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Super Meat Boy: raw meat and chainsaws

Hey there, folks!

In a productive chat with my great friend, game designer and super genius Bruno Massa, I’ve been convinced to play a game whose main character is, in short, a PIECE OF BEEF. The game’s called Super Meat Boy, and it’s the newest indie megahit. It's a frantic, ultrabizarre platformer. It’s incredibly difficult, with graphics and music that remind games of 20 years ago. Therefore, the kind of game that would make you cross the street to avoid having to say “hello”.



The awful truth is that, even knowing that Meat Boy is a huge success, I’ve been avoiding trying it for months, because the little I knew about it didn’t sound very attractive to me. Poor fool! Leading this skinless hero through dozens of non-sense levels full with spikes, chainsaws and liters of blood have been one of the most inspiring experiences in my recent memory! If you’ve been living under a rock as much as i was, keep reading and understand why this game is fucking awesome!

Have you ever felt that something just got lost as games started getting more sophisticated and feeling more like Hollywood blockbusters? Somehow, Super Meat Boy goes in the opposite direction and, with its casual aesthetics, manages to provide an extremely focused experience on the character control. The game for the game.

To those who don’t know this masterpiece created by a couple of guys (who present themselves as Team Meat), lay down your preconceptions and believe that there’s a lot of fun in controlling a beef running from chainsaws! This post is a humble attempt to understand, from a game design perspective, what’s the essense of Super Meat Boy that makes it great. To the many (probably 3) people that are following this blog and trying to understand this whole indie game thing, know that this is already a classic in the genre.



Team Meat: Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen. Yes sir, these two guys made the entire game by themselves!!!



Completely nonsense game with 90’s look? WTF, man?


As some incredibly smart readers deduced based on our last post, we’re creating a plaftormer game in which you control a chicken. After some good hours balancing the controls of our oviparous hero, we went on a search for games that could serve as an inspiration on this aspect, and that’s where the aforementioned chat comes in. Super Meat Boy is a platformer with literally hundreds of very short levels, with incredibly well balanced difficulty ranging from “medium” to “fucking impossible”. The main character is superfast, and has the ability of jumping against walls and remaining stick to it (although slowly sliding down) until he performs another jump. The levels are full of pits, narrow platforms and timing traps: rotating saws all across the scenery, lasers that make an entire line lethal to the hero, roaming missiles, cannons, etc – all in the good old arcade style, with not even the slightest concern of looking realistic!

As I mentioned in the past, an interesting aspect of the games that have been rising from the indie community is their inherent innovation level. And Super Meat Boy gets its innovation from the most unlikely place: the past! The game resumes in a radical fashion the concept of pure and simple interactivity, creating a story so simple that obviously becomes a cool self-parody. Its retro aesthetics is a deep tribute to the early 90’s games, and despite it being very competent and many times surprising, it never gets in the way of the game’s core mechanics. By the way, Super Meat Boy lowers players’ expectations on those attributes right from the start: when you begin a new game, the very first thing you see is a comic explanation of its (lack of) story. Of course this is done in a cool, charming way, and five seconds later you’re already controlling Meat Boy in the game’s 1st level.




A highly complex game plot: your girlfriend was kidnapped by a baby wearing a tuxedo and a glass helmet. Wait, wait, rewind please, I didn’t understand very well... :)



Controls: What Super Meat Boy is REALLY about

The guys in Team Meat adhered to the 'cut the crap' policy and focused all their effort to what really defines Super Meat Boy: running and jumping through ultra hard, trap filled-levels, in a frenetic, bloody and repetitive action that is absolutely addictive. “These are your controls, and you don’t get anything else,” explains one of the creators of the game, Edmund McMillen, in this post I stole from the Wall Street Journal blog. “What you get is, you get to perfect your control of the game. You get legitimately good, and that’s your reward.”




The way of the beef guy: passing through the 14 rotating saws, take a right on the first street and you’ve reached your destination. Piece of cake!


And if you simplify to that extent all the other aspects of the game to focus solely on the pleasure of controlling the jumpy character through the levels, it means that the game controls themselves must be really tight and rewarding. And that’s where the true Super Meat boy ingenuity lies: despite the game being very difficult at times, you still feel all the time that you are the one in control. If you die, you think: “Damn, I messed up”, knowing that it was your fault, not the game’s. Of course this is a consequence of a hidden merit: the levels look difficult, but in truth they always have a difficulty level that is appropriate to the player’s learning curve. Certainly a fruit of very good level design and of sorting the levels in the game very carefully!

There’s also something else, a little more on the subjective side but equally important: controlling Meat Boy is simply pleasant. The game has a quality that the game designer and author Jesse Schell calls a “juicy interface”. “That was the very first thing we worked on,” said co-creator Tommy Refenes in the same interview I completely stole from the Wall Street Journal. “That took a good two months of messing with values, this crazy formula it goes through to determine air friction and air turning. You have to feel like you’re a superhero.”




Tommy Refenes explains how was the creation of Meat Boy’s movements.



Also contributing to the controls-based formula, there’s the aggressive difficulty progression, that keeps the player always at the heart of action – sometimes you can get pissed off, but you NEVER get bored! The result is a hardcore difficult game that is addictive because the player feels he’ll be able to beat it if he gets a little better at controlling Meat Boy. To compensate the difficulty, the punishment of restarting the level is light, since the levels are very short (most of them can be beaten in less than 10 seconds). When you finally get through, the game rewards you not only with that “Right in your face, you fucking sick level designers!” feeling, but also with a smart replay system, that shows all your attempts simultaneously – the more times it took you to get through the level, more Meat Boys will show up at the same time in the bloody mess replay! Speaking of it, game designers out there, I strongly recommend reading this article written by Edmund McMillen himself about designing the game’s difficulty and rewards system.




Replay: the morbid pleasure of seeing your past deaths



With these and other clever resources, the game keeps the player glued on his chair, always wanting to win, always wanting to become better at the commands. And ultimately, that’s what Super Meat Boy really is about.



Longevity

It’s true that the 15 dollars price with which Super Meat Boy is tagged is not the lowest in the Steam / XBLA indie games’ hall, but it’s also a fact that the game offers a semi-infinite amount of content: it comes from the shelf with something like 300 levels in total, plus some expansion packages that Team Meat will release for free, and certainly thousands more levels that will emerge when they publish their Level Creator (which is about to happen).

They also hid more than 10 unlockable characters that can replace Meat Boy in the game, with very different characteristics. An interesting detail is that all those characters were taken from other indie games, some very popular such as World of Goo and Braid, and others completely obscure. It is a REALLY COOL tribute from Team Meat to the indie community! :)




Chicken: the indie character we want to see in Super Meat Boy!


By the way, in our particular case it was a relief to see that the search for perfect control balancing is not only important, but that it’s actually possible to make an entire game based on it! We’re working nonstop for months on our new old game (there was a conceptual reboot late 2010), and the main focus has been to balance and make the chicken’s movements feel better. We’re using a realistic 2D physics engine, and half of the fun consists in going through the levels trying to find balance on logs hanged on ropes, pendulums, baloons and other highly unstable structures. Controlling the chicken’s sprints and awkward flights must be pleasurable by itself, and after playing Super Meat Boy for hours and hours, it became clear that it’s not a waste of time to spend weeks balancing controls in our own game!

Congratulations, Team Meat, a very fine addition to the indie shelf!

Regards, see you on the next post

Gabriel