I've only spent a single night with it, but Super Meat Boy, a decidedly indie-flavoured, extraordinarily challenging platformer new to Xbox Live Arcade and coming to Windows and the Wii later this year, begs for immediate discussion in a way few other games do.
Its eponymous hero-a square-shaped chunk of fresh flesh that leaves a path of crimson wherever he goes-manages the miraculous feat of coming off as adorable, thanks in part to his winning gap-toothed grin but more due to his admirable and dogged determination to save his better half, Bandage Girl, from Dr. Fetus, a villain who to me appears to be a baby piloting a blazer-and-tie-wearing mechanical suit.
Granted, its narrative doesn't quite have the profundity of a game like Braid-though it's worth noting that Edmund McMillen, one of Super Meat Boy's two designers, was peripherally involved with that arthouse hit-but it is nonetheless wonderfully charming.
More important than the story is the play, a near perfect-and often hellishly difficult-mixture of classic and modern 2-D platformer action that demands skillful and well-timed jumps to avoid saws, fans, piles of salt, and countless other obstacles. It starts off easily enough for the first dozen or so super speedy levels, but as the game progresses players are forced to make ever more exacting leaps, wall slides, and dashes in order to avoid manifold deaths in environments that become increasingly more complex and dynamic. Think N+, but with more colour, more screen scrolling, boss fights, and a decidedly NES vibe.
Most of the game's hundreds of levels-of which I've played only a portion-take just seconds to complete on a winning run, but mastering them-and collecting the sadistically placed Band-Aids that Bandage Girl has left behind-could require scores of attempts. Indeed, our gory protagonist dies enough times to depopulate a decent-sized village.
But, at least in my experience with it so far, the repeated deaths never grow overly frustrating. The brevity of each level combines with a death-to-reload time of less than a second to keep one concentrating on the challenge at hand rather than focusing on defeat. Even if it takes 30 attempts to beat a level, there's a good chance you'll only have spent six or seven minutes on it.
And when you finally do manage to best a particularly challenging gauntlet you are provided a brilliant reward: a video of several of your attempts running simultaneously. One by one you'll watch your bloody heroes get diced by blades, fall off cliffs, and be burnt by lasers until one of them finally reaches his goal. It's a kind of gratification that I've never before experienced; a complete purging of all the emotions that might have built up over the course of a particularly challenging level.
Beyond the purity of all this masterfully designed running and jumping lies something more: A loving reverence of many of the great games that have preceded it (it's no coincidence that Super Meat Boy's initials also stand for the most beloved platformer of all time). Hidden warp zones will take you to entirely new levels inspired by classic games while a series of unlockable characters-some inspired by recent games in the genre-shows respect for modern masterpieces.
Regardless of one's taste for animal matter, there's no denying the plump pleasure of this beefy platformer. It can be painfully difficult, but, to borrow from John Mellencamp, Super Meat Boy makes it hurt so good.
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