SMB: Those three letters are enough to make a gamer recall some of the greatest and (occasionally) some of the hardest times of their lives. Everyone who’s played SMB can think back with a sense of triumph to their successes, and more specifically, to their failures. Sometimes the memories might have more to do with what went wrong, sure, but there is definitely a point at which that success, that victory, is achieved. When that happens, it all becomes worthwhile.
And so it is with SMB: Super Meat Boy.
Oh, you thought I was talking about that other one?
I kid, of course. There is no conversation I can have about Super Meat Boy that doesn’t at least mention its progenitor and (at least as far as the initials are concerned) namesake. They are of a piece, the player guiding a small and relatively fragile avatar across dangerous terrain to effect a rescue from a diabolical enemy. In that way, they are both links in the grand chain of platformers, from Donkey Kong and Pitfall! through to the current iterations of Nintendo’s various platform series and independent entries like Trine and, yes, Super Meat Boy.
It probably goes without saying (at least to the type of person liable to read pixelthèque) that platform games have changed dramatically over the years. It stands to reason, as platformers were one of the earliest genres. The transition between 2D and 3D was rough; the cameras of those early transitional games were madness-inducing. Nevertheless, the genre persevered and is still a mainstay.
Something funny happened over the last decade, though: digital distribution. First on PC, then on home consoles, developers were freed from the onus of developing a game with a perceived value of $50 or more. The video game economy, which taught consumers that cheaper games were either old or of lower quality (because they often were) and publishers that consumers didn’t want cheaper games (because they didn’t sell), was turned on its head.
Now people who made games were free to, you know, make games. As crazy as that sounds, it turned out to be a good thing. And so it went.
It shares a lot of DNA with that other SMB, but it took it to an entirely different level. I wrote before about how The Lost Levels was hard enough that it briefly gave me powers of levitation. Super Meat Boy actually gave me a far greater super power: cursing in ways heretofore unheard in my life. Because Super Meat Boy is exponentially harder than The Lost Levels.
The truth is that when I was looking back over the YouTube videos of The Lost Levels to relive those difficulties, I found myself wondering what the big deal was. Sure, there were pinpoint jumps through difficult obstacles that required a muscle-memory intimate knowledge of Mario’s particular physics, but those puzzles were, on the aggregate, not something that I would think would drive me to the edge of madness the way that they did. Only later did I realize why.
As I have previously mentioned, I have been playing video games for more or less my entire life. It’s been almost a decade since that Lost Levels sojourn. One would hope that I would have experienced some growth in that ten years. And, as evidenced by Super Meat Boy, I have.
I finished the game, because when I start a game it is usually with the intent of finishing. I unlocked all the secrets, because I have the sort of completionist personality that could probably be put to better use doing something other than spending three hours on one fiendish (optional) section of a game. And, as mentioned, I cursed up a storm.
I truly wish I had been recording myself as I played through this game. In between games, I would run a sink full of hot water and dunk my hands in order to alleviate the cramping that had occurred from curling my fingers around the controller. During, it was something else. I had video game Tourette syndrome.
Shit-teeth! Bastard fuckshitter! CHARTREUSE! Was I inventing new curses? Not exactly. I imagine all of the above have been shouted in anger at some point or other. (Except probably chartreuse. That was… a weird moment.) Still, it was unprecedented for me. I was beyond the realm of conscious thought. To beat some of the levels in that game, I quite simply had to be. So through cramped hands and an addled conscious mind, these things came out in my frustration and anger. And it was fucking hilarious.
“What did I just say?” became a common question when the laughter of whoever was serving as my audience would pierce through. And they would repeat something that was, even in the moment, completely ludicrous. And I would laugh too. And then die five or ten more times as I worked my way back into the strange equilibrium of the game.
At the end of the session, when I was again immersing my hands in the almost-scalding water to ease the literal pain of playing Super Meat Boy, I would reflect, and laugh, and shake my head sadly. Also, I would be very glad that my subconscious cursing was merely hilarious, and not truly heinous.