REVIEW / Super Meat Boy (XBLA)

The moment you press start, and the voice of Super Meat Boy’s booming announcer rattles through your speakers, you know that you’re in for a game steeped in the nostalgia of a late-eighties side-scroller. And the moment you die for the twentieth time in a row, your insides staining a sea of spinning saw blades crimson, you know you’re in for a game every bit as hardcore as those late-eighties side-scrollers. Edmund Mcmillen and Jonathan McEntee’s Meat Boy started life as free flash game, originally released on Newgrounds in 2008. But the touching story of a lump of meat and a ball of bandaids, torn apart by the evil machinations of a fetus in a business suit, soon garnered the attention of Nintendo, promptly followed Microsoft and Apple. After a year plus of development, the two-man Team Meat is ready to reveal Super Meat Boy, a high-definition spiritual successor to the original flash title that is easily the most difficult and demented platformer to come along since 16-bit was wowing the kids. Think Super Mario Bros. 2 splashed with entrails.

Super Meat Boy opens with your girlfriend, Bandage Girl, having been kidnapped by the monocle-sporting, top hat-wearing Dr. Fetus. It’s up to you to chase after your adhesive damsel in distress through 300+ levels filled with all manner of deadly hazards, including chain saws, meat grinders, and piles of used needles. Though size, shape and speed may vary, the game’s different dangers all share the ability to turn Meat Boy into a greasy splatter of ground round with but a single touch. Jump too soon or too late and you will die. Run too fast or too slow and you will die. Touch the spikes at the top or the blades at the bottom and you will die. The point is that you will die. Not once. Not twice. But many times, in rapid and gory succession. The first few levels get you used to how Meat Boy handles, and then the difficulty ramps sharply into soul-crushing territory, requiring an amount of precision and patience that will test even the most hardcore gamer.

There are levels that appear to be made of nothing but swinging, whirring, flying blades, but even the most daunting and dangerous of levels is traversable thanks to Meat Boy’s acrobatic abilities. For a cube of meat, he’s surprisingly agile, able jump, dash, bounce off walls and even cling briefly to higher points on walls thank to a thick trail of viscera left in his wake. Like great gaming icons before him – Mega Man, Mario, Sonic – the way Meat Boy handles feels very specific to his character. This becomes even more apparent when you start playing with the 15 additional unlockable characters, like Commander Video from Bit.Trip, Tim from Braid, and the alien from Alien Hominid, who each have their own special abilities. For example, Commander Video, in addition to leaving his signature rainbow trail, moves a little slower but can hover in the air for a limited time after jumping ala Princess Peach. The fun part is finding out which characters work best for which situations, but to do that you’ll have to find them all.

Some are purchased using bandaids scattered throughout the levels, but you’ll find the rest in the warp zones located in each world. The cool thing about the warp zones is that they are themed after easily recognizable retro games. Some of Atari, NES and Gameboy’s greatest hits are lovingly spoofed right down to the fuzzy music, chunky graphics and three lives limit. Of course, dying doesn’t actually end the game, it just kicks you back out to the level select menu for that particular world, where you can try and die again.  Each level is brief but incredibly intense, the very epitome of twitch gaming. Each level is also incredibly detailed, becoming more elaborate the further in you go. But no matter the obstacles, gameplay still boils down to moving from “Point A” to “Point B” as you platform to reach Bandage Girl, who is the finish flag personified (or rather bandified). You can accomplish this feat as quickly or as carefully as you desire, though blazing speeds will earn you an A+ rating, unlocking an even more brutal version of the level.

These “Dark World” level counterparts to the “Light World” levels are not for the faint of heart, providing an additional layer of challenge to an already challenging game. If you haven’t gotten a chance to check it out already, these expert levels will give you a chance appreciate the replay of all your previous attempts. Die thirty times, and there will be thirty Meaty Boys reenacting their gruesome demises simultaneously. The more times you visit that great meatball in the sky, the more Meat Boys there will be bouncing around in real time together when you finally succeed. The fact that the lives are endless and the respawn points plentiful also helps take the sting out of death. That doesn’t mean you won’t get tired of dying on occasion, but Team Meat wisely cuts down on the frustration by allowing levels to be played in any order. This means you can come back to a particularly difficult level later after you’ve calmed down enough to stop shouting threats at your television, though you’ll have to clear all the levels to face off against each world’s boss, most of which reach Shadow of the Colossus-sized proportions compared to our meaty main character.

Once you factor in the boss fights, warp zones, and unlockable levels to Super Meat Boy’s already staggering number of standard levels, you’ve got plenty to keep you coming back for repeat gaming sessions. Not to mention the online multiplayer, leaderboards and tons of hidden easter eggs. Super Meat Boy has the soul of an old school platformer wrapped in the sexy young body of current generation hardware, resulting in a hardcore gaming experience that’s nostalgic without seeming antiquated. The formula is simple, but the action is constant, the controls are tight, the graphics are layered and the difficulty is insane without being unfair – if you die, it’s definitely because you suck and not the game, a feeling both humbling and invigorating. It’s simply one of the best platformers currently available on any system. A hell of an accomplishment for a ball of blood and tissue.