Version tested: Xbox 360
Once upon a time I used to love difficult games. I've finished Ninja Gaiden. I've got all the platinum medals in Project Gotham Racing 3. I've even completed most of the levels in Maximo without phoning NHS Direct. In fact, at my peak I enjoyed a challenge so much that the levels of difficulty set by videogames were simply not enough, and I took to artificially enhancing them.
At first it was little things, like ignoring easy-to-reach extra lives, or killing all the enemies in a room but then pressing the alarm button anyway to spawn some more. Before long though it began to affect my real life. I wouldn't just play Street Fighter with one hand tied behind my back - I would play it while subject to extraordinary rendition. By the end I was even dipping my joypad in honey and releasing angry bees into the room whenever I reached a boss fight, and seeing how many times I could punch Dr Robotnik in the face before succumbing to anaphylactic shock.
I've stopped all that now, so it was with some surprise and concern that I booted up Super Meat Boy and realised that it has "relapse" written all over it.
This is a hard game. It should make you want to throw the pad across the room, get up to retrieve it but then change your mind and stamp on the cat. It's a 2D platformer where you guide a little blob of meat through mazes of sawblades, lasers, lava balls and explosives to reach his helpless girlfriend, where every other surface you touch means instant death, and where there is no such thing as a checkpoint, a power-up or a health bar. Once you have them figured out, levels may be over in a matter of seconds, but this does not save you from failing dozens of times beforehand.
The controls are basically perfect and the game plays out phenomenally fast. By default Meat Boy moves and jumps fast enough to give Mario a stitch, but when you hold the run button you have to cling onto him with your fingertips to stay in control. You need to master walljumps and momentum and short jumps and long jumps and portals and platforms and dying over and over and over again. Every time you die you're plonked back at the start in a split second. It should be frustrating, and I should be lying in the gutter covered in beestings, once again addicted to a stupidly hard videogame.
But I'm not, and it's because Super Meat Boy may be intense, and at times viciously difficult, but it's also a sort of KGB training course for your thumbs. Rather like Trials HD, another game where the goal is to reach the end of sadistic obstacle courses quickly and without error, the weight of experience gradually flattens your muscular impulses into the exact grooves of success, so that each sequence you find impossibly difficult is suddenly a doddle once you've done it successfully.
You notice this happening, too, so that even though every level looks impossible at first, you immediately know that it isn't, and even the most elaborate and mischievous combination of barriers holds no fear, only anticipation. It's a difficult game, then, but it's designed to improve players rather than simply repel them.
Key to this is that all the levels are fair. There are no booby-traps. There are themed worlds - hell, a salt factory, the end of the world, etc - but wherever you are you know that a surface which looks like it will kill you if you touch it... will kill you if you touch it.
There are sawblades - some that move vertically or laterally across walls and floors, some on pendulums or rotating around fixed points, some fired at you at regular intervals - but also bouncing lava balls, and instant-death lasers that slowly trail you, forcing you to hide or jump cleverly to manipulate them and sneak past. There are rockets, keys that remove key blocks, dissolving platforms, and even portals that preserve momentum and trajectory. But they all speak the same language, their implications immediately apparent.
Everything is super-fast, but the best levels are a clever mixture of dexterity and ingenuity, so you always feel smart and skilful when you succeed - and the best ones are the overwhelming majority, even though one level is often so different to the next in tempo and construction that to an untrained observer they might as well be from different games.
Disciples of Super Meat Boy would recognise them, however, and that's because this is a game whose 16-bit aesthetic, jokey unlockables and comedy cut-scenes, which dramatise Meat Boy's quest to save Bandage Girl from the evil Dr Fetus, are a cute deception. On the surface this looks like any other freewheeling, fun-loving indie platform game, but behind the scenes it's exquisitely engineered.
Everywhere you look there are calculations masquerading as quirks. Whenever Meat Boy touches a surface or meets his maker, for example, he leaves splashes of blood, and when you respawn at the start these remain in place, meaning that by the time you've had a couple of dozen attempts, which is nothing unusual, you've painted the town red. Haha! There's blood everywhere! But it's also a record of exactly where you put a foot wrong, and it influences your behaviour.
Super Meat Boy's party trick is the same. Whenever you finish a level, you're shown a replay - but not just of the successful attempt. Instead you're shown recordings of all your previous attempts overlaid on one another at once, so meat and blood splash and burn everywhere until only one boy remains. It's funny - death in Super Meat Boy can be hilarious, so imagine dozens at once - but it also spurs you on, because you can see how practice made perfect. If you've ever trained for something, imagine all that hard work made suddenly tangible, there at your side as you bask in the afterglow of success.
This is a lovely game, and a clever game, and it's also quite a big game. There are hundreds of levels, and more secrets than I will probably ever discover, and there are leaderboards and all sorts of other things to uncover and enjoy. There's even a cast of unlockable characters from other indie games, each with their own special ability. Tim from Braid, for example, can rewind a little bit of time.
Super Meat Boy is an indie game that loves being an indie game, for sure, but its retro stylings are more than just window dressing. All the warp zones, the chip-tunes and Insert Coin prompts are tributes, but they can also be worn as badges of membership. What little there is that doesn't work or falls flat, like the odd annoying boss fight, is quickly forgotten, because for the majority of the time this is a game where you can feel the spirit level resting on the supporting beams, just as you could with the old masters like Super Mario World.
To rein in the hyperbole for a second, it is not quite that inventive or inspirational, but beneath the veil of difficulty it is every bit as inviting and thrillingly engineered. Super Meat Boy starts out as just another indie game that revels in driving you crazy, but you end up crazy in love.
9 / 10