[Game: Super Meat Boy Forever, Team Meat, 2020]
Bandage Man:

In Defense of Super Meat Boy Forever, the Unjustly Hated Sequel to an Indie Platforming Legend

 

Introduction:

Super Meat Boy is one of the greatest 2D platformers of all time, and it is rightly renowned for having some of the best level design in the entire genre. Its follow-up is an auto-runner with randomized levels, sporting both a genre and a limited control scheme that seem targeted toward mobile gaming. The original creator of the title character, Edmund McMillen, who acted as artist and codesigner on SMB, was completely uninvolved in the development of the newer game. The musician Danny Baranowsky, who provided the iconic original soundtrack for Super Meat Boy, was also absent from the development of the new title due to parting ways with Team Meat after some kind of dispute in the intervening years. And for the first year that it was available, the new title was distributed on PC solely through a controversial platform: the exclusivity-favoring, light-on-features Epic Games Store.

These facts about Super Meat Boy Forever are by now well-established reasons that many players have bounced off of, negatively reviewed, or (more commonly) simply avoided the game. And seeing as I am a big fan of Super Meat Boy, and not in general a fan of most mobile games, you may suspect that I would agree with those unhappy and dismissive appraisals.

But get this: I don’t.

Super Meat Boy Forever screenshot with Meat Boy in Chipper Grove Light World - Team Meat, review, mobile game, auto-runner, endless runner

I write to you today in defense of an unjustly maligned game; Super Meat Boy Forever is a wonderful experience, and a worthy entry in its series. It is a game that has been wrongly labeled a mobile game, wrongly said to have poor level design and controls, and wrongly thought to be divorced from both the original creative team of Super Meat Boy and the vital creative energy of the late-2000s and early-2010s indie scene. Each of the sections hereafter will be titled with a false claim about the game that appears in many of its existing reviews, and will be focused on dispelling that myth. Along the way, you’ll also get lots of insight into why I personally enjoy the game so much that I was inspired to write this article.

Super Meat Boy Forever’s auto-running ruins the controls.”

There’s no sense beating around the bush. As it’s the main thing most people know and dislike about the game, let’s jump straight in with a discussion of Super Meat Boy Forever’s auto-running.

By the time I first booted up the game, I had read a good number of user reviews, and (though keeping an open mind) I was prepared for disappointment. The reviews made it sound like a series once known for its minimal yet highly dynamic platforming mechanics had abandoned all dynamism in favor of rigid, classic auto-running—with locked jump heights and segments that can only be completed with a correct sequence of perfectly timed inputs.

Well, segments of the game do vary in flexibility . . . but imagine my surprise when I started playing and found that the controls are a crisp, responsive, elegant update to the those of the original—that actually manage to retain the dynamic character of the controls in Super Meat Boy within the context of an auto-runner. Jump height is still determined by how long the button is depressed; jumping at the base of a wall still results in a direct vertical slide to allow for a wall jump from a higher point; and the addition of punching and diving means that there is still considerable mid-air control despite the removal of direct management of horizontal acceleration.

Super Meat Boy Forever screenshot with Classic Girl in Tetanusville Dark World - Team Meat, review, mobile game, auto-runner, endless runner

Again like the original, the basic moveset of the character never changes or expands during the campaign; additional complexity instead comes from increasingly involved hazards and interactive objects within the levels. And the inventiveness here surpasses the earlier game, as at least one new mechanic is introduced in almost every single light world level. How that is achieved in view of the game’s randomization is a stroke of brilliance that will be saved for the next section.

No longer being able to ascend indefinitely up a wall or reverse direction without a wall is a bit jarring at first, but personally I’m happy to trade that in exchange for no longer having to hold sprint to move at top speed. In fact, as sprinting is necessary for the vast majority of both light and dark world levels in the original, the absence of an option to sprint by default (and have walk be activated by a button) always struck me as a small flaw in Super Meat Boy’s otherwise impeccable control scheme.

But setting aside that simple description of the controls themselves, the best evidence that Super Meat Boy Forever has not switched from analog to digital inputs is that dark world levels are still unlocked in the exact same way they were in the original: by beating trial times in the light world. If this were a rigid classic auto-runner, that would be impossible as all runs would end at roughly the same moment. Yet my times in levels varied by as much as a minute between certain clears. Not only is it very frequently possible to use the punches and dives to more quickly navigate sections, but there are in fact often alternate routes through level segments which allow players adept with the controls to entirely bypass time-consuming obstacles.

I think the truth may be that the unhappy reviewers play for a short span of time, get frustrated at seeing their character running itself into sawblades over and over, and drop the game—having failed to recall that they had the exact same experience in Super Meat Boy a decade earlier before learning to use the mechanics properly (with the only difference being that back then they were manually running Meat Boy into the sawblades over and over). For, Super Meat Boy Forever is a seriously difficult game. I definitely don’t think it’s as unforgiving as many reviews allege, but it is still a game where my first kill on a couple later bosses and my first finish on a few of the later dark world levels took me around half an hour each. Now, I don’t know why anyone would be seeking out a sequel to Super Meat Boy without being interested in a challenge, but it is at any rate non-trivial to become fluent in the deceptively simple controls and advance through the levels. The skill floor is slightly higher than in both Meat Boy and Super Meat Boy, though (in contrast to the rigidity inaccurately described by a great many folks) the skill ceiling remains about as high as ever.

Super Meat Boy Forever screenshot with Classic Boy in The Lab Dark World - Team Meat, review, mobile game, auto-runner, endless runner

In the end, I feel I never should have doubted Tommy Refenes, the programmer and codesigner who made the original Super Meat Boy alongside McMillen. The meticulous tuning that Refenes did to get the trademark idiosyncracies of the jumps, acceleration, and deceleration just right in Super Meat Boy is the stuff of legends. And in his role as programmer, codesigner, and team lead on Super Meat Boy Forever, that care and effort in the controls is just as clear. But to really see this, one has to consider how the controls fit into the game as a whole; in order to do that, we’ll turn to the topic of level design.

Super Meat Boy Forever’s randomization ruins the level design”

Of all the wrong things that people consistently say about this game, the notion that the random level generation in Super Meat Boy Forever has prevented it from continuing to provide the strong level design associated with the Meat Boy series is the wrongest thing.

The notion behind the complaint seems to be that the individual details of the level layouts are themselves randomized, with procedurally generated hazard types or with hazards that fill variable nodes on a template in the way that enemies and items populate levels in the Spelunky series.

But how anyone could continue to think that after even a few minutes of playing is utterly baffling. The truth is that each level in Super Meat Boy Forever is composed of substantial segments or chunks designed independently, each with their own trial or par time and each with their own matching dark world version. Each such segment is a carefully arranged, hand-crafted challenge matching the level’s mechanical theme and the world’s visual theme. Thousands of these segments were manually composed by the game’s level designers, and the only role that randomization plays is in selecting a set of them for each level. They don’t change between attempts or between play sessions; they only change between playthroughs, like when starting a new game or advancing into New Game +.

Super Meat Boy Forever screenshot with Seed Generation for New Game - Team Meat, review, mobile game, auto-runner, endless runner

Because these segments are grouped by mechanics, difficulty level, and aesthetics—a linear story progression, a smooth difficulty curve, and a deliberate rollout of new gameplay elements are all maintained. And because the stitching together of the segments within each level is visually seamless, it would be a genuine possibility for many players to reach 100% completion in a file without having the slightest inkling that randomization plays a role in the game (that is, if it didn’t tip its hand that it’s generating a seed when starting a new file). As touched on in the previous section, most light world levels introduce new mechanics. Segment groups for later levels then include mechanics introduced in isolation in earlier levels, meaning that even the slowly mounting complexity offered by the deliberate introduction of hazards in the original is still present.

The boss levels, meanwhile, are not randomized at all; each light world ends in a determined boss encounter. But this is a great courtesy to the player, as they wouldn’t want to miss a single one. The lineup of bosses in this game is the best set of bosses I’ve ever seen in a pure 2D platformer. Now, to be sure, there are plenty of ‘impure’ 2D platformers, such as Metroidvanias, run-and-gun games, and more, with better lineups of bosses. But in a game all about simply jumping and dashing to a goal, this is the best I’ve seen. They achieved this by finding increasingly clever ways to incorporate the primary platforming mechanics into the fights, culminating in a final boss that plays out like a climactic level and a climactic boss encounter simultaneously—while, for example, similar moments in Celeste feel much more like levels, similar moments in classic Mario games feel much more like boss fights, and similar moments in the original Super Meat Boy oscillate between one and the other.

On looking into Super Meat Boy Forever after being so impressed by it, I was equal-parts-surprised-and-satisfied to learn that the lead level designer on the project was none other than Kyle Pulver. One of the earliest articles I wrote for this series was focused on highlighting how surprising mechanical depth, tight time trial objectives, and excellent level design come together to allow Kyle Pulver’s cute puzzle platformer Offspring Fling! to have a secret second identity, doubling as a brutal and rewarding precision platformer.

Super Meat Boy Forever screenshot with Prototype Boy in The Other Side Dark World - Team Meat, review, mobile game, auto-runner, endless runner

Anyway, the way I can best convey the similarity between the experience of beating levels in Super Meat Boy and the experience of beating levels in its sequel is through a discussion of another apparent difference: checkpoints. As in both SMB and the original flash game, Meat Boy dies in one hit. Yet levels in the second game are much longer on average—so much so that each world contains just six levels, rather than twenty. To make these challenges manageable (and presumably also to smooth out unneven difficulty between randomly selected segments), every individual segment is followed by a checkpoint. Dying in a segment instantly returns the player-character to the start of the segment rather than the start of the level.

The result of all of this is that each segment is what feels akin to a single level in the earlier game. Players who would’ve played through ten levels in a play session of the original may be content with beating two levels in a play session of the sequel. Yet the actual amount of content they’ve experienced in one play session is probably about the same. Quality and difficulty do sometimes noticeably vary between segments, but the same is true between levels in the original Super Meat Boy as well.

Incidentally, while on the subject of checkpoints it is possible to debunk two minor myths that often accompany the big myth that is the subject of this section.

The first bonus myth is the idea that this time around it is much more difficult to meet the par times to unlock dark world levels. If anything, in my experience just the opposite is true. Not only does the timer now tell you exactly how you’re measuring up relative to the par time upon reaching each checkpoint, but the longer levels also make it a frequent possibility for faster performance on easier segments to make up for slower performance on harder ones. Plus, dying and returning to a checkpoint also returns the player to the time stamp they were at when they originally reached it, meaning fast completion on earlier segments is locked in for that attempt—no matter how many deaths a difficult segment inflicts later in the level.

Super Meat Boy Forever screenshot with multiple Meat Boys in replay - Team Meat, review, mobile game, auto-runner, endless runner

The second bonus myth is the idea that the longer levels and the auto-running ruin the brilliant replay system from the earlier game, which showed every attempt on a level simultaneously so that hordes of Meat Lads fell away against hazards and pits, leaving only the one true Meat Boy who succeeds by the end. But again it’s the checkpoints to the rescue, as every attempt at a given segment spawns in together at each checkpoint during the replay—bringing forth swells of Meat Lad activity throughout, and stitching together the successful attempts at each segment into a seamless presentation across the level.

Now, back on track, I’d like to close the section by zeroing in on the ways in which the levels allow or demand flexibility. In the previous section, I already mentioned that some par times require or reward creative navigation, but that’s not all. There are also optional collectibles placed in hard-to-reach spots (pacifiers rather than bandages this time, and with three mechanically distinct variants), as well as portals to warp zones tucked away in secret locations in the levels (sign-posted by visual and auditory glitches in their vicinity).

And by the way, the warp zones themselves are also levels of considerable brilliance, albeit of a different type; they dramatically switch up the gameplay in order to pay homage to classic games in much more direct and substantive ways than the retro warp zones of Super Meat Boy. The warps often also match the game’s sense of humor, which otherwise shines through mostly in the game’s charming animated story cutscenes. But then, as we’re now straying quite far from a discussion of level design, I suppose it’s time to move to a new topic.

Super Meat Boy Forever is a mobile game.”

There are plenty of different sentiments someone might be trying to get across when they say that Super Meat Boy Forever is a mobile game. I’m going to very briefly touch on a few that seem most likely to lie behind the claim.

First, they might mean that it was developed specifically for the mobile platform. That’s simply untrue, though. During its earliest development (back in 2014, when Edmund McMillen was still involved in the project) it was publicly announced as being a simple mobile spin-off of SMB. But the development cycle that led to its actual release didn’t start until 2017, and at that point the publicly stated priority of the project switched to the creation a full-fledged, console-ready sequel to Super Meat Boy. Moreover, while a mobile port is still planned for the game in the future, at the time of writing this article, the game has been available on PC and game consoles for a year and a half—and is unavailable on all smartphones.

Super Meat Boy Forever screenshot with F-Meat in The Other Side Dark World - Team Meat, review, mobile game, auto-runner, endless runner

Second, when someone says that Super Meat Boy Forever is a mobile game, they might mean that simply by being an auto-runner it is necessarily tied to the mobile market, because all of the most successful auto-runners either began or achieved popularity as mobile games. This, at first glance, sounds more plausible.

After all, during the first couple of years that Super Meat Boy was enjoying its tremendous success on PC and Xbox, the mobile gaming market was dominated by auto-runners like Canabalt and Temple Run, later to be joined by the monumental success of Geometry Dash. It became a genre of such ubiquity on mobile devices that it was entered by games from both Nitrome, who have sometimes been hailed as ‘the Nintendo of the app store,’ and Nintendo themselves (in the form of Super Mario Run).

But to leave it at that is to not tell the whole story. After all, one of the most recognizable titles in the genre, released less than a year after Canabalt and over a year before Temple Run, is a semi-rhythm-based game called BIT.TRIP RUNNER. And RUNNER is notable in this discussion in that, despite its popularity, it has never been officially ported to Android or iOS. It has only ever been released on game consoles and PC. So, it is clearly false that auto-runners have only found success as mobile games, and is also false that auto-runners always prioritize the mobile platform. As it happens, even Canabalt actually existed as a browser game on PC before it released on mobile.

Third and finally, most broadly, when someone says that Super Meat Boy Forever is a mobile game, they might really just mean that it includes undesirable attributes that are most common in mobile games, such as a control scheme or UI better suited to a touchscreen than any other interface, the presence of ads and/or microtransactions, gameplay involving excessive grinding or timed cooldowns (generally in service of pushing people toward the microtransactions), and a general shoddiness resulting from either hasty development or lazy porting.

Super Meat Boy Forever screenshot with Squirrel in Tetanusville Light World - Team Meat, review, mobile game, auto-runner, endless runner

Now, Super Meat Boy Forever assuredly (and, I would hope after the last two sections, clearly) doesn’t have ads, microstransactions, grinding, timers to access content, nor general shoddiness. As for the control interface concern, though, I’d have to clarify that its two-button design is equally well-suited for just about any method of control. The controls should work almost as well on a touchscreen as they do on a controller or keyboard—and as a result I do think it will be a fun choice on mobile when it makes its way there, provided Team Meat is able to get the game performing as smoothly as it does on PC and consoles. But does it have controls or menus that prioritize touch? Definitely not.

So, there you go. Considering almost any reasonable meaning of the claim, at this point in time Super Meat Boy Forever is not a mobile game. Now, none of this is to say that mobile games should be denigrated simply for being mobile games. But whatever your personal feelings on that platform, it is in no way the native platform of SMBF.

Conclusion:

Obviously, I think very highly of this game, and I strongly recommend it. So, as a worthy sequel to Super Meat Boy, is Super Meat Boy Forever the greatest platformer of all time? No, it is not. It’s not even the best platformer released in 2020—an accolade that most assuredly belongs to Spelunky 2.

In fact, I do have my own set of minor reservations about Super Meat Boy Forever. To prove that’s true and that I’m not some kind of sycophant, here’s just three of my personal complaints:

First, the lengthy duration of a full light world and dark world playthrough seems somewhat poorly matched with the enormous quantity of possible level layouts. Supposedly it would be possible to play the entire game through eight or more times in successive New Game + campaigns without encountering a campaign containing a single repeated segment, which is very cool—but playing through the light world and dark world can take between 10 and 20 hours, particularly if collecting pacifiers and S ranks, so only a very small percentage of players will maintain enough enthusiasm to play the game more than once or twice. Even completionists will find that all unlocks are possible in just three playthroughs.

Super Meat Boy Forever screenshot with Meat Ninja in 0xdeadbeef Glitch World - Team Meat, review, mobile game, auto-runner, endless runner

Second, the huge array of multi-level deathless achievements that I criticized as excessive in the original game makes an unwelcome return in the sequel. And they’re arguably even worse here, as they push players who might otherwise have explored additional seeds and seen new segments to instead play their existing seed repeatedly in a quest for perfection. Sad to see, as the sequel’s addition of S ranks for deathless clears on individual levels already serves as a superior compromise.

And third, I maintain that, like the music they provided for later releases of SMB, Ridiculon’s music for SMBF is a step down, if only a small step, from the original Danny Baranowksy soundtrack available on most releases of Super Meat Boy. That’s no particular knock against Ridiculon, by the way. The tracks they’ve made for the last couple expansions to The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth have been so terrific that they’ve finally brought the overall quality of the remake’s soundtrack up to and beyond that of Baranowsky’s soundtrack for the Flash version. Meanwhile, I discussed how I found Baranowsky’s own more recent work on Crypt of the NecroDancer somewhat underwhelming in my article about that game.

Now, you’ll notice that none of these gripes of mine about this Meat Boy sequel are significant—and moreover that they have almost nothing in common with the set of popular gripes about the game. That’s because the key takeaway here should be that Super Meat Boy Forever is a great game, currently immensely underrated, with strengths that overlap heavily with the strengths of its illustrious predecessor. Those who like challenging games and indie titles should play it. The 10 years between the release of the two titles did not dull the stellar design instincts of Tommy Refenes, and he was clearly supported in the production of Forever by a very talented team. In contrast to its reputation, Super Meat Boy Forever is in fact a fun, full-featured gaming experience sporting both sharp controls and exemplary level design.

I found it to be an unexpected delight. If, for whatever reason, you still feel compelled to refer to it as a spinoff rather than a sequel, feel free. But whatever you do, clear your mind of preconceptions and well-trafficked myths. Give Super Meat Boy Forever a couple hours to reintroduce itself to you—as it’s time once again to meet the meat.

[Game: Super Meat Boy Forever, Team Meat, 2020]
Bandage Man:

In Defense of Super Meat Boy Forever, the Unjustly Hated Sequel to an Indie Platforming Legend

was last modified: June 8th, 2022 by Daniel Podgorski
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