Super Meat Boy: Beyond Death

I recently saw a couple of writeups from different sources about a Flash-based game called Hollow, a short, difficult platformer that really made me think that its author admires Edmud McMillen: the player character reminded me a lot of the bobble-headed monsters from Gish, and the whole style of extremely difficult platforming with minimal downtime on death owes a lot to Super Meat Boy. And, once Super Meat Boy was in my mind, I had the urge to give it another whirl.

I said before that world 4, the “Hell” world, seemed to be beyond my abilities, but now, I’ve not only got through it, I’ve passed the world after it as well. Perhaps Hollow helped to get me into the right mindset. The thing about these levels is that, however impossible they look at first, they do yield to persistence and practice. After trying and failing enough, the trickiest jump sequence becomes temporarily easy, the necessary moves burned into short-term muscle memory. The one real challenge, then, is convincing yourself to spend enough time replaying a given level to beat it — and it’s much easier for me to do this in a shorter game.

It seems like the boss levels are getting easier at this point. The first three worlds all had some kind of time pressure in their boss fights — in particular, world 3 ended in a race against time instead of a conventional boss. But there doesn’t seem to be any time factor at all in world 5, and in Hell, time is actually on your side: the boss fight is a survival challenge, where all you have to do is stay alive long enough for the massive but idiotic opponent to brain himself via repeated failed attempts at head-butting.

The boss fight in Hell is worth special note because it’s one of the few places where a platformer acknowledges the hideousness consequent on taking the action literally. The boss, apparently named “Little Horn”, is a colossal Meat Boy formed from hundreds of Meat Boy’s former lives. In the cutscene that introduces the fight, we see dead Meat Boys raining down into Hell, visibly disturbing the living Meat Boy as he grasps what they are and just as quickly suppresses this knowledge. Now, usually in platformers there’s an unspoken assumption that, when you die, everything since the last checkpoint unhappens. But this isn’t the first suggestion that this isn’t the case here. Meat Boy leaves read stains on everything he touches, and those remain in place from life to life. (Sometimes I even use the stains as guides to help me repeat actions precisely.) When there’s an explosive hazard, sometimes one life’s spatter of blood is still airborne when the next life starts. But such things fade from the attention, until the game feeds us a cutscene that reminds us of them.

Thinking about it mythically, journeys through Hell are all about conquering death. Thus, it’s fitting for Meat Boy to encounter and defeat here a creature literally formed from his own numerous deaths. The symbolism gets a little weird when you consider that meat is, by definition, something that’s already dead, but this can be taken as showing how complete his mastery of his own mortality is — an interpretation made stronger by the self-destructive behavior the game provokes, accidentally leaping headlong into circular saws and not caring much. Meanwhile, the chief antagonist is Dr. Fetus, someone who hasn’t even been born yet. So far from mastering death, he hasn’t even gotten started at mastering life. No wonder he resents Meat Boy so much.

If I read the art correctly, dead Meat Boys continue to be a menace in the next world, where zombie versions of yourself pursue you. World 5 is actually unusually dense with active enemies of various kinds (counting guided missiles), considering that the world is titled “Rapture” and it’s set in the aftermath of a nuclear detonation. All this seems to go away in world 6, “The End”, which goes back to basics: just player versus environment, with circular saws on tracks or swing-arms as the only moving elements other than the player character. The End has only five levels before the boss fight, but they’re so preposterously difficult that I haven’t got through them yet. Furthermore, it should be noted that The End is actually the second-to-last level, and also that there’s a whole mechanic concerning “light” and “dark” versions of every level, where the light version is what you get by default, and the dark version has to be unlocked by beating a certain time to get an “A+” rating on the light version. (There are no other ratings. You get an A+ or nothing.) Steam has two separate Achievements: “The End”, for beating the light world, and “The Real End” for beating the dark world. I think I’ll probably only be going for the fake end, but we’ll see how I feel after I’ve reached it.

2 Comments so far

  1. Jason Dyer on 15 Sep 2011

    Grr. Hated the boss in Hell. Just raw memorization. It was like playing through Dragon’s Lair or something.

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 16 Sep 2011

    I didn’t find it so bad. If nothing else, it’s over with quickly. And memorization gameplay is all over the place in this game, especially in the bosses. It’s just more obvious here.

    In a way, you could even regard it as thematic. This is gameplay where you more or less have to learn each move (that is, each stage of the Little Horn’s attack and how to counter it) by dying. Just as your enemy is built from your deaths, so is the means by which you defeat him.

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