The Why of Indie Games: ‘Super Meat Boy’

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I have a buddy who describes Super Meat Boy in three letters. The three letters stand for the essence of what Super Meat Boy is at the core. The three letters are ABS, which is quite the acronym. It stands for “always be sprinting”, which is essentially the attitude of Super Meat Boy. It eats what we traditionally know as a genre and vomits it out unabashed at the grotesque nature of the genre’s reincarnation. That is some heavily gruesome imagery, but Super Meat Boy tends toward the gruesome in a genre full of color and joyous scenery. Likewise, Team Meat, vaunted developers of Super Meat Boy used it to flip nearly all other platformer conventions into fully new ideas, which shines a light onto what the modern gamer is drawn towards.

There are a smattering of platformers available right now. Go ahead, pull up Steam or Desura and search for platformers, then proceed to marvel at the billions. There is no problem with that; however, I would not bargain to guess that anyone has either heard of them or that they have seen any significant amount of success. Surprisingly though, Super Meat Boy hit it huge. Rightfully so, because it is a fantastic, addicting, and innovative game, which is instantly accessible. It also says something about the modern gamer as compared to the gamers of the 90′s; the setup is all about immediate payoff in an age of the attention deficit gamer whereas old games required the player to work and persevere for success.

Just think about the modern teenager. Everything is accessible to that teenager through their phone, internet, television, and tablet. There is no longer a need for the modern teenager to work for anything. The modern teenager should see no reason to sit down and play an engrossing 100 hour RPG, when they can play 3 levels of Super Meat Boy in a matter of 5 minutes. That is not to say that those 100 hour RPGs are not successful as Skyrim exists, but its obvious that gamers crave ease of accessibility. Even Skyrim is a walk in the park for the majority of gamers. The switch is to a casual style of gaming which is always rewarding the player instead of punishing the player.

Super Meat Boy is a near perfect example of the modern casual game and even though it is challenging, still manages to never truly make the player wait or suffer. If a player dies in Super Meat Boy they are instantly reincarnated to make another run at the level with no load screen or punishment. Players can beat Super Meat Boy‘s main story line in the first sitting if they ignore all the optional Dark World and Warp World stuff. Could you imagine beating Contra in a night?  Super Meat Boy even eliminates enemy interaction because every enemy must be faced in the same way; by avoidance. Super Meat Boy becomes a casual game by streamlining the whole platformer process, most specifically the time required from a single sit-down.

Old style platformers all operated on similar conventions and the most successful template was from Mario series. Mario contained a myriad of long and difficult levels with no check points and limited lives. Players would have to take long periods of time to battle through these levels, and spend nights trying to learn the structure of each stage. I would argue that Mario would struggle to make it in this day and age abiding by that same style. It would still be successful, but not the mega hit it was in the 80′s and 90′s. Super Meat Boy requires much less time, attention, and commitment from the gamer. A player of Super Meat Boy can turn it on and play for 30 seconds and make similar progress percentage wise as a Mario player could in a half hour. But that is the thing. This is what players have begun to crave. Our attention spans have shortened, and our tolerance of difficulty has gone down.

Do not get me wrong, Super Meat Boy is a lovely game. It is cheeky and fun and definitely deserves your time. You can pick it up on Steam or on  I just think the community’s love affair with it goes beyond its fun. It is timely in a world which now has 1000 means of entertainment and is fully up for a quick thrill, even in gaming.

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  1. a_w_young

    As much as I LOVE indie games and want to always speak highly of them and wish their devs much success, this was one title that I did not understand the appeal of whatsoever. It was the most frustrating game I have ever played, which the devs seemed to take as a compliment. It wasn’t fun at all. I was initially drawn in by the cutesy artwork but once I gave it a whirl, I vowed to never play it again.

    I can’t think of platformers I really enjoy though so perhaps it’s unfair of me, but I didn’t see anything particularly innovative or exciting. Am I alone in this?

    I enjoyed hearing/watching his story in Indie Game: The Movie and certainly appreciated all that he went through.

  2. Jon Kittaka

    I feel as though much of this article is fueled by a sense of “back in my day” nostalgia that ignores much of what was wrong with games in the past and much of what is attractive about modern games.

    For instance, yes SMB has short, fast levels. This doesn’t mean that its success can be primarily chalked up to modern short attention spans or weak-willed casual gamers. For one thing, I think many people (a_w_young included) find SMB to be a legitimately challenging game. Sure, it doesn’t take too long to finish the main quest if you make steady progress, but I doubt “casual gamers” are drawn to it because of their lowered tolerance for difficulty. More likely is that people come back to it because it provides challenges and obstacles which are sometimes very difficult but also fair. The controls are top notch and the level design is flexible and interesting. Add to that the charming aesthetic and you’ve got an all around great package.

    Another incredibly successful game by McMillen, the Binding of Isaac succeeds for many of the same positive qualities as SMB, and it’s even clearer that BoI’s success has nothing to do with short attention spans or lack of will. BoI is a legitimately hard game and it takes many playthroughs to get to the ending, much like old video games. A playthrough later in the game can take nearly an hour–you don’t play in short bursts.

    And let’s think about old games–I love the old megaman series for much the same reasons as good modern games: I can use my acquired skills against formidable challeges and make measurable progress. Those games are really short! Playing through a megaman level takes only a few minutes, and there are only about 12-15 levels per game (counting wily stages).

    Other old games are hard for sure, but most are pretty poorly designed in at least some aspects. Gamers put up with unfair, time-wasting design flaws because there wasn’t anything better and the novelty of controlling characters on your TV screen was a big enough deal. If new games cut down on loading times, have more intuitive controls, or are less unintentionally obtuse, that should be celebrated. My point is, why the nostalgic gloom? Yes gamers and games have changed, but it’s hardly as simple as the ol’ “short attention span” jab. And positing SMB as the face of weak-willed casual gaming just doesn’t make sense to me.

  3. Petey_AM

    I think you misunderstood. The article is about the importance of SMB. Its important because it is the face of what makes modern games successful. Sure it appeals to those with a short attention span because everything is quick and fast, however that is not the point. I think its the accessibility of the game that made it so successful. SMB is such a triumph in appealing to our want and need for entertainment that doesnt take hours per sitdown. I think its fully an evolution of the genre and was an important step forward for platformers. More the article was about the changing nature of games. Games have adapted to our times and SMB, although perhaps unintentionally, is a triumph of the times.

  4. Petey_AM

    I dont think you are alone. It depends on the gamer though. I think lovers of platformers truly enjoyed the game because of its newer styling and breakneck speed. Now, myself, as a lover of primarily RPGs still was able to find some love for SMB. But I think the frustration levels can be somewhat daunting. I nearly got carpel tunnel from squeezing my controller. It just never really punishes you for failing so I think accessibility stays high. However, you definitely have to be in the right mood for it as if you aren’t then it all feels wrong.

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