A Pleasure to Burn - SUPER MEAT BOY
Let's get something out of the way: I have never finished Super Meat Boy.
That's something I'm sure a lot of gamers are reluctant to admit, but probably have to. Consistently ranking among the hardest games of all time alongside infamous controller-hurling fodder like Contra or Ghouls n' Ghosts, Super Meat Boy is the 2010 debut game from Team Meat, the aptly-named studio created by designers Edward McMillen and Tommy Refenes. It follows in the spiritual footsteps of similar platformers of the mid-early 2000s like N or I Wanna Be the Guy. Around this time there was a sudden thirst in the gaming community for a throwback to the nostalgic difficulty levels of our collective youth. No more namby-bamby hand-holding tutorials, rechargable lifebars, or generous checkpointing. Nope, we wanted to go back to one-hit, one kill bullet hells and obstacle nightmares.
There's obviously a social aspect to enjoying insane difficulty in video games, what with the prevalence of speed running videos and expert level playthroughs on the internet. There's even a bonus level in Super Meat Boy literally titled "Bragging Rights." Does this tell the whole picture of why we enjoy these arduous video games, though? Probably not. For starters, there's the nostalgia factor I mentioned before. In the days of NES and 8-bit slogs, you didn't have access to the internet to boast about how you found a frame-perfect strategy for beating Dracula or whatever. It was an individual pursuit, even with the possibility of having a friend over for 2-player mode. So the rewards were much more on a solo level, and Super Meat Boy is definitely evocative of nostalgia. The cutscenes that tell the story of the titular Meat Boy chasing after his girlfriend, Bandage Girl, are deliberate references to classics like Megaman 2, Ninja Gaiden, and Castlevania.
But beyond nostalgia, beyond bragging rights, is there another reason we long for games to torment us to the point where, as The Guardian put it, we enter "a frenzied trance state from which it can take hours to recover?" Is it possible that, on some level or another...we LIKE being hurt by our video games? Even with the promise of a victory, is it part of the entertainment process to be completely and utterly humiliated by near-endless failure?
It might well be. Super Meat Boy definitely plays up the torment aspect, resurrecting you immediately upon death, and gleefully playing back your deaths in unison when you finally do triumph. The game even delightfully breaks the fourth wall in a hilarious sequence that takes Meat Boy quite literally to hell. At the end of the chapter of levels, you are confronted by the bodies of all your dead selves, moulded into a creature of hatred and malice.
The game also takes great joy in its squishy, squelching sound effects and visuals. Meat Boy leaves a trail of meaty blood everywhere he runs, ramming into walls and ceilings, his body slapping about like a side of beef. And when you do meet (meat?) your end at one of the vicious traps, you splatter apart into tiny chunks, leaving behind an ever-increasing layer of viscera and goop.
Much of this wanton destruction is inevitable, because of being unable to predict or understand an obstacle without dying first. I suppose it's remotely possible there are some savants out there capable of somehow foreseeing the disasters of even the latest of the levels, but to me at least, death is unavoidable at several junctures before you can succeed.
Yet despite, or perhaps even because of this, Super Meat Boy was and still is immensely popular. Such rousing success would definitely suggest there is an appetite for games to just punish the people who play them. It could be because the victory at the end is made all the sweeter by the struggle. It could also be that repeated, furious, failure is its own kind of catharsis, a harkening back to the days of screaming in our basements at the tube TV our parents hooked the Atari up to. Whatever the case, Super Meat Boy takes you to Hell, both literally and figuratively, and is immensely enjoyable. That in of itself is quite an achievement.
Now if only I can get my OWN achievements on Steam...