Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bringin' The Meat

You never know what is going to catch on with your kids.

We recently downloaded a demo of Super Meat Boy on Xbox Live. I’d heard a lot of good things about the original flash Meat Boy game, but I’m not a big fan of playing games on a PC so I had no experience with it. Mostly it seemed to be described as a 2D platformer with old school difficulty (the very idea of 2D platforming is old school now) but a modern sense of humor and up-to-date sheen. That’s pretty accurate. It doesn’t limit lives or continues like the old games tended to. It does send you back to the beginning of each level when you die, BUT the levels are very short… most not much more than a single screen for the tiny Meat Boy to negotiate. It is a very accomplished distillation of what was fun about those old games, together with the challenge… but minus a lot of the grueling aspect that could make those games frustrating. Although I’m not really in the mood for 2D platformers right now, I do recognize the greatness and will probably give it a go at some point.

What I was not expecting was for my children to think Super Meat Boy is the Second Coming.

My kids are pretty varied in their game tastes… if I compare them to what I hear about their friends. My daughter has almost no buddies that play, but the little they do, it's all ‘Bemani’ stuff like Dance Dance Revolution. She likes DDR, but she also plays singing games like Lips, the action puzzler Peggle, platformers like Super Mario Galaxy and Drawn To Life, and she’s beaten the story mode on two Naruto fighting games. She’s also deadly at Wii Tennis. She doesn’t follow video game reviews, and without input from friends she just gets what she thinks she’d like, based on the game’s artwork, if it has a license she knows, or from something she might see me demo.

My son is much more into video gaming, and he has a ton of friends who also play (Yeah duh I guess, tween boy in USA circa 2010). All his cronies however, are into the latest murder simulators or whatever edgy M-rated game has the biggest hype-fest going on down at GameStop. As of this writing, the headliners are things like Modern Warfare: Black Ops and Fallout: New Vegas (yeah I know, an RPG). Well, because he lives with a parent who restricts the shit out of his intake of video game gore and criminality, he has had to find games that break away from all headshot junk his friends play... but that he'll still enjoy. In addition, because his gamer Dad only delves into gritty FPS or cover shooter games himself occasionally, he has been exposed to much of the OTHER stuff that’s out there. So like a kid whose culinary likes can be broadened by what the parents feed them, my son casts a pretty wide net (for a twelve year old) when it comes to playing games.

The dearth of his experience with M-rated games and his love of other genres baffles his friends and subjects him to some hardship unfortunately. But fun is fun and he has managed to cultivate a they’re-just-being-dumb-and-don’t-know-what-they’re-missing attitude. On the occasion he CAN overlap his experiences with theirs he does. This time he surprised me by going seriously old school with Super Meat Boy. And then so did my daughter.

Super Meat Boy has some edgy, sometimes inappropriate, humor but it isn't much worse than anything they might see on a Nickelodeon gross-fest situation comedy... um, apart from the inclusion of the lead character from the game Mighty Jill Off. If you don't get the double-entendre of that title Google awaits. The visuals and sound effects are cute black humor of the same sort one gets watching something like Mighty Tree Friends. So that got their attention, but the play mechanics have kept them there. Short, brutal levels with tight controls and really exacting platforming perils and solutions. You'll die a million times, but restarting at the beginning of each level is so quick... and the levels themselves so short... that most of the time you won't even have time to cuss and throw the controller. That's the genius. Yeah, its tough and potentially frustrating, but the game doesn't really give you enough time to think about how much you suck. The restart is instant, effectively showing you how a tantrum thrown is just wasting time you could be spending making another attempt. And when you do get through a level, the game replays all your attempts at the same time so you get the amusing sight of Meat Boy copies all throwing themselves at the various spots that were so difficult with one loner finally making it through!

I don't necessarily think my kids will suddenly want to just jump into old school 2D platformers. They are kind of interested in Sonic The Hedgehog 4, a new game with old mechanics, but that's probably about the limit. Besides the clunky music and graphics, the old games usually limited lives or continues or had MUCH more limited (or imprecise) controls compared to Meat Boy. As I said earlier, it is a modern distillation of an old set of mechanics which can be very satisfying and enjoyable when negotiated correctly. And it's almost as far from Call of Duty and the other flavor-of-the-month FPS games as you can get. Sometimes I have a hard time explaining what was so good about those old games... and why I still play them sometimes. Meat Boy pretty much explains it for me.

And too bad for their friends who think a cube of anthropomorphic meat ain't cool. No, he doesn't wear the latest in body armor or pick off gun runners with clean headshots through a 30x scope. A little break from that shit isn't a bad idea, kids.

(image cribbed from Kotaku, the devil's very armpit for Gaming Journalism)

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