It seems simple at first. You’re a boy made of meat, and you’re in love with Bandage Girl. The good news is, Bandage Girl loves you too. The bad news is, Dr. Fetus hates everybody and YOU especially, so he beats you up and kidnaps Bandage Girl. Your quest to rescue her is a side-scrolling platforming affair. And despite the slick digital controls and polished graphics, it’s devastatingly old-school.
I say ‘old-school’ because side-scrolling platforming has been around since the old console wars. Mario did it on the NES, Sonic did it on the Genesis. And it’s a type of game that does something that is somewhat missing from open world games, first-person shooters and MMOs: its challenges are static and structured. As Chris Plante writes in his Escapist article ‘Hard-Earned Victories,’ when you manage to complete a level, that completion is a reward in and of itself. Which ties into the ‘devastating’ part of my description.
Watch TotalBiscuit’s Wipe-A-Thon 3000 to see just how blood-curdlingly frustrating this game can be. Plante describes this as the game ‘pushing back’ against our efforts to beat it. It doesn’t guide us with arrows, objectives, waypoints or NPCs. It presents us with the challenge, sits back and watches us try to overcome it. And when the player does pull it off, after “lots of trial and even more error”, he or she feels like a million bucks, like a superstar. The boss levels seem especially geared for this.
Now, I’ve only beaten the first chapter and its boss, but I can say with confidence that if this trend keeps up, I’m going to end up with more raised heart rates, cramped fingers and victorious cries that earn me funny looks from my wife. The combination of the established challenges, an incoming death machine driven by a maladjusted genius fetus in a jar and the kickass soundtrack pushed me to overcome the scenario. I refused to give up. I took breaks, shook out cramps, grabbed some water. And when the Li’l Slugger finally exploded, I cheered.
Super Meat Boy took me to a very interesting and unexpected place.
It tapped a reservoir of resolve that, in my everyday life, often goes untapped. I don’t often see my daily challenges as that immediate, that insurmountable. But in this case, I did, and I took each of my failures in stride (and trust me, there were a LOT of failures) only to shake them off and try again. I learned from every mincing, grew more determined with every red splatter. Why do I not do this more often? Am I not challenged enough? Did I specifically grab this on Steam during the sale for a bargain-basement $3 instead of waiting to get Microsoft points because I knew using the keyboard would increase the challenge?
I’m not entirely sure what the answers are, but I do know that facing down a new year with a finished manuscript, a renewed resolve to improve my situation and new ideas for projects to undertake, I’m going to need to come back to that place Super Meat Boy unlocks more often. I probably won’t be adding an X-Box game pad adapter to my PC any time soon, because in addition to needing that money elsewhere, I feel slightly more accomplished pulling off mind-blowing maneuvers with the keyboard.
I really can’t call this a review, since I haven’t played the entire game through, and it will be some time before I collect enough bandages and A+ ratings to render a ‘professional’ verdict. I can, however, offer this recommendation: