Super Meat Boy Forever is just as hard, if not quite as good, as the original.
Ten years have passed since Super Meat Boy took the gaming world by storm. It managed to be retro, modern, and plain bizarre all at once, and it quickly shot up my favorite-games-of-all-time list.
Super Meat Boy was a “platformer” like the Mario and Sonic games of yore. You played as a little red meat cube who had to jump and run his way through a series of levels while avoiding buzzsaws and other grisly death traps. The levels were incredibly difficult, but also incredibly short — often a single screen — and you never “ran out of lives” or had to redo a bunch of levels you’d already beaten. The game also had amazingly responsive controls; despite the elaborate series of jumps you had to execute, you always felt completely in control of that little blob, and when you died, it was your fault, not the game’s. There were boatloads of levels to conquer, plus a special extra-hard version of each one. It was simply a masterpiece of game design.
The long-delayed sequel, Super Meat Boy Forever, came out on December 23 for PC and Nintendo Switch. (It’s coming to the other consoles early this year.) The game isn’t bad by any stretch, and it’s just as amusingly weird and brutally difficult as its predecessor. Ultimately, though, it strays too far from what made the original so awesome, and it raises interesting questions about what we should generally expect from sequels. (Especially sequels finished after a key creator had moved on from the project, as was the case here, with the legendary Edmund McMillen having left developer Team Meat.)
Most strikingly, this game does not give you complete control over Meat Boy (or his partner, Bandage Girl, who’s also playable). Instead, it’s an “auto-runner” like a lot of mobile-phone games: Your character automatically runs forward, and all you can do is make him jump, duck, and punch bad guys. This makes Forever a completely different ball of ground chuck from the original. The simple act of playing it just feels different.
Other aspects of the design have been overhauled as well. For example, the levels are longer, though they’re divided up into smaller chunks separated by checkpoints. Once you reach a given chunk, you’ll restart from there if you die — but if you shut the game down entirely, you’ll have to go back to the beginning. This can be annoying if you get stuck toward the end of a level and want to call it quits for a while.
Yet, what I found most frustrating is the combination of auto-running with a lot of sequences where it’s hard to tell which way to go or what to do. Your character runs nonstop, but he doesn’t necessarily have to move from left to right: You can change directions by jumping off a wall, and also use the walls to climb or fall vertically. Sometimes you’ll see several possible routes but won’t be able to tell which is correct, because the most important hazards aren’t even on the screen yet. Other times you’ll confront a new enemy or gameplay gimmick and have no clue how to defeat or pass it, and die 50 times in rapid succession trying to figure it out. It’s a game of trial and error and memorization, much more so than the original was.
The game also takes advantage of “procedural generation,” a new fad in game design. Basically, instead of hand-designing each stage, the developers make a bunch of pieces, and the computer puts them together at random to make stages. The developers say they made so many stage chunks that you can beat the whole game a few times over without seeing duplicates.
The advantage of this approach is the endless variety. The disadvantage is that randomly generated stages tend not to feel inspired in the way they’re assembled; they are, quite literally, just one damn thing after another.
On the one hand, it’s nice to see a sequel take some liberties rather than just providing more of the same. Forever is faithful to the spirit of the original while providing completely new gameplay, which is no trivial feat. And I’ll happily admit that most of the boss fights are genius, requiring you to carefully navigate a screen full of lethal hazards while constantly moving and looking for an opportunity to do some damage to the deformed monstrosity attacking you.
Yet in the end, I wish the developers had blended more of the original in with their new ideas. I wouldn’t have minded some auto-running levels or a bonus game mode that randomly generated stages. But an entire game full of randomly generated auto-running stages is a bit tiring.
I guess that’s always the Catch-22 for sequels: Either they’re just coasting on what came before, or they’re alienating a dedicated fan base.
I will always love the first Super Meat Boy and heartily recommend everyone play it. The End Is Nigh, a spiritual successor from McMillen released in 2017, is also quite good. Forever is worth a play, perhaps, but only after you’ve finished with those.