Super Meat Boy

Maybe my perspective on things is skewed — I don’t pay much attention to the mainstream gaming press, and the blogs I read tend to focus on indie stuff. But then, indie stuff is big enough these days to get official recognition on consoles. Regardless, it really seems to me that this year, the year that gave us the long-awaited Starcraft sequel and the most significant World of Warcraft expansion yet, the title that’s generated biggest buzz has been Super Meat Boy. (Or possibly Minecraft, but that’ll have to wait for another post.) It’s being called the apotheosis of the 2D platformer, the ultimate expression of the form. And it encourages this sort of thinking by being kind of a living summary of what’s been done before, full of references to other games.

The most obvious references are the unlockable characters, mostly from other indie platformers — Braid, VVVVVV, and Mighty Jill Off, to name just a few — most of which I’m familiar with, some of which I’m not. Like the Smash Bros. and Kingdom Hearts series, it suggests that all these games are part of the same family, a sort of indie platformer club. Also, the characters carry with them an approximation of the mechanics from their source games, which effectively makes them demos for any of the games that you haven’t played. I have to wonder how much SMB has affected sales of these other games, and how much this was a factor in the decision of their creators to allow their inclusion. (It doesn’t have to be a factor at all — game developers are quite capable of making agreements like this just on the basis that they think it would be cool.) But viewed from the other side, it’s effectively making a statement that SMB is a generalization of the platformer, broad enough to include all these other games within it.

Some of the unlockable characters are accessed by collecting bandages (collectibles in hard-to-reach places), others are located in special “warp zones” that make you play through a few levels in the style of their games of origin. There are also “retro” warp zones that use the normal Meat Boy mechanics, but in the graphical style of, say, a NES or a Gameboy (or even a glitched-out version of same) — another kind of reference to things that have come before, this time appealing directly to the nostalgia factor. Note that any reference to a modern platformer can also be an indirect nostalgia appeal, because the nostalgia factor is pretty big in 2D platformers to begin with. The three examples I gave above of games that provide SMB with guest stars are heavily based on specific older games — Braid on Super Mario Brothers, VVVVVV on Jet Set Willy 1Actually, Terry Cavanaugh says he never played Jet Set Willy and that VVVVVV was really inspired by the games that imitated it, making this even more indirect., Mighty Jill Off on Mighty Bomb Jack. I didn’t pick those three games with this in mind. It’s just that the 2D platformer genre has become so intra-referential in modern times that it’s hard to avoid. SMB embraces this tendency a little more thoroughly and inclusively than most, to the point that it becomes recursive: its referencing of other games is itself a reference to those games referencing other games.

Then there are subtler shout-outs. I’ve been through one level that’s a blatant imitation of Canabalt, but it’s only blatant if you’re familiar with Canabalt. This makes me wonder what else there is that I’ve been missing. I’ve found an article explaining how the world intro cutscenes are all shot-by-shot imitations of intros from various classic games, but it’s the sort of thing where there could easily be references that no one has even noticed yet.

1 Actually, Terry Cavanaugh says he never played Jet Set Willy and that VVVVVV was really inspired by the games that imitated it, making this even more indirect.

2 Comments so far

  1. Jason Dyer on 23 Dec 2010

    You forgot to close an italics tag again.

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 23 Dec 2010


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