Why I Don’t Like Super Meat Boy.

This came up in a discussion of the currently-on-sale-on-Steam Dustforce; I mentioned at the start of that review that I didn’t like Super Meat Boy very much and a certain person (who shall remain nameless) challenged me on this. So I thought I’d just write a couple of paragraphs expanding on justwhy this is, because the reason for it is intrinsically linked to the way I view game design.

Super Meat Boy is a very negative game. Its levels are based around trial and error; while they may be short, a single mistake will throw you back to the start of the level. The level challenges are not based around any inherent skill on the part of the player but rather their ability to learn through repetition, rather like the Skinner boxes I mentioned yesterday. You will repeat the same jump again and again and again until eventually you manage it. You must conform to the unforgiving tyranny of the level design or die. You may gradually get better at the game, but only in the way that a rat given electric shocks will eventually learn to avoid avoid a certain pattern of behaviour. An infantryman in the army may be able to perform the impressive feat of field-stripping and reassembling his M16 while blindfolded, but this is not an activity that I would say relies on skill, as such; merely rote learning. So it is with Super Meat Boy.

Dustforce is a very positive game. The replay system ensures that trial and error is kept to a minimum; at any time you can stop what you’re doing and look at what the fastest player in the world did to complete a level, and while it doesn’t help you physically make the jumps required it at least makes sure you’re pointed in the right direction. The checkpoints and unlimited lives make completing a level fairly easy; it’s completely a level well which is the hard part. You can fluff a level up quite badly and still make it to the end. Dustforce is rather forgiving of failure, and while it demands the same high standards as SMB in order to make progress through the metagame it does not require you to get everything right at once. The player gets to decide how far they want to take things; if the player wants to repeat a level until they can do it perfectly then that is the player’s choice, not something imposed on them by the game design.

That’s why I go for Dustforce over Super Meat Boy. They’re both superficially similar games but they have vastly different design philosophies. Dustforce wants me to succeed. Super Meat Boy takes pleasure in watching me fail. Losing can be fun, but not like that.

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10 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Like Super Meat Boy.

  1. I disagree with you saying there’s no skill required. Once I’d played it for long enough and was onto the much more difficult levels, I could go back and try the dark worlds (levels I’d never played before) and easily beat them. There’s a lot of skill involved in the game.

    • hentzau says:

      Of course you got “better” at it; SMB was doing the game equivalent of beating you with a stick until you got it right, and so when faced with another similar challenge you were much less likely to get it wrong. I’m not saying that sort of training doesn’t work, I’m saying that it has no place in a game I play for fun.

      • Fair enough, I guess? It seems like you’re not disagreeing that skill plays a part and practice makes you better, just how punishing the game is in getting to that point. Which I would agree with, the reason I didn’t mind it is that the punishment for failure wasn’t anything that would really annoy me, like a long loading time, or a load of progress lost.

  2. innokenti says:

    This, yes. There was a wonderful parody game some years ago called “I Want to be the Guy: The Movie: The Game” which was a platformer based exclusively on killing you in non-telegraphed ways and then more. So even after you learned how, say, spikes behaved on one level, they would behave differently on another level, or even later on in the same. Things would fall up rather than down to kill you and so on. The only way to complete it was to exactly learn everything that would happen and then use that.

    Now this kind of game is made seriously (granted, perhaps less sadistic).

    But as you say, there is no skill, apart from memorisation, and while some people may or may not be able to do it, it’s still a peculiar kind of designer hatred.

    I can see why it might appeal to some people, but I find that kind of design attitude pretty awful. I might want to check out Dustforce, but my interest in platforming is fairly specific and curiously unknowable (I have no idea what I like, but I damn well know I like some platforming).

  3. jiiiiim says:

    Alternatively you could argue that Meatboy forces you to succeed whereas Dustforce isn’t really arsed. I get where you’re coming from, and I do see why that philosophy isn’t fun for you. For me, I really love that honing-of-the-reflexes, the ability to pull off some complicated manoeuverage by muscle memory, and if the game is punshing me every time I fuck up, I’m going to learn it quicker. It’s also going to give a more intense high when you succeed.

    But then I love to fail.

  4. My issue with Dustforce is that the length of its levels are not conducive to honed skill – there are many levels with fiddly openings that are just as easily lost off the back of having done them two dozen times and being tired. Fluffling an opening doesn’t let you get to the bit you’re actually stuck on.

    Whereas with SMB, the entire level *is* what you’re stuck on. You’re hacking at this puzzle, trying new problems, and rarely having to redo something you’ve mastered.

    I prefer Dustforce over SMB for a host of reasons, but it’s postivity isn’t one of them.

    • hentzau says:

      The difference being I was happily able to skip those levels and go on to the next one without the game saying NONE SHALL PASS. Dustforce’s metagame is more forgiving than Meat Boy’s to boot.

  5. Michael Byte says:

    I didn’t like Meatboy the first time but maybe I’ll give it another try. And I say it as an avid player of Spelunky. There is something that turns me off in Meatboy. First, it’s true that you end up playing the same level many times till you make it, but I think one reason for me is the way the player movement slides and accelerates (and I agree, this is the identity of Meatboy and maybe I have to get used to it) makes me always miss my jump and fall into something that kills me. I like platform games but those who let you land where you aim. In Meatboy things are obvious, you go from A to B, obvious things kill you, you know where to jump and what to do, but you just fail doing it because of the accelerated movement. In Spelunky this is perfect, but of course you die because of all the traps and things you have to learn how to observe and handle as you play. But it does that perfect, when you learn it it’s perfect because you move and jump where you aim, you don’t die always because you miscalculated jumps or it’s too slimey movement. And beyond that, Meatboy is very simplistic, rinse and repeat in simple short levels, Spelunky is more complex, you can grab and throw items, use enemies to jump higher, items, different ways to handle traps and enemies.

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