Failure is an unavoidable fact of life. Its devilish claws knock you down when you least expect it, but it's how you react to disappointment that's important. Super Meat Boy is the digital embodiment of the idea that pleasure can spring from pain, but although death is pervasive in this 2D platformer, it does not define the experience. There is an incredible sense of satisfaction when you clear a particularly nasty level that makes the setbacks you endured to reach that lofty goal well worth it. It's the feeling you get when you miraculously squeeze through two slicing blades unscathed or leap in the air to snatch a dangling bandage that seemed impossible to reach only moments earlier that continually pushes you forward to tackle the next challenge. Super Meat Boy is an extraordinary game that makes you work for every inch you gain, which makes success taste so much sweeter when you finally get there.
Everything in Super Meat Boy begins with the controls. Within seconds of diving into the first few levels of this daunting adventure, it's clear that your onscreen movement is amazingly responsive. The titular hero jumps with such precision that you're always in complete command of your actions. Wall jumping is particularly impressive. The extreme nimbleness of your character makes it a cinch to quickly leap straight up one wall, bounce smoothly between two adjacent ones, and even contort your trajectory in midair to avoid an obstacle while you make your ascent. Super Meat Boy can sprint with the best of them, and though it might seem crazy to hurl yourself at breakneck speeds through these deadly traps, it's not a problem here. Because he responds to your every command immediately, you can tear through levels as fast as Meat can run without worrying about the controls slowing you down. Just be warned: Using the keyboard will throw a hurdle in your path to victory. A controller is the preferred option here because the keyboard does not offer the exactness needed to overcome these daunting obstacles.
And you need ultraprecise controls to get through the deadly dangers that await you. Super Meat Boy is one of the most difficult games around, but it starts out innocently enough. You learn your basic moves in punishment-free levels to get accustomed to how your movement feels before the real trouble begins. The difficulty curve is incredibly smooth, giving you a taste of upcoming dangers early on but making sure you can pass these stages without much trouble. The execution is brilliant because it introduces you to everything you need to know while giving you the confidence to overcome any obstacle that stands in your path. If Super Meat Boy started out harder, or if the difficulty spiked rapidly, it would serve as a slap in the face to all but the most determined players. But because the game holds your hand early on, you build up the skills you need to tackle anything the tricky later levels throw at you. And for those who want to get smacked down to reality from the get go, there are optional bandages to collect, warp zones to enter, and dark world twists to attempt if you don't want to follow the easy learning curve the standard levels follow.
The level design in Super Meat Boy is absolutely stunning. The usual tricks you would expect in a 2D platformer are here--such as spinning saws, lava pits, and shooting blades--but they are positioned in such intelligent ways that the game is extremely challenging without ever feeling cheap. There is a delicate balance on display that ensures you're pushed to the limits of your skill without becoming frustrated. One of the most impressive aspects of Super Meat Boy is how you learn and adapt while you play. The first time you enter a level, you may be presented with a jump that seems impossible. You may try and fail a few times, maybe even a few dozen times, without any idea what you're supposed to do. But once you figure out the timing to succeed, you can pull off even the toughest moves with a good degree of consistency. Being able to conquer levels that previously seemed impossible is an exhilarating feeling, and the ease with which you become proficient is a testament to how precise the controls are and how meticulously designed the levels are.
Death is commonplace in Super Meat Boy. When you reach the harder levels, you may end up dying a dozen times before you pass the first pit, and more than a hundred before you reach the end. With failure such an expected occurrence, you might think this game is frustrating. It rarely is. Although you will inevitably be frustrated at times, Super Meat Boy goes a long way toward lessening your irritation. The precise controls and imaginative level design go a long way toward alleviating any throw-your-controller reactions, but the reason frustration is avoided goes even deeper than that. The upbeat soundtrack does a great job of keeping your energy at a high level without ever distracting you from the carnage that lies ahead. Each song also changes slightly, so even if you're stuck at a particularly wicked stage for an hour or more, the catchy riff never gets repetitive. The lack of extreme punishment also helps a lot. Although you die if any obstacle hits you, you do have infinite lives. Also, because levels usually last less than 30 seconds, even though you have to start from the beginning each time, you never have to retrace much ground. Finally, the extreme focus needed to pass these difficult stages ensures that you're zeroed in on completing your task rather than beating yourself up for falling short. This is an amazingly well designed game that avoids the frustration of failure by insulating you from your own aggravation.
The core mechanics and level design are absolutely superb in Super Meat Boy, and the wealth of content ensures you'll be playing this excellent platformer for quite a long time. There are more than 300 levels in all, most of them optional, and many of them are hidden. To reach the end you need to play through all of the light world levels, which include traditional platforming challenges along with a few clever boss fights. You have as much time as you need to pass each level, but if you reach the end under a specific mark, you unlock a dark version of that same level. This is when things get really difficult. The dark world puts a cruel twist on the light levels, and it can take all of your determination to rise above these daunting tests. It's a good thing the dark world is optional, so you can play through the slightly easier light world before you dive into the furnace. But the bonus content doesn't stop there. There are warp zones hidden in certain levels that whisk you to a three-level obstacle course that's a bit easier than standard levels but gives you a finite number of lives to make it through alive. On top of that are glitch world levels, which are as hard to unlock as they are to finish, and the goofily named Teh Internets, which is updated periodically with new levels. It takes lots of hours to plow through all this content, and you'll be glued to the edge of your seat the whole time.
On top of the optional levels are unlockable characters, which feel much different from the speedy Meat Boy, and each has a unique move as well. These extra heroes have been pulled from other indie platformers, so you may find Commander Video from Bit.Trip.Runner. He's pretty slow, but he can glide horizontally, which can be handy in a pinch. You have the option to switch to any of these characters at the beginning of most levels, and they provide a different strategy to reach the end. Headcrab, one of the new additions in the PC release, can hang on to walls and climb along ceilings. Although every level can be completed just by playing as Meat Boy, you may have to dip into your roster to nab the hidden collectibles. There are bandages strewn about certain levels, and you need to grab these to unlock some characters. But Meat Boy doesn't have the ability to get them all, which forces you to try out each character to see how they can help you succeed. These special characters add even more replay to a game that's already bursting with it, and they're a great shout-out to the independent gaming scene.
Time is a factor if you want to unlock the dark levels, but it goes even deeper than that. The leaderboard ranks your best score on each level, and it's an addictive challenge to try to figure out how someone posted a better score than your near-perfect run. It's just unfortunate that you aren't able to view those replays. Other games, such as Trials 2: Second Edition, let you check out the top runs on the leaderboard, and it's entertaining and educational to view what the best in the world can do. This would have worked really well in Super Meat Boy, a game in which skill is pushed to the forefront, so it's a shame that it's not an option. There is still a replay system in place, though. Your deaths are recorded in each level, so when you finally reach the end, you can see all of your failed attempts play out simultaneously. It's not only empowering to see the progress you made, but it's a great reward for persevering. It's brutally exhilarating to see dozens of Meat Boys burst into bloody balls of death all at once.
Super Meat Boy is an extremely difficult game, but that doesn't mean it lacks a sense of humor. The setup is just as preposterous as the traps you have to overcome, setting the stage for a daunting adventure that always has a smile on its lips. Meat Boy's girlfriend, Bandage Girl, has been kidnapped by Dr. Fetus. You may wonder how an unborn baby could possibly have a medical degree, but the bigger question is: What is he wearing? He struts around in a mechanical suit clad in a spiffy tuxedo with a top hat on his dome. Certainly the sign of an evil individual. At the completion of each boss fight, a cartoony cinematic rolls, and these are a great reward for your hard work. The cutscenes are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, but always entertaining. It's amazing how many emotions play out without any dialogue, but that's part of the beauty of this incredible game. It never lets its simplicity hold it back from greatness.
It's impossible to point to just one element that makes Super Meat Boy such an extraordinary game. From the intense-though-always-fair difficulty and the inspired level design, to the pinpoint controls and catchy soundtrack, all of the different aspects converge into something that is truly outstanding. When you hear stories of the unrepentant dangers that stand in your path, it's easy to get intimidated by such a daunting prospect. But don't be. The beauty of Super Meat Boy is that it always plays within the rules, and the smooth difficulty curve gives you plenty of time to become acquainted with everything before the true tests are unleashed. Death is always just one misstep away in Super Meat Boy, but the rush of winning is so supremely rewarding that you won't be able to tear yourself away.