By SriK / December 4, 2011
From the start, it’s important to note that according to Metacritic, this game is 17% better than God Hand, almost
15% better than Guwange, and on par with Deus Ex. If these evaluations were correct, it would mean that Super Meat Boy
would probably be the best game of all time. And hey, with phrases like “one of the most challenging games ever”, “retro platforming goodness”, and
“game of the year” appearing in virtually every review, it has to be at least one of the best platformers of all time, right?...
...Yeah, right. See, for all of Super Meat Boy's pretensions of being an "old-school" platformer, and for all of its attempts to evoke classic Famicom action games in its simplistic and badly-drawn cutscenes (woah, the camera just scrolled up to the top of a building like the intro to Rockman 2, that's indie as shit man!), the game completely embraces some of the worst modern action game design principles and tries to disguise this with a "retro" "masocore" shell. Where do you see infinite lives in the best classic 2D action games? Where are their 15-second-long "bite-sized challenges?" When were the art and character design ever this generic, let alone downright revolting? And which developers in the 8- and 16-bit eras threw babylike passive-aggressive temper tantrums at any criticism of their games, like Super Meat Boy's main artist and designer Edmund McMillen does here?
"Indie" developers seem to frequently make this exact same mistake so let me explain why the infinite lives and extremely short levels found in many of their platformers are such a bad idea.
In short, these two design choices combined basically kill all of the tension, excitement, and sense of accomplishment which should be a part of any good action game. If there's almost zero penalty for death, then there's almost zero tension, and therefore almost zero pressure or incentive to succeed other than the visual payoff of getting to see the next level (which in Super Meat Boy's case isn't much of a payoff at all, since its level art is terrible and there are almost no interesting setpieces in the game). I mean, who cares how much you screw up if you can die as many times as you want and be instantly transported 10 seconds back in time, as in a magical savestate? This might not have been such a huge problem if Super Meat Boy's levels were significantly longer, but as it stands each stage averages around 25 seconds, and once a stage is complete there's basically no reason to revisit it (unless you actually care about finding all of the collectible bandage items which let you unlock such cool secret characters as "Tim" from Braid, "The Kid" from I Wanna Be The Guy, or "Spelunky man" from Spelunky lol).
Half of the game's much-praised "challenge" (or at least what's left of it after factoring in the infinite lives and short level lengths) comes from its rubbish controls; Meat Boy has more aerial inertia than Sonic the Hedgehog, but is being expected to make jumps ten times more precise. Also, the hitboxes for many harmful objects seem to be larger than their actual sprites. The combination of these two factors, predictably enough, results in countless completely retarded deaths.
In defense of Super Meat Boy, some people will argue that 8-bit games had "cheap deaths" too. But really, which of the best ones did? Rockman? Ninja Ryukenden? Akumajou Dracula? All of these games are unimaginably better than Super Meat Boy, due to 1) having actual level design and flow instead of what effectively amounts to savestates, 2) not relying on the same basic level elements for worlds at a time in order to create a bloated 10-hour "retro" "indie" game, and 3) not being ass ugly. In fact, some of them are still at or near the top of their respective genres 20 years after being released. Don't confuse these games' focus and elegance for simplicity; these are games where, once you actually sit down and try to clear them without continuing, you'll need to learn how to master every single move, weapon, and option available to you, you'll need to learn how enemy behavior works and manipulate it to your advantage, you'll need to learn how each of the stages are structured and develop strategies for them, and you'll need to be able to play virtually flawlessly in a tense, incredibly tight environment where one major mistake can mean your shit gets wrecked and you'll have to start over. Despite being in 2D, they're easily on par with most modern action games in terms of depth and meaningful complexity.
Now look at Super Meat Boy again, haha. Your "moves" and "options" consist of running and jumping through the one obvious set path which you can clear the level in (disregarding hidden collectathon items); you have no weapons, and every enemy will kill you instantly when it touches you. The most complex regular enemy is a homing projectile which splits up into smaller enemies that move in each of the 8 compass directions, and once you learn what to expect even they're not hard to avoid. And, due to the aforementioned combination of infinite lives, hilariously short "bite-sized" stages, extremely basic level design, and awful art direction, there's almost no tension or sense of accomplishment to be found at all.
A much better example of a game with bite-sized level design would be something like Alien Soldier, where, although most of the game's 25 stages can be beaten in under 40 seconds if you're good enough, you are still required to clear every one of them in sequential order, with limited health that carries over throughout the entire game. In addition, every single stage in Alien Soldier feels fresh in spite of its length thanks to a variety of unique setpieces and bosses. This is in stark contrast to Super Meat Boy, where every single level and world feels the same thanks to the game's bland stage design and the sheer amount of levels it throws at you (111 in the main Light World portion of the game including boss levels, plus an additional ~140 unlockable harder stages which I didn't bother playing because I was already feeling clinically bored by the time I finished the last main world). Almost every level element serves no purpose other than to kill you when you touch it save random world-specific gimmicks like the portals in World 4 or the beacons in World 5, and even those features aren't developed to their fullest potential thanks to none of the levels running longer than 60 seconds. Instead, what you get in a typical Super Meat Boy level: Rectangular platforms. Moving buzzsaws. Maybe a few homing missile launchers. Walljump, walljump, get the keys to unlock the path ahead, oh no the screen scrolled and there's a huge saw there I couldn't see before, death, restart level, repeat 50 times until you get to the next mundane, basic, submediocre-looking stage. Even the boss battles are unremarkable, with many of them playing out exactly the same as a regular stage, except now there's a bigger enemy to avoid. Most of the time, the goal is just to survive until the boss kills itself.
Despite all its purported "throwbacks" to classic games, Super Meat Boy is a game that could have only come about in today's environment, when the entire public perception of the 2D action genre has been reduced to solely "nostalgia value" and an entire generation of kids has been raised on the Newgrounds portal or the Xbox Live "Arcade". Similarly, Edmund McMillen's dull, flavorless tilesets and awful character design could have only been seen as passable in these past few years, when the standard for a decent "cartoony" art style has been debased over time to such a degree that companies are regularly making a profit off of garbage Flash animations like this or even this. (However, the music is surprisingly decent, and continues the trend started by VVVVVV of a few bad, high-profile "indie" games featuring decent soundtracks.)
And of course, all this is only reflective of the game's target audience. Super Meat Boy is a game made entirely for our "modern" generation, the generation which has only played old games on emulators using savestates, infinite continues, and hq4x filters. Every single design concession Super Meat Boy makes indicates what group of people it was really designed for. This is the root of the problem with most so-called "retro" games and the developers who create them; these people either simply do not play the games they have been purportedly inspired by, or if they actually do play them, they play them in such a way that seeing why these classic games are so awesome becomes almost impossible. How could someone truly appreciate a great 2D action game like Metal Slug or Shatterhand if they're save-stating and continuing their way through the damn thing? They'd just be left with a bunch of pretty pictures and sprites; it'd be a cool-looking pixel art movie, sure, but not exactly a great game. All you need to do is browse places like the TIGSource forums to see that these are the aspects of old games that Westerners making "retro" games tend to focus on the most. Small sprites, quadrupled pixels, everywhere the eye can see. A reduction of classic games to their most superficial qualities.
Super Meat Boy is a perfect example of said reduction. It's a game which assumes pseudo-retro trappings and tries to reference its "inspirations" whenever possible, while retaining almost nothing of what made those games so great. Here, Team Meat probably set out to make a "simple" game from the start. And hey, they succeeded! But unfortunately for them, old games were far from simple, and, most importantly, they weren't anything at all like Super Meat Boy.