions impress. The design is thoroughly endearing and authentically retro; the 16-bit menu, world map, and chip-tuned soundtrack set the tone for what’s to follow. The simple control fits in with this aesthetic, too. Besides standard directional commands, there’s a jump button, a dash button, and that’s it.

But the simplicity doesn’t come at the price of depth. Throughout the course of “Super Meat Boy”’s dozens upon dozens of levels, you’ll contend with moving platforms, whirring chainsaws, dastardly salt fountains, wall jumping onto miniscule platforms, gravity defying fans, an adorable lava monster you eventually end up smothering with a pillow in an adorably animated cut-scene, and so much more. But the game is not above taking creative liberties with its retro aesthetic. Like a majority of “retro” games that have been released, it has no problem referencing internet Memes, and features tons of in jokes, and various playable characters that are irreverent as they are useful.

Graphically the game’s closest cousin is “Yoshi’s Island”, the colorful sequel to “Super Mario World”. That game featured anime-inspired wide-eyed enemies, emotive characters, and a vibrant, almost crayon aesthetic. Meat Boy takes this and flips it on its head. While playing it’s common to only recognize objects simply as things that can kill you, and things that can’t. 

In the cut-scenes, the graphics shine. Wide-eyed characters do some pretty dastardly things, and it’s all wrapped in this aesthetic that will tickle your funny bone and eek nostalgia from memory banks.

Which…Brings us to that dastardly hard difficulty level. No bones about it, this game is *tough*. During the later levels, you’ll often find yourself pondering how, exactly, you’re supposed to make it through a tiny gap that’s book ended by two whirring saw blades, or cursing whoever had the bright idea to include a vertically scrolling lava level with the aforementioned suddenly-not-so-adorable angry lava beast hot on your tail. Joy comes from the pain, however, and once you figure out that you *can* do something, doing it repeatedly becomes something like a triumphant badge of honor. Suddenly impossible jumps seem like second nature, your self confidence grows exponentially.

This is made possible by incredibly tight control. If you’ve played a lot of platformers, or even a lot of games in general, you know how daunting a finicky control scheme can be to the fun factor of a game. A difficult jump becomes frustrating. A boss battle becomes tiresome. Your controller finds itself conspicuously lodged in the television.

The main mechanics are jumping, dashing, and wall sliding, all of them will feel second nature by the time you reach the fifth level of the game. This makes that whole incredibly hard difficulty level thing actually quite enjoyable, as you never feel that you’re fighting the game, just your own poor reflexes.
If “Super Meat Boy” felt too floaty, or was unresponsive to button pushes, the entire game would fall apart and find itself half-played and deleted off my hard drive. Instead, the gameplay is polished to a blinding shine. 

On the downside, the game is a bit short - initially. Each of the levels really only a minute or two to complete (once you know what you’re doing), but depending on your love for this sort of gameplay, you could probably beat it in four or five hours.

However, there are ‘bandages’ to be found on certain levels, which helps you unlock extra characters, and adds a level of punishing challenge, as well. Getting a bandage typically requires a difficult jump, or taking a particularly brutal path to the end of the level. Similarly, the game features ‘teh Internets’ which is a series of free DLC map-packs that are for experts only. I’ve dabbled and haven’t been able to beat a single one. That’s how hard these bonus levels are.

If this were a romantic comedy, we would fade out here, “Super Meat Boy” and I fatefully rendezvoused after tears, fears, and a crisis or two along the way. The credits would roll with the inevitable blooper reel, the guys and gals in the audience would file out, hands still held, uplifted by the struggle and triumph of the human spirit to satiate its desire for companionship and someone to call their own.

It really feels like the relationship is going places. “Super Meat Boy” constantly challenges me to be a better person, to hone skills that have lain dormant since championing “Super Mario World”’s Star Road a lifetime ago.

With a simple two button interface, death-defying leaps over chasms, mad dashes over and under saw-blades, boss battles that take place while running at full speed, or wall-jumping from one tiny platform to another, I’ve found a game to call my home.

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