On the surface, SMB -- a repurposing of the initials of probably the most famous video game of all time -- is a quintessential "indie" work. Essentially the product of the Team Meat twosome of Edmund McMillen (the creator) and Tommy Refenes (the programmer), Super Meat Boy is equal parts professional perfectionism and total unprofessionalism. The game "oozes with the blood of artistic independence," as McMillen put it ... on his "Dev Blog for Gay Nerds."
What's arguably the most technically excellent 2D platformer ever designed can't be separated from its adolescent humor. Team Meat are folk heroes for the Twixter generation: enviably talented young artists, who use their powers in defiantly uncouth ways.
Meat Boy, a cartoonish square of bloody meat with arms, legs and a face, is gruesomely butchered thousands of times over the course of the game as he pursues his nemesis, a Krang-like supervillain -- only instead of a brain inside the mechanical body, it's a fetus -- who has kidnapped Meat Boy's love, Bandage Girl. The supporting cast includes Dr. Fetus' henchman, Brownie, made not of raw meat but of its digested and discarded waste matter. Uh-huh, he's "Poop Boy."
While the material teeters on the cusp of universality -- that Pixar quality of being for both kids and grownups -- Super Meat Boy is way too hipstery, and clearly too crude, to ever be an icon for the masses. Team Meat has used its game as an instrument of the indie "IT" crowd, including unlockable characters from a host of small-budget games that most of us have never played. In doing so, they've defined a sort of clique, celebrated by a subset of fans that play the die-hard groupies. But the occasional gamer isn't going to "get it" nor likely to fall so in love with SMB's classic video-gamey homages. McMillen may think of SMB as Team Meat's "1st 'main stream' game," but it's definitely not.
It's also definitely not easy. Much has been made of SMB's perilous difficulty, but it's only one facet of a game that's a genuine evolution of the platformer. The concept isn't much deeper than running and jumping to the end of each level, and it's coded into a hip, yet simplistically retro-looking gameworld, but SMB relies on modern technology to power its impeccably precise gameplay. You won't blame the game when you die -- there's no "glitching" -- whether it's for the first or fiftieth time on a level.
SMB cleverly records all those "lives" (which, thankfully, are not archaically limited) that end in death, so when you do complete a level (I hope!), you're treated to a meta-replay of all your lives at once, literally bursting with your failed attempts, as that one determined Meat Boy perseveres to the end. The more deaths, the more spectacular the ending, turning on its head our habituated impatience. The game forces us to consider that gratification might be experienced not only in the moment of reaching Bandage Girl, but in any instant along the way.
How's that for highfalutin game criticism? Let me put it this way: SMB is the game we've been training to beat our whole lives. It's our reward for decades of timing our jumps, making split-second decisions and tempering the subsequent frustration of failure in order to maintain the concentration necessary to finish what we started. (Well, the Light World, at least.)
Super Meat Boy is the gamer's game of 2010. And I have the thumb blister to prove it.
Joystiq is revealing its 10 favorite games of 2010 throughout the week! Stay tuned for more must-play picks, and take heed as each staffer stands atop a soapbox to defend those games that didn't quite make the cut. Hey, why isn't Deca Sports 3 on here?