Super Meat Boy: Hell

I spent a bit more time on Super Meat Boy last night, beating one more boss (or, well, world-end-level; it was more of a race against time, without any real boss monster to beat) and then going to Hell. “Hell” is that game’s name for its traditional lava-and-fireballs world. I suppose there’s an ice level next? A big part of this game’s schtick is riffing on 2D platformer clichés. The first world is an idyllic forest, just like the first world in every Sonic the Hedgehog game, except there are enormous circular saws mounted all over the place for no apparent practical purpose, and I don’t think Dr. Robotnik ever went as far as to just burn the whole forest down — something played for laughs here. Sonic was marketed as the bad-boy counterpart to Mario, but Meat Boy, with his irrepressable grotesque-cuteness, his glee in the face of repeated gory death, and his utter disregard for censors or parents, has him beat hands-down in the bad-boy department without even making a big deal of it. And Hell is part of this: lots of games have lava worlds, but only a few are so forthright about what we’re all thinking. (Fun fact: the Japanese version of Um Jammer Lammy has Lammy die, go to Hell, and escape. The North American version timidly replaced this whole scenario with a tropical island, robbing Lammy of her heroic journey’s most directly mythic component.)

Fittingly, Hell seems to be the place where the difficulty ratchets up to just beyond my abilities. I may well change my mind about this — a good platformer makes things seem like they’re beyond your abilities but then trains you up to the point where they’re not. I remember Crash Bandicoot as being particularly good about putting collectibles in seemingly-impossible places that I skipped over on the first pass but came back for later with greater confidence. The “Veni Vidi Vici” sequence in VVVVVV looked daunting at first, but yielded to persistent practice. Still, those are both matters of hunting for optional collectibles. Here in SMB it’s the main path through the game, and I’m not even on the last world yet. I’m winding up doing the opposite of what I did in Crash and VVVVVV: going back to find collectibles and bonus areas because it’s the easier alternative.

Well, I knew what I was getting into when I started playing. This game has a reputation for extreme difficulty. I’ve seen this school of game design described as “masocore”, although there are differing definitions of that — the author of Super Jill Off contends that a true masocore game has to subvert genre expectations. I suppose SMB does that to some extent, though. Just the sheer abnormal distance that you can leap is something of a subversion, in that it allows the designers to create levels where the best and safest route through a series of obstacles is to just clear them all in one go.

Rocko’s Quest: Failure

Well, I’ve reached the point where the game was crashing to the desktop before, a long cavern with Rocko’s nameless belle in a cage dangling from the ceiling, and it’s still crashing. Looks like this one is staying on the Stack. Am I the only one to experience this problem? Has anyone else ever actually tried to finish this game? I see no evidence of it on the Web. Pretty much all other mentions of the game are just download links of various sorts and reviews that can be summarized as “Mediocre, avoid”.

So, let’s try to analyze that a little more. Why is it mediocre? Compare it to other 3D platformers: in sophistication of gameplay mechanics, this game lies somewhere between the original Crash Bandicoot and the the original Sly Cooper, probably closer to the former than the latter. I pick those two games as examples because they’re also pretty successful as comedies, which is one area where Rocko really falls down. And this isn’t just about the lack of jokes: there really aren’t a lot of explicit jokes in Crash Bandicoot either.

Partly it’s the character. Crash and Sly are both little guys deliberately taking on things that are plainly more powerful than themselves. That’s a premise with pathos: when the little guy wins, it’s a triumph for all mankind, and when he loses — and, let’s face it, you typically die a lot more often than you succeed in a game — it helps you to sympathize with his plight. More to the point, there’s always something a little ridiculous about a lone hero challenging an army, even when it’s played straight. Making the hero a little pathetic just makes the ridiculousness obvious. When I played Crash Bandicoot, I got the impression from Crash’s expressions and body language that he basically knew how outmatched he was, how often he was dying and how annoying it was — but, of course, that this wasn’t going to stop him from persevering. That’s a comic character. Rocko, on the other hand, is a bruiser. There’s no pathos in a bruiser triumphing over another bruiser. He sometimes fights things that are bigger than himself, but that’s just a way to show off how manly he is. When he fails, we’re not sympathetic, we’re just disappointed in him.

Partly it’s the pacing. Actions in Rocko’s Quest are slowish — I’ve already noted that there’s enough of a delay on swinging weapons to necessitate the Underworld Shuffle — and if there’s one thing slapstick can’t survive, it’s being slow. It also strikes me that enemies simply have too many hit points for good slapstick. In the other games I’ve mentioned, anything other than a boss monster that you manage to attack successfully just falls down instantly. That’s the kind of reactivity slapstick wants: one action, one response. In Rocko’s Quest, until the last two levels, even the most powerful weapon available takes three hits to take down the smallest, weakest foe, and more typical monsters have to be hit over and over again. If the humor is in the game’s reaction to your actions, the orcish grunt and flinch, it’s a joke repeated far too frequently to stay funny.

One other thing that contributes to humor in these games: the little stories. I don’t mean explicit narration, I’m talking about gameplay that’s structured to convey a series of ideas. To take an example from Sly Cooper: At one point, early in the game, Sly works his way through a series of booby-trapped hallways. One has laser beams sliding around in various patterns, getting more numerous complex as you go along, and the player struggles with that until figuring out where to jump and avoid them. Another has electrified floor plates that blink on and off in regular patterns, and the player has to learn to jump in anticipation of the changes. Then you get to a place that has both lasers and electric floors, and it looks absolutely impossible, because you remember how hard it was to get through each of those things by itself. In fact, it’s a lot easier than it looks, because it’s just an application of the skills that you acquired by struggling through the earlier sections. It’s like a set-up and punch line: the tension produced by the “You gotta be kidding me” moment is relieved when the player takes the plunge and sees how unexpectedly easy it is. (The unlockable level commentary reveals that what I have described was in fact intended by the designers.)

Rocko’s Quest basically lacks moments like that. For the most part, the only surprises are of the form “Whoops, there’s a pit you didn’t see,” which hardly relieves any tension. There’s only one moment in the game I can think of that really seems joke-like in a narrative way, and that’s a bit near the end involving a broken bridge across a chasm. An imposing castle lies just beyond the bridge, clearly your destination, but the gap is just a little too wide to jump across, and the player is likely to lose quite a few lives trying. To make progress, you have to stop trying to reach the castle and instead go off to the side and look down into the chasm, where you can see the first of a series of rising-and-falling platforms leading down to the chasm floor. So, there you have tension and resolution in the form of a problem and its solution. And it does feel like a joke, but it’s a joke at the player’s expense.