Nearly six years ago, Super Meat Boy co-creator Tommy Refenes prototyped a mobile version of the game on his laptop, working in a hotel room just before GDC. It was rough and early, but as he worked the game grew from the idea of a straight port to one designed - maybe even improved - from the original.
It was the genesis of Super Meat Boy Forever, the upcoming sequel set to hit smartphones, PC and consoles at some point in 2018. Forever is built around the idea of an auto-runner with minimal controls, but comes with a cool system of changing levels each time you play. It is also, of course, rock hard. Eurogamer played it at PAX this year and came away impressed.
But why has it taken so long? Refenes' mobile Meat Boy prototype was shown but never released. After announcing it was in development, the gestalt entity of Team Meat later said it had switched focus. Team Meat, made up of Refenes and fellow Meat Boy co-creator Edmund McMillen, decided oddball cat simulator Mew-Genics would be its next project. Over the next year, they released an early trailer and gameplay snippet, before Mew-Genics too was shelved.
The duo had ridden a wave of post-Super Meat Boy popularity and regularly courted headlines for talking straight and putting the games industry to rights. Team Meat also featured prominently in Indie Game: The Movie. But as McMillen worked separately, releasing The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and Afterbirth (and Afterbirth +), the status of Refenes and McMillen as Team Meat became increasingly unclear.
This weekend, I caught up with Refenes at EGX 2017 and played Super Meat Boy Forever for myself on Switch. I wanted to find out what had held it up - why fans had been waiting so long for another Meat Boy - but also what the current version of Team Meat looked like, now Refenes and McMillen had seemingly gone their separate ways.
It's taken a while for Meat Boy to come back, and yet you've long had plans for a mobile version. What's taken so long?
Tommy Refenes: Right, it was at a time where anyone would buy anyone would buy anything on the App Store. I remember an experiment where I made a game - Zits & Giggles, it was gross - which started off at a dollar. Every time someone would buy it I increased the price. And it got up to $399 and three or four people bought it at that price... [Refenes used the game as an example of how the App Store was broken, and used his GDC talk to berate Apple's attitude to games on it. Apple swiftly pulled the game shortly after.]
But when Super Meat Boy came out in 2010 everyone asked when there would be an iPhone version - I took it to heart... I just thought... 'you don't know what you want'. I had an epiphany - you don't want this game, but you want a game which feels like Meat Boy on your iPhone. [Laughs] It finally got through my thick skull. So in my hotel room at GDC 2011 I prototyped a one-button Meat Boy. He just ran and then you could jump off walls and change direction but the only button was the space bar. I thought that, maybe, this could work.
Fast forward to 2014 - because life stuff got in the way, we started working on Mew-Genics and that went away - and in 2014 we showed it at PAX. And then more life stuff gets in the way. So in 2017 I got to start on it again, and the game was still fun. I was super worried because Mario Run came out - and people liked it, and y'know why would they play Meat Boy when they have Mario? But I just thought 'go for it'.
The original scope of the game was just a few chapters, levels - just to get it out there for the fans. When I came back to it I realised it was fun on tablets, fun on controllers too - and I thought I'd just swing for the fences on what a sequel could look like. It was ambitious - we're taking something known and doing a sequel which isn't what you'd expect. You'd expect a sequel to be a coat of paint and 600 new levels - like Mega Man 2, 3, 4... - but that's not interesting to me. I wanted to do something more.
So, are you Team Meat now? Is Team Meat one person?
Tommy Refenes: I am, but no - we're actually five now. Kyle Pulver does level design, we have an artist named Lala who is incredible, Temmie Chang who is famous for Undertale and is doing our cut-scenes and character animation and then Ivan who's a really good animator I found on Newgrounds.
It's a really good team and we're just able to bang shit out really fast. The Switch build you played didn't exist at the end of July. Getting it ready for PAX... it was an interesting month. I was staying up late nights, early mornings just making builds, getting stuff to Nintendo. And it feels like I'm alive. It's a sense of purpose thing you kind of miss when you're just stagnant doing nothing or waiting for other things.
It's been such a large part of your life for such a long time. I remember seeing Meat Boy on WiiWare when I was reporting for a little Nintendo site, and we talked back in... 2009? And then that version of the game never came out.
Tommy Refenes: When we met - when you saw Meat Boy on WiiWare, I was 28. I'm now 36. And then you think about everything which has happened since then.
The stuff with Edmund McMillen, I know people are curious...
Tommy Refenes: And it's something I can't really dive into.
...but to be clear, Team Meat is now yourself, and your colleagues who you just mentioned?
Tommy Refenes: Yes.
We shouldn't expect Ed to rejoin after Super Meat Boy Forever?
Tommy Refenes: No... no, I wouldn't hold your breath.
How do you feel about that? Meat Boy is such a huge part of life, and yet your co-creator is no longer in it.
Tommy Refenes: Right.
And, presumably, he's no longer part of your company.
Tommy Refenes: Yeah. [Pauses] It's interesting - without divulging too much, but for a long time it didn't feel great being Team Meat. I was thinking... 'I'm just going to leave this'.
It's one of those things. It was a giant part of my life but people grow, people change, your views on things change. And unfortunately sometimes people just grow in different directions. It's a natural thing. It's something you could sit and be angry about but it doesn't get you anywhere.
Last year my parents years got divorced after 39 years of marriage. I don't think either one of them is happy they are divorced but I know that they are happy that they can continue their life and build the rest of their lives in a way that makes them the happiest. That was important to them moving forward and they are both doing better than they have in years.
The way I feel is similar in that I'm happy as hell to be working on Super Meat Boy Forever and as far as work happiness goes, I'm right back where I was during the non-stressful parts of Super Meat Boy development back in 2009-2010. I'm not happy about the loss of a partner, I'm happy that everything feels fresh new and important again. I love seeing people react to things I've created and I haven't felt that in a long time.
I don't regret anything - even the things I think I would change, I don't regret, because I'm way happier. I can't speak for anyone else, but I know I am.
Honestly, it's just people grow in different directions. I think stuff's going pretty well for both of us - and ultimately that's good for everybody. More games are good.