Super Meat Boy review: Into the grinder

There was a time when I thought I was pretty good at video games. I've brought down the likes of Earthworm Jim, Rocket Knight Adventures, Ninja Gaiden (2004), Mega Man 9 and many others without much trouble and only the occasional spurt of profanity. Having completed the story (but not nearly all of the levels) of Super Meat Boy, I can soundly declare that it trumps them all. As of this writing, I have died 1,792 times and several hundred of those lives -- at least -- were spent trying to conquer the last level.

Super Meat Boy is tough, as tough as the toughest nails in the toughest universe. I've been maimed, beaten, crushed, devoured, stabbed, sliced and otherwise disfigured over, and over, and over again. I can only thank my lucky stars that my wife wasn't around to witness the frequency, volume and general ferocity of the swears that shook the living room walls. So, yes, it's hard.

It's also one of the best games I've played this year.

It's as basic as it gets: Meat Boy must traverse perilous traps and deadly landscapes in order to save Bandage Girl from the evil Dr. Fetus (who is actually a fetus inside a mechanical suit, complete with top hat and monocle). He can run, jump and cling to walls. Using these abilities, you'll help him leap over pits, avoid spinning saw blades and climb his way past any number of other obstacles. No power-ups, no health meter. If he touches a hazard or an enemy, he dies. That's it.

It's an incredibly simple formula, but coupled with rock-solid controls, the mechanics have been boiled down to near perfection. Things start out easily enough, with only a handful of obstacles between Meat Boy and Bandage Girl (who must be rescued in each level) but before long the action gets downright brutal, requiring excellent timing, perfect wall-jumps and a lot of patience.

Super Meat Boy provides plenty of incentives to keep playing beyond the simple joys of precision platforming. Rescuing Bandage Girl within par time unlocks a level's "Dark World" version, which offers a greater challenge. The cutscenes are charming, referencing everything from Street Fighter to Adventures of Lolo to Fight Club. Collectible bandages are hidden throughout the adventure, as are plenty of retro warp zones, both of which can unlock new characters. These guest stars are cleverly pulled from other independent games -- including the Bit.Trip series, Braid, Alien Hominid and others -- and they all have different special abilities. CommanderVideo, for example, can float in the air for an extra second or two, mercifully making certain sections a little easier.

This is a replay video of the Dark World version of level 1-17. Notice that the game records ghost images of my many failed attempts.

Make no mistake though, there are no free rides in Super Meat Boy, even using special characters. In fact, just acquiring said characters is a challenge. After dying many, many times in one such attempt, I've resigned myself to the fact that I may never, ever acquire the Kid from I Wanna Be the Guy. I just don't think I have it in me. There was even a point when I was fairly certain that I wouldn't be able to beat the final chapter and thus have this review branded with a shameful "This game was played for X hours, but not to completion." But, I persevered, improved and eventually saved Bandage Girl from a cruel fate (several seconds over par time).

Super Meat Boy comes down to personal skill, which might be the only reason I didn't fling the controller through the window. In other words, if you fail, it's your fault. If the levels weren't well-designed, or if the controls were off even by the slightest bit, Super Meat Boy would be an entirely different experience. As it stands, it's one of the best platformers I've ever played.

I don't know if I'll ever best all the Dark World trials -- if I'm capable of it, to be more precise -- but I'm sure as hell going to try.

This review is based on review code of Super Meat Boy provided by Microsoft. Super Meat Boy will be available for $15 on XBLA starting October 20.