It sure has been a while since that big indie boom from two console generations ago. Since Indie Game: The Movie put the hardships and drama of designing games like Super Meat Boy in front of a broader Netflix audience. In fact, it’s been ten years since the release of Super Meat Boy and twelve since the release of its flash-based predecessor, Meat Boy. That’s a lot of time for things to change. Edmund McMillen, one of two original founders of Team Meat, walked away from the Super Meat Boy sequel to work on a new project called The Binding of Isaac. At the time of his departure, the public wasn’t privy to a whole lot of information in terms of the sequel, but there was an expectation that it was going to be mobile-only title. Finally, after all that time and a presumably large amount of stress, Super Meat Boy Forever is out on consoles.
Waits like this don’t always pay off, and sometimes it seems like audiences and their expectations move on. Even riskier than a long development would be a decision to overhaul the gameplay or, dare I say it, even switch genres. Which is exactly what has happened. Super Meat Boy Forever is miles apart from Super Meat Boy in terms of gameplay. That said, the charm that captivated gamers ten years ago is still present. It might even be more potent this time around.
As much as I loved the original, which was a punishing throwback to the platformers of yesteryear, I have to admit that this game holds more appeal to me. This is in spite of the fact that it’s an auto-runner, which is a genre I typically greet with complete disinterest or, in some cases, profound disdain. In this case, I didn’t feel even a hint of revulsion. In fact, auto-running pairs surprisingly well with some of the design philosophies that allowed Super Meat Boy to get its hooks into me in the first place.
It is worth noting that this game isn’t nearly as difficult as the original, but the fundamental need to be on the move a sizable chunk of the time creates conflict through urgency and beauty through grace and fluidity. This is a more positive way of saying the game is on rails, but solving the moving, saw-filled scenarios and then navigating them with the requisite precision can inspire an earnest sense of pride and satisfaction. I’ll say here, for context, that I am a game of middling skill and even I didn’t feel any creeping frustration while playing Super Meat Boy Forever, even when I died sixty-seven times to a single obstacle in a stage that otherwise only managed to kill me twice.
What I encountered was far more rare than the chagrin that arises when I play (and mostly enjoy) roguelikes, Soulsbornes, insidious Mario Maker levels, and other such things designed to get one’s goat. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t know whether or not I was good at a game. It’s very possible that I am terrible at Super Meat Boy Forever, but I can’t know for sure because the game’s difficulty is in harmony with the emotional highs it creates — the moments of accomplishment where I felt like I overcame something by the magical power of learning. Put another way, I said a few swear words during my time with the game, but I also said “boo-ya” and “heck yeah, who’s the man?” This is decidedly off brand for me. I basically never feel as though the answer to the question “who is the man?” is “Benjamin Maltbie,” but there I was thinking precisely that. While that level of bravado isn’t something I am going to carry forward into my day-to-day life, I am glad Super Meat Boy Forever was able to teach me that there’s an obnoxious frat boy buried deep within my skull.
While Super Meat Boy Forever isn’t explicitly geared toward teaching life lessons or encouraging introspection, it does excel at teaching its players how to succeed in its stages, which are procedurally generated from an enormous array of specifically-designed modular obstacles and puzzles. And there’s always a lot to learn. New types of obstacles and enemies appear as players progress through the game’s stages. The variety these provide, especially as they come together into more complicated arrangements, keeps the game engaging. The fact that the themed stages are also diverse is the cherry on top of the multifarious sundae. Sticking with the metaphor, the cherry should be noted for its beauty. Abandoning the metaphor, the game has good art.
The art direction is most apparent in Super Meat Boy Forever’s cutscenes, which could fit in a programming block on daytime Cartoon Network if it weren’t for the game’s characteristic dark humor and the presence of characters like “Dr. Fetus.” Oh, and there’s the violence and general grossness. Also, it can be a blast to interpret the homage-soaked voiceless narrative. If you can get past all the meat drippings, I mean.
The art, characterization, and gameplay come together best in the game’s boss fights. Some of these are pretty straightforward, while others will cause your heart rate to skyrocket (according to my Fitbit). I do wish that there was a bit more substance to these fights, though. They do gradually increase in difficulty as the fight goes on but they don’t really change in any significant way. I can understand how something like “phase changes” could lead to player frustration in scenarios where they get stuck on one phase after clearing a couple other chambers, but the current way bosses are presented means that you only need to work on timing once you figure out their gimmick. And it doesn’t take long to figure out their gimmick.
There’s also not much meat on the bones in terms of replayability. There are characters to unlock, sure, but even with procedurally-generated stages, the variety that made the game so flavorful the first time through begins to get a little stale. But I do have the feeling that the game will be a good one to revisit every so often, when its finer elements have slipped from your brain. You’ll likely still have muscle mastery over the games simple but effective two-button controls, though.
I partially suspect the game might alienate diehard fans of the original. The good news is that the original still exists and is very accessible to anybody who prefers to play it. Like Super Meat Boy, this title is bold and experimental and while Super Meat Boy Forever’s genre does differ, the game manages to hold onto most of what made the last game so compelling to begin with. This isn’t really a surprise, though. Team Meat’s members, both former and current, have demonstrated an aptitude for recognizing and preserving what makes a game (or style of game) worthwhile. It’s probably not hard to trace some of Super Meat Boy Forever’s design to different sources of inspiration, but it would be challenging to argue that the game doesn’t stand out as its own unique and imaginative entry into both the franchise and the genre. Thrilling, strange and finally playable, Super Meat Boy Forever reaffirms Team Meat’s strength in craft. I can’t wait to see how the franchise grows over the next ten years.
Super Meat Boy Forever is available now for the Nintendo Switch and the PC via the Epic Games Store. Versions for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are expected to release in 2021.