A few years ago I developed quite an obsession with the Nintendo puzzle game Digidrive. Every night I’d get home from work, fire up my gorgeous metallic green Gameboy Micro and get lost for hours in the tiny, crisp screen, blasting stark, minimalist graphics directly into my eyeballs. As much as I loved the game (hold onto your hotpants, but I think it’s a better puzzler than Tetris), it was the combination of hardware and software that really won my heart. They just worked together so perfectly; form, function, aesthetics and mechanics combining to make a match made in gaming heaven.
Fast forward a couple of years and I’m hunched over a 360 pad, punching the air one minute and turning it blue the next, in an attempt to reunite a cube of flesh with a girl made out of bandages. Super Meat Boy was among the first of a new wave of indie games that now seem so ubiquitous it’s difficult to remember a time when they didn’t grace every release schedule. Using an (at the time) original, retro-inspired graphics style and marrying it to a brutally hard platformer with a dark, wicked sense of humour, I was utterly consumed and it dominated my playtime for weeks. It struck me as the kind of game that the naughty kids at Nintendo would make, if they weren’t cowering behind their screens terrified that Miyamoto would launch a chair at them for making something that didn’t feature magic triangles or moustaches. It was compulsive, vicious and funny; but stuck in the living room; tied to a pad and screen that somehow didn’t feel like the right fit.
And then we have the Vita; the good-looking, bastard son of the PlayStation family sent off to die alone and forgotten in the cold. Truly the Jon Snow of gaming. Big name releases dried up completely nearly two years ago but it has managed to carve itself a niche as the home of JRPGs, visual novels and indie titles. It’s a truly wonderful machine that’s a joy to hold, beautiful to look at and with a varied, unique library. It’s almost the portable Xbox Live Arcade machine I always dreamed of. But there has always been one game obviously missing from its roster. One game so obviously suited to that sexy screen. One game whose bite sized, platforming brilliance has been crying out for a portable version.
Well, not any longer! They’ve only gone and put bloody Meat Boy on it!
I’m probably in a minority of one here, but the Super Meat Boy on Vita announcement trumped Shenmue 3 and the Final Fantasy 7 Remake as my best gaming news of the year. Stop me if this sounds familiar, but it’s something I’ve wanted for years and all but completely given up hope on. So it’s with some trepidation that, hands shaking and heart in mouth, I fire it up for the first time. Please don’t fuck this up. Please don’t fuck this up. Please don’t fuck this up…
Hooray! They haven’t fucked it up! Meat Boy explodes onto Vita with all of the manic, high-speed action he’s famous for and he’s lost very little of its spark and charm in the intervening years. From the very first moment you launch the game and his cheeky little smashed-up face splashes across the Vita’s gorgeous screen it feels like this is home; that this is where he was always supposed to be. When held inches away from your face, the bold, bright cartoon visuals have never looked better and the bite-sized, quick-fire structure is well-suited to the portable format. It’s been obvious for years that they should get it on, and now that they’ve finally got together, they really do make a beautiful couple. They’re very nearly perfect for one another.
Yep, sadly, there are couple of caveats here. Firstly, it will become immediately obvious to any fans of the original that the soundtrack has been replaced. This is most jarring the first time you play and the title screen roars ‘SUUUUUPER MEEEEEAT BOOOOY!’ over the top of a rather pedestrian number which seems a bit like a dodgy cover version by someone who played the game once back in 2010. Personally, I think the main theme is the only major misstep; and the rest of the tracks are pretty good and occasionally even improve on what came before. It will bug some traditionalists; and following one of the finest original soundtracks in years was always going to be herculean task; but really it’s not that bad at all and deserves a chance to be appreciated on its own terms.
The only other major issue is that this game more than any other highlights the closeness of the right hand stick to the Vita’s face buttons. I can’t say this has really ever bothered me too much before (which in itself is odd as I must have played hundreds of hours of quick-reflex stuff on the machine) but something about having the jump on X and your thumb occasionally knocking the stick can make the game feel unfair frustrating rather than fun frustrating. Annoyingly you can’t map jump to any other button, as moving it to either circle or triangle would solve this problem almost instantly. I’ve hardly got huge trucker sausage fingers either so I suspect this is a far bigger problem for those who don’t have dainty digits like mine.
Mind you, this is hardly the game for those lacking dexterity. I think the reason I have always preferred this to genre stablemate Trials is that where the latter game rewards patience and a delicate touch, Meat Boy is a lot more about going hell-for-leather and making split second decisions. It can seem almost impossibly difficult, and for those less belligerent as I or without quite so many platforming hours under their belt, I expect the love affair will be short-lived. The dark and light world mechanic (where a tougher version of a previously completed level is unlocked if you get to Bandage Girl within a certain time) does provide a cleverly plotted difficulty curve and there are always plenty of options to get involved if you’re stuck. But you’ll also come up against levels like the notoriously difficult ‘The Kid’ warp zone which was surely designed by a sociopathic spike fetishist in a huff. If struggling with a single screen of platforming for two hours doesn’t sound like your idea of fun then there is the possibility that this isn’t the game for you.
Oddly for a game that’s only a few years old, Meat Boy does feel very much of his time. This isn’t a huge problem but the game does have the distinct flavour of the turn of the decade before we had the retro-themed Indie overload that we have today. The numerous titles that have appeared in the interim have dampened the impact somewhat and it’s no longer the trailblazer it once was. It’s like when every critically acclaimed T.V crime drama was suddenly created in Scandinavia. Yeah, they’re all good but sitting through a BBC4 repeat of The Killing isn’t very appealing either, no matter how snazzy the jumpers are. I feel like I’ve played so many rock-hard, frustrate-a-thons in the meantime can I really stomach going back through one of the originators again, no matter how much I love it?
Probably not, but then what the portability has done is changed the style of the play somewhat. I’m unlikely to spend weeks exclusively going through it again but whenever I pick up the Vita and see the chunky fella staring back at me I suspect I’ll be tempted to fire it up for a level or two. It’s now a tasty snack; a bite-sized sausage roll rather than an entire suckling pig; and it’s pretty neat how a simple switch of platform has changed my approach. The game has always been suited to this kind of play and I’ve found that despite its ridiculous difficulty, it’s not the kind of thing that you can really lose the knack for. Less than an hour of being reacquainted I was hurtling along, frantically slapping against the floor as if I’d never been away. But then the beauty of this game has always been in its exquisitely designed controls; the arc of the jump, the inertia, the slight stickiness against the walls and the soft decent. It’s the kind of thing that once it sinks into your head and fingers it will never really go away.
So, Super Meat Boy on Vita just about scrapes into the pantheon of games and machines that seem like a perfect fit. Like Tetris on the Gameboy, Frequency on the PS2 and Digidrive on the Micro (seriously, look it up, it’s called Intersect on the Nintendo eShop, I promise you won’t regret it) once you’ve had a go it’s difficult to imagine playing on anything else. The only slight danger of course is that in holding the game in your hands there’s a chance you’ll launch the machine through a window when things get a bit frisky. It’s an excellent game on a magnificent machine; a Kobe beef steak served on a silver platter. And although Meat Boy may not be as rare as he once was but there’s no doubting that his long-awaited arrival on a handheld is very well-done.