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Super Meat Boy: Outgrowing the Boundaries

February 12, 2011

While I certainly have plenty of reasons to love Super Meat Boy — the humor, the challenge, the platforming — it’s not a perfect game. Its endgame (or, at least, the endgame of the “light world” playthrough) falls into the all-too-common trap of eschewing what made the rest of the play experience great for the sake of something meant to feel like an “epic moment” or two. In most games that fall into this trap, this happens via a final boss battle that changes the entire mechanic of the game — a platformer suddenly turning into an on-rails shooter, or Gears of War 2 effectively saying “you know what? let them have this one” — but Super Meat Boy remains a platformer to the very end. Where it falls off a cliff (or runs into a buzzsaw, as it were) is in ditching the very approach to challenge that succeeds so wildly throughout the rest of the game.

This isn't Omega, but it looks pretty intimidating.

In Team Meat’s own blog at supermeatboy.com, the number 1 (number 1!) thing that they list as a design choice for their brand of “hardcore platformer” (chosen as their genre of choice) is: “Keep the levels small.” Being able to see where you start and where your goal is is important for the sake of keeping the player connected to that goal — if you can’t see what you’re trying to get to, and you’ve already died 25 times trying to get past the starting screen, it’s difficult to be motivated enough to keep going.

Most of the levels in Super Meat Boy manage to achieve this, and the longer levels that go beyond a single screen actually tend to have the sense to lower the difficulty just enough to compensate for the length.

But not “Omega”.

“Omega” is the final level in the final world (appropriately titled “The End”), so it makes a certain amount of sense that it might be more difficult than the rest of the game. Still, the jump in difficulty from even the first four levels of “The End” to “Omega” is awfully steep. The point of “Omega” seems to be that the player is applying every skill that has been learned to this point to a single level. In many games, this would work. In Super Meat Boy, it’s too much. First, careful jumping from platform to platform. Then, careful jumping through strategically-placed buzzsaws. Horizontally you go, then vertically up through some buzzsaws, then vertically down through the same buzzsaws, then back and forth a few more times, until you finally reach the goal. When I finally reached that goal, I didn’t feel triumph. I felt relief. “Thank God that’s over”.

Except, it wasn’t.

Super Meat Boy makes the terrible decision to make you go through another terribly long level as a “boss fight”, evading the evil Dr. Fetus as he shoots missiles at you. It’s one thing to make a level too long, though, and it’s a whole other thing to limit the speed at which you can traverse it. This “boss fight” introduces columns of buzzsaws that scroll along with the player. Move too fast, and you’ll hit the buzzsaws on the right. Take your time, and the buzzsaws on the left will chop you into ittybits. The player is confined, forced to spend an entire minute or so on this final boss fight if it’s done right, which wouldn’t seem like much if it didn’t take a solid 30-40 attempts to do so. Sure, there’s a laugh-worthy Mario gag at the end of it, but it’s not worth the trouble, not worth the complete abandonment of what made the game great to this point.

Of course, even after sending Dr. Fetus to his final resting place, there’s one more overlong level to traverse, Metroid-style, as you try to escape Fetus’ crumbling lair with your beloved Bandage Girl. By this point, I had almost given up on the game altogether, as I simply wanted to call shenanigans on developers who had me tricked into thinking that they didn’t like long levels.

Mercifully, Team Meat made that last bit just a little bit easier than the slogs that preceded it, heading off abandonment just in time to make finishing the game seem worth it. But still.

Super Meat Boy remains one of last year’s best games, and this hiccup at the end isn’t going to change that. It may have behooved Team Meat to leave the sadism of long levels that don’t skimp on the game’s trademark difficulty to the game’s Dark World, the “New Game+” style levels that exist as a reward for acing the game’s “normal” levels. By subverting themselves for the last few levels in the primary storyline of their game, Team Meat shows an unfortunate unwillingness to adhere to the convictions of its own design philosophy. It doesn’t break Super Meat Boy, but it does make the game less than it could have been.

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