You wouldn't believe how much we hated Super Meat Boy at first. We were quick to label this 2D platformer as being needlessly punishing and thought that it was frustrating not because it has devious level design, but because you have to work with flawed gameplay to win. However, we're glad that we stuck with it despite our negative, knee-jerk reaction. Over time we realised that our expectations of the platformer were substantially different to what was on offer, and by taking the game for what it is, we discovered incredible detail and ingenious design that we would've dismissed had we not cut further into its savoury content.
The plot is a classic one: you're Meat Boy and you love Bandage Girl. Dr. Fetus – yes, he's actually a foetus in a robot body – is disliked by all, so he decides to take out his rage on Meat Boy by kidnapping his girlfriend and forcing you to go through torturous traps and face repulsive monsters to save her. It's an intentionally simple story, but there are cutscenes that reveal underlying dark humour and tongue-in-cheek vulgarity; it's silly with its cartoony presentation while making light of mildly shocking things. Team Meat isn't afraid to make you chuckle and still feel slightly uncomfortable – as seen in The Binding of Isaac – and there's something sincere about that which we respect. But not everything is just dark humour, since there are plenty of cute references to 80s and 90s games that are fun to recognise.
We must elaborate that we ended up appreciating how nuanced and finely tuned the mechanics are after adjusting to them. While we stand by some of our complaints to a minimal degree – such as jumping off walls, and edges not working when they should have – we confess that this is likely due to our own ineptitude at times since the game does not hold your hand. It flat out pummels you for the slightest mistakes, such as holding down the jump button a few milliseconds too long or shifting to the left a hair too much while trying to land on a tiny block. This isn't necessarily a game you can simply figure out through trial and error alone. You have to almost let your instincts lead you because the nature of this platformer emphasises speed and meticulousness. To emphasise this, there's a button to control your speed much like in Super Mario Bros., and you need to have your finger on it the whole time. That's what the game expects of you: react fast and be surgical at the same time. There's no room for hesitation or slow approaches.
The controls seem finicky at times and there are outrageous levels that demand inhuman reflexes, but that's what the game prides itself on, and it's what makes it addicting and "fun" to those searching for a masochistic, good time. With nearly all of the levels having expertly crafted layouts that never feel the same, enemies that are programmed and designed to trip you up and seemingly predict where you'll go, and more, this is a 2D platformer that will either make you feel euphoric in victory or blinded with rage to the point where you might just need to quit at some point.
The pixelated environments are pleasantly crafted with their dark colours and dreary settings. They contrast strangely yet nicely with the cartoony art style, and while the cutscenes are a bit on the rough side, they're nevertheless expressive and funny. The pixelated graphics during gameplay are what you remember, though, and it's always nice to be reminded of your dozens of failures when you die in explosions of red that decorate the environment numerous times over until you conquer a level.
While we are disappointed by the lack of the original game's soundtrack, Team Meat has done a suitable job of assembling some great 8-bit tracks and rock songs from other indie composers that thankfully fit. While some feel a bit out of place with vocals, and several more songs would've been appreciated to break up levels, we can hardly complain about the replacements.
With the main six worlds testing our limits near the end, there's more to explore like harder variants of levels in the Dark Worlds. In addition, there are bandages to collect in risky locations within stages to unlock new characters with different abilities, some of which are from other notable indie games. And with Warp Zones you'll stumble across that give access to charmingly retro-themed stages, there's plenty to keep you busy. But if you just want to experience the main fare, it's more than challenging enough to feel like a full experience as it is.
Super Meat Boy is an exercise in patience. You may in fact deplore it in the first one or two hours due to its unforgiving gameplay and level design, but if you take the time to consume much of what it has to offer, you may just acquire a taste for it.