Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Exquisite Pain of Super Meat Boy

It was back in the heady days of NES gaming that I first experienced the toll videogames can take on one’s hands. I’ve never suffered from real gaming-induced ailments like carpal tunnel or repetitive stress, but that rectangular control paddle nevertheless managed to extract a pound of flesh from my poor right thumb. Nintendo games featured just two primary buttons in game play, and often required that they be used nearly constantly and often simultaneously: one button to sprint and another to jump; one to jump and another to shoot; one to jab one’s sword and another to hurl a magic boomerang—you get the idea. The shape and size of my thumb was such that, when pressing both buttons at the same time, the rightmost button (inexplicably labeled “A”) fell directly underneath the joint at the digit’s not-quite-padded center.

It wasn’t pain in the fullest sense of the word, but there was still a certain amount of physical and existential discomfort involved. Physical, because ow, my thumb. Existential, because something had come between me and an activity with which I otherwise could have occupied myself to no end: I am made out of meat.

Fast forward about 20 years to Super Meat Boy, a game that brought me right back to the golden age of platforming. Two meat-filled hours of running and jumping gave my right thumb a glow as raw and red as anything the late ’80s could dish out. I don’t know if you want to call that a ringing endorsement, but I have to accept it as some kind of testament to the game’s quality.

This wasn’t the only sweet sting to be found in Super Meat Boy—let’s consider our protagonist. To call this a game about the experience of dying would sound macabre, heavy, and not a little bit melodramatic.  Meat Boy suffers from none of the above because is a game about dying over and over and over again; its primary sources of delight are the whimsy with which one can dispatch its central character and the accompanying balance between reward and punishment.

For starters, the life-and-death cycle of young Meat Boy is just so… rapid. We’re neither forced to watch him suffer nor suffer ourselves through the obligatory moment of reflection (and just-as-obligatory load screen) that accompanies player death in most games. Consider the out-of-body experience of dying in Fallout 3 or the hovercam I’m-being-eaten screens of Resident Evil; the respawn ceremonies found in shooters like Left 4 Dead and Halo; the absurdly melodic “You’re dead!” interlude of spiritual ancestor and brother-in-acronyms Super Mario Brothers. Super Meat Boy skips all of these conventions: our hero walks headlong into a waiting buzzsaw and reappears at the beginning of the level in about the time it takes for the player to blink. This rapid turnover (which also worked quite well for last year’s Limbo) is a huge part of what makes the title such a winner, a fact the game both recognizes and revels in.

Much has already been written about the post-level instant-replay feature (in which one also sees each ill-fated attempt replayed simultaneously), but it is nonetheless an enormous give-back to the player, and one whose value increases with each failure. In its way, the game actually rewards the player for failing. Beyond that, it rewards the player for failing A LOT. And beyond that, it even rewards the player for failing but getting SO CLOSE (all provided that one eventually goes on to succeed).

That’s not to say Super Meat Boy isn’t an intensely frustrating game, because it most certainly is. It takes nerves of steel to get that little sack of meat past through just the game’s first chapter, and one quickly learns that behind the gaping maw of each hazard lies another just as capable of rendering him into so much ground chuck. I’m not exactly sure what lies in wait, and I’ll naively declare that I’d like to eventually ooze my way to the end—it’s just imminently clear (to my thumb, most of all) that it won’t be possible in one sitting.
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