Sunday 26 December 2010

Super Meat Boy

It's as if Newgrounds are making new grounds in the world of gaming. This is Super Meat Boy, released a few weeks ago on Xbox Live Arcade, PC, and Mac. A frighteningly difficult platformer that's seen nothing but critical acclaim from the press. And for good reason I suppose.

Super Meat Boy is based off a flash game (this one, to be exact), much like 2004's Alien Hominid. Obviously though, by forking out cash you're provided with a much better experience from top to bottom. 350+ levels, multiple characters, secrets, HD graphics, better music, achievements etc. It's a noticeable upgrade, so don't go kidding yourselves thinking that the flash version is good enough.

Super Meat Boy has the player (Meat Boy) rescue a damsel in distress (Bandage Girl) from an evil villain (Dr. Fetus). He has to traverse through several hundred very difficult stages in an attempt to save her. Okay so it's more about the gameplay than the deep compelling storytelling, but that's a good thing. It only seems to be groups that claim to be "indie" developers that understand that it's the gameplay aspect that matters, and for the most part, seem to be the only people acknowledging the fact that 2D is sometimes better than 3D.

It's an interesting time in the world of video games. The medium of entertainment is being picked up by a mainstream audience and is out of the hands of just kids and nerds. There are numerous ways to develop a game and be recognised, and it's entirely possible to plug (and sell) your game without interference from big publishers.

I see this as a very good thing... though I'd personally drop the term "indie". You're not independent - you're still working as a team and somebody's providing you with something along the way. You're just a small group of developers. Think up a better term to describe yourselves.

The situation with big publishers is getting a little worrying. As technology progresses huge teams need to be poured in to keep themselves cutting edge, and that means less creative control and more of a risk. The prime example I'm thinking of is Call of Duty. Once upon a time the brand was associated with World War II FPS games. Now they plaster the name on the box to sell... well... modern warfare. There's no huge crime in this, but it is a little unimaginative and crushes competition on the basis that "they're not Call of Duty".

I miss the days when publishers wouldn't be too afraid to throw out loads of crap. When things were guaranteed to turn a profit regardless of how they did. They'd just turn more of a profit if they did well. The distinct lack of experimentation in the industry has led to a lot of people losing interest this generation. EA would never publish Super Meat Boy if it were pitched to them. Neither would Activision. They'd probably just want to hire the programmers and get them working on their next big budget shooter.

Again there's no real harm in this. It's perfectly good business sense but what I don't understand is why games have to be so... predictable. You don't get big book or film publishers competing in this way. Yes  you get the odd rip-off, but there's not supposed to be any money in flushing out the same thing time and time again. We're still quite happy to throw all this money into sports games that have a shelf life of less than a year. How is this acceptable?

Anyway the point is, Super Meat Boy, despite it's "simplicity" ends up being a far superior product than a lot of the high price garbage we're forced to like. Of course personally I think 1200 Microsoft points is a little dear (it's actually 800 in this sales period before 2011 if you're interested), but it still works out as a better deal than some of the stuff we get on disc. It's long, challenging and fun. What's not to like?

It has also been developed by gamers, which is interesting. See, this is the first generation where gamers have been old and wise enough to develop games. These people grew up in the 80s with Nintendo (hence all the NES references). They know what simple and effective games are first hand, while those in the industry before this period don't have much to throw back to. It's a different way of thinking, and I like it, even if I do grow tired of NES-style triangle waves.

And it's a good idea not to rely solely on graphics. As I've said in the past somewhere, companies will have a very hard task trying to market a successor to the Xbox 360 or PS3. The upgrades aren't yet noticeable for the general public... despite there being six years' worth of them. The Wii of course needs an upgrade, but it'll be somewhat interesting to see what happens in the next generation of games because generally, the other two don't really need it. Even if you couldn't get all the data on a disc chances are the rest would be downloaded from somewhere.

Super Meat Boy doesn't really need any more processing power than what was supplied to it. The only way to truly enhance it is to add more gameplay options and levels, and this won't be a demanding thing for the system. It's usually the graphics that take up the bulk of the work (and disc space), and though you can get more "H" than "HD", you can't get it for an affordable price and at the end of the day, TV hasn't really caught up with the HD craze yet. You could apply 3D but Super Meat Boy works better in two dimensions. Sound wise we reached the limit in the mid 1990s with CD audio. Can't really progress much further there.

Super Meat Boy is a very simple platformer on paper. You can jump and run, and there's a wall-jump move. It's basically a case of avoiding anything sharp or salty and getting to the end in a reasonably fast time. Oh and there's physics involved... sort of.

To be fair, this is nothing new. The flash game "N" did this a long time ago, albeit with less pretty graphics and more physicy physics. The Ninja from N actually appears as a playable character in Super Meat Boy too (as do many other characters from other games). Yet despite what you may think of it, N did occupy a lot of my time during high school. It was, and is, a good game. Physics are fun. Super Meat Boy proves this again.

Though I must admit I'm not overly sure why you would buy N+, the upgrade to N which conveniently is also available on the Xbox 360. Yes again it's a noticable upgrade, but whereas the flash version of Meat Boy as noticeably flawed in places, N seemed pretty much perfect to me as it was. I don't know if it's worth forking out cash for level packs when there are editors floating about. But I haven't done much research into this subject. The other thing about Flash games is that they're usually vector based, so if you wanted high definition N... you'd just... resize the window.

I can't say I'd give Super Meat Boy the 90 and 100 percent scores that it's been rolling around in at the moment though. It's very good, but there are a few little things that have been overlooked for one reason or another and that shifts it into the late 80s for me, personally.

Standard definition 4:3 screens for example. Yes we're phasing them out but they're still very much alive and well, and lest we forget not all Xbox 360s shipped with HDMI-outs. Running in "SD" can cause some probems, namely levels and obstacles being harder to see and things generally being a bit too dark. I can't say it really hindered gameplay all that much, but last time I checked my vision was deemed perfect. Not the case for everyone.

That being said, it does look quite excellent in HD. It has its own distinctive graphical style that sets it apart from the competition... unless that competition also came from Newgrounds (Alien Hominid, Castle Crashers, etc.). I suspect things could have been improved slightly though - "in game" Meat Boy does look a bit odd when compared to his cutscene counterpart.

There are bosses in the game, but... well... they're not really bosses. Some are basically just levels with a time limit, i.e. get from x to y before z catches up and kills you. Others, like the fourth boss, are literally a guessing game. There's actually quite a few sections of the game where it is literally a case of trial an error rather than a demonstration of skill, and that isn't good. You don't really "battle" anyone in Super Meat Boy which is a shame. It's all about running away from your problems.

The trial and error stuff especially starts to shine through with the "last" world. There are six levels in the world, some of which are very long. Now... previous stages have more than six levels, so why not split the big levels into smaller ones? If you've mastered the first half of the level and not the second, you end up replaying the first half over and over, which is just tedious and time consuming if you've already mastered it. The challenge should not be having the patience to put up with repetition.

There are "warp zones", which are retro-themed secret levels and are great... except they employ a lives system. Fair enough if you've got three lives to complete three stages, but there's at few circumstances where there is only ONE stage per warp zone, so three deaths include having to load up extra screens and waste time. Loading times aren't instant, and though they're fairly short, the levels are difficult and we could do without having to load all the time. Remember kids, true retro games were distributed on cartridges, which don't have long loading times!

The music in this game is excellent. Proof. It's very difficult to fault but it can get a bit repetitive on the very hard stages, of which there are many. And I must stress that this game isn't a walk in the park by any means. Some of the levels that aren't part of the "main" game are insane. Fear that pink background.

Overall this is certainly a package worth your time and money. But then again, so is the Flash game (ever noticed how nobody reviews the smaller platforms?). There's even a version by PETA which claims vegans are better in bed... and a response in the PC version of Super Meat Boy which proves that vegans are crap at jumping and moving, so bed's probably the best place for them.

Oh and don't go expecting this to show up on WiiWare. It was cancelled recently due to the 40MB cap. Nintendo living in the past and publishers backing away from profitless Wii disc-based games has basically screwed over hundreds and thousands of people in the Nintendo camp on this one. What can I say? Some of us still have a 1990s way of thinking.

1 comment:

  1. My one gripe with the game is that it runs like absolute turd on my laptop. The framerate was very poor and Meat Boy would rarely jump when I wanted him to. I had to resize the window and force the lowest graphical settings in order to get it to run smooth. At least now I'm not watching Meat Boy slide down a wall to his impending doom at 5 fps while I'm hammering A like a great big gimboid trying to get him to leap off it.

    It annoys me because my laptop really isn't that bad. It runs most modern releases fine. Not only that, but Plants vs Zombies, which must have about three or four times the number of sprites than SMB runs perfectly, and World of Goo, whuch must have five or six times as much physics going on than SMB also runs perfectly, and afaik these are Flash games too.

    But yeah, fun game.