Super Meat Boy Forever Review
Feeling a bit saw
Super Meat Boy Forever is not the game Super Meat Boy fans will be looking for. It’s important to make that clear from the outset, since while this sequel to the ten-year-old indie hit may look like a jazzy upgrade, there have been significant changes to the gameplay. So significant, in fact, that I imagine certain fans are already wearing their fingers into bloody stumps as they express their outrage on forums and comment sections. Since Meat Boy himself is basically a bloody stump, this seems appropriate.
The original game was an ingenious free-form platformer set over dozens of fiendish levels that saw Meat Boy in pursuit of his girlfriend Bandage Girl who had been kidnapped by the evil Dr. Fetus. Each level offered a self-contained puzzle of traps, saws, needles and death as you raced to the finish to reach your beloved only for her to be whisked away to another cas… erm, level. It wasn’t subtle, but a combination of instant reloads, clever level design and cutesy-icky pixel art proved a winning formula, accompanied by a soundtrack that melded twanging country music with hard metal riffs.
This time around it’s the couple’s daughter, Nugget, who gets swiped by the same bad guy. The visuals have been given a 4K comic-book style makeover and look fantastic on a big screen. The music employs the same weird mash-up, but with a clearly improved budget spanning electronica and other genres. Cutscenes between chapters and at important intervals are more frequent, more impressive, and longer. All told, the game looks and sounds like the absolute business.
But then we come to the gameplay. In a head-scratching twist, Team Meat has turned the tightly designed worlds and levels that you previously had to navigate into a procedurally generated auto-runner. Instead of freely traversing the implements of torture and pits of death at your leisure, you’re forced ever eastward where an accidental direction change to the left due to bouncing off a wall will splatter you just as effectively as a mistimed button press. The controls have been slimmed down to ducking, jumping and dashing. Though the levels push you inexorably right, there are features such as bumpers, fans and movable boxes which offer both verticality and variety. But for better or worse, Forever has changed the series into a rhythm platform game, like the kind of endless runner titles that were so prolific at the dawn of the smartphone — fitting, really, as the game was originally intended as a mobile version of Super Meat Boy.
Frankly, a lot of people are going to be annoyed. The shift in gameplay controls is one thing, but the procedurally generated level design is something else entirely. Each world’s levels are split into randomly assembled chunks, each of which acts as a checkpoint upon death and keeps momentum going. The chunks are seamlessly combined on the whole, but there are occasions — one of which was a wall I hit early into the second world — where they feel incredibly unfair. Super Meat Boy was always designed as a hardcore platformer but at least it was clear that each level had a solution, or better still, multiple solutions. There are times in Forever where the challenge seems insurmountable and it isn’t clear whether this is because the game’s procedural nature has thrown in a ridiculous spike, or if the assembly of the level isn’t quite as polished as it should be.
Even so, it does mean that there is a vast amount of replayability available, if you’re sadistic enough to want it. Almost everything in Forever feels like it’s been taken from the original and slathered in new paint. That naturally comes with inevitable comparisons, and some of the cribbing will raise eyebrows. The cutscene after the first boss, for instance, is nearly identical to the first game’s except instead of heading to the hospital, you head to the clinic. Collectible dummies replace the bandages needed to unlock new characters, punishing dark world variants and warp zones (featuring Team Meat’s take on classic games) both return, and there is certainly more of a focus on story second time around, although that is unlikely to appease players who throw in the controller after a few levels in disgust at the auto-runner gameplay. And of course, every time you finish a stage, you’ll have the option of watching each of your magnificent squelchy failures replay all at once as Meat Boy is impaled, crushed or sawn in half before you reach your goal.
Though the level design will prove divisive, boss fights are one area that has been vastly improved. These have more in common with the puzzle elements of Super Meat Boy’s standard stages but with added bombast. You can unlock a boss after completing four of a world’s levels, which feels like an olive branch if you’ve been struggling for half an hour to get through a specific stage to no avail. But like the rest of the game, you may find some of the bosses teeth-gnashingly difficult. I personally found them a welcome change from the main levels.
Criticising Forever for being a wholly different experience to Super Meat Boy may seem mean, but after ten years waiting for a sequel it’s likely that fans of the first game will come into it expecting more of the same. They will be met with crushing disappointment. On its own terms Forever isn’t bad, it’s just a little soulless. The heart of the precision platformer has been ripped out and replaced by a mechanical pacemaker, one that keeps the beat but on its own terms. Everything else is crafted around that auto-runner core which might prove a perfect new year tonic if you’re a fan of combining that particular genre with punishing gameplay. For many other players though, this sequel is likely to turn them vegetarian.
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