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.