About games and gaming thereof!

Old School Gaming and Super Meat Boy

So yesterday Shamus Young wrote an article talking about how people complain that games are becoming dumber. I’ll try to summarize his points as best I can:

  • PC gamers like to complain that games nowadays are too simple and shallow, and they tend to blame consoles and console gamers for this.
  • Console gamers like to complain that games are too easy, and they like to blame casual gamers (who are primarily PC-based, ironically) for this.
  • Bringing the platform wars into this whole complaining spree is irrelevant, because the real reason games are becoming simpler and easier is because game developers and publishers are trying to appeal to wider audiences.

So anyway, then Shamus talked more about this on his blog, and hell, this time I might as well just quote him directly.

“We keep looking to indies to deliver us, but is that reasonable? Note the gap in budgets. If someone wanted to make another System Shock 2, how could it be done? It’s too niche for a current-gen big-budget game – the development costs of making a game that big and open with today’s technology would be astronomical compared to the cost of making the game back in 1998. On the other hand, making a first-person game is really tough for indies. The jump from 2D to 3D requires an increase in the size of your team. Even if you’re working with old tech, it still takes a lot of different people to make a character, texture them, animate them, voice them, and give them proper AI. It’s probably completely unreasonable to attempt such a thing with the usual indie team of one to five people. Is it reasonable to say that some games simply cannot be made, even though certain people would love them?

I’m sure there’s at least one indie development studio out there that certainly can make a System Shock 2. There probably aren’t many, but we’ve seen the potential before. Amnesia: The Dark Descent was an indie game, and it pulled off the whole 3D thing quite nicely. And I know Minecraft doesn’t exactly have the most intelligent AI in the world, but I’m willing to bet that if Mojang worked at it they could probably do the job alright. But I don’t think any of the studios that can make those games are necessarily planning to. Frictional Games seems very intent on making horror games with physics puzzles, and I hear Mojang is working on a card game now or something.

But while I agree that there’s probably not a good chance of any indie devs making a game akin to System Shock 2 or Deus Ex (and believe me when I say that I’m just as upset about this as he is), that only covers half of the whiners he mentioned. I don’t know when and if PC gamers are going to find any niche fulfillment from the indie scene, but with games like N+, Splosion Man and Super Meat Boy, I think the old school console gamers already have their niche filled.

It’s kind of unfortunate for me, because while I do wish we had more games like Deus Ex, I don’t ever find myself missing those games back then that were so frustrating they made me try to break my controller in half.

Now hold on just a moment. Don’t start yelling at me about nostalgia. I only first played Deus Ex just last year, and I grew up with a SNES. Actually, I grew up on both console and PC gaming. In the living room I would play Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country, and in the computer room I would play Warcraft 2 and Diablo. (Yeah, I played Diablo when I was 3 years old. I’m sure that didn’t have any effects on my young impressionable mind…)  I guess you could say Nintendo and Blizzard were sort of my second parents growing up.

Anyway, I had a topic somewhere… Oh yeah, Super Meat Boy.

I figured what with all this talk about old school gaming, it would be an appropriate time for a review of this game, especially since I just got up to the final boss last night. Super Meat Boy really is a remnant of a bygone age. It’s a 2D platformer with loads of instant death traps and cartoony visuals. It’s about a boy made of meat who’s trying to save his girlfriend made of bandages from an evil fetus. And as ridiculous as that premise is, you have to admit that it’s not much more absurd than an Italian plumber jumping on turtles and eating magical mushrooms.

This game is about as old-school as it gets without 8-bit graphics and MIDI tunes.

Now, whenever some oldbie starts complaining about games being too easy nowadays I always get the urge to slap him or her in the face. Presumably they would like games to be like they were in the NES days, but those games weren’t hard because they were well-designed; they were hard because they were badly designed. It was a side-effect of the fact that game developers didn’t quite know what they were doing yet. Most of the difficulty came from shitty controls, unfair level design, and horrendously cheap attacks from baddies. Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, Megaman, all those old franchises suffered from these problems. And for whatever reason, gamers ate it up.

I know I ate it up at the time, but I can acknowledge the fact that I didn’t really have standards back then. I was what, like, 3?

Anyway, Super Meat Boy faithfully follows these traditions with a disgustingly unfair movement system. I’m sorry but if you haven’t played this game or its flash-based predecessor, then you have no idea how bad it is. It feels incredibly slippery, and you’re going to spend a lot of time overshooting jumps, or undershooting jumps while trying not to overshoot. Some of the early levels look deceivingly simple until you realize that landing on that little platform is going to be a hell of a lot harder than you think.

Thankfully unlike the original flash game, you can unlock a whole cast of bonus characters (all of which are guest stars from other games), and they all control differently and have different special abilities. From what I’ve played so far, none of them are as slippery as Meat Boy. So other than during the boss battles which require you to play as Meat Boy for some stupid reason, you can choose whatever character fits your play style best, and it’s pretty intuitive.

Which is not to say that the game isn’t still ridiculously hard. Some of the level design is ridiculous, especially in the later levels. The most egregious level I’ve seen so far is the level required to unlock The Kid from I Wanna Be The Guy, and here’s just a little screenshot of it.

Level design 101: ...Wait a minute, what the fuck is this?!

Yeah, I get that they wanted to make it super crazy hard as an homage to the game it’s referencing, but not only is it unreasonably hard, it doesn’t actually resemble I Wanna Be The Guy. If they really wanted to resemble it, they should have put you in a level that didn’t look dangerous in the slightest, until you took one step forward and got savaged by an army of gravity-defying apples.

Oh, and for a reason completely unknown to me, you’re stuck playing as Meat Boy for the entire last world of the game, which just happens to be the hardest. It’s only five levels long, so I guess it’s not that big of a deal, but it still really pisses me off because those last five levels took the N+ school of level design; that is, make an obnoxiously long level with no mid-level checkpoints, and make sure that the hardest part is at the very end. THIS IS NOT GOOD LEVEL DESIGN, PEOPLE.

Yeah, some people probably enjoy being unfairly punished for failure, but refusing mid-level checkpoints in order to appeal to those people is like making the game stab you regularly in order to appeal to masochists. Yeah, some people might like it, but it’s just bad design, plain and simple.

Oh, and here’s a bewildering screen you get to see every time you boot up the PC version of the game:

The caption is different every time, but it always implies that gamepads are the sacred master race and that keyboards are for idiots.

Now, I do agree that gamepads are typically better for platformers, but I think keyboard controls can work just fine as well. Keyboard controls don’t work well in this game though, because someone on the dev team thought it would be a good idea to set jumping to the space bar and sprinting to left shift. Since you have to hold down the sprint button for most of the game, it feels really awkward and it makes your pinky sore.

But the thing is, that’s not the keyboard’s fault. That’s the game’s fault. I think it would have been better if they set jumping and sprinting to Z and X or something like that. Different people would probably have different answers for what configuration is best, so why not just let the player reconfigure the controls? It can’t be that hard to give that option, right? I mean, most PC games nowadays have that option by default.

And if the developers meant to use this game to show that gamepad controls are better than keyboard controls, then that’s just fucking stupid. That would be like trying to use a mouse with your foot, and then using that as proof that joystick aiming is obviously way better than mouse aiming. Luckily I have a gamepad and the gamepad controls are very convenient, since it lets you use either of the trigger buttons to sprint, as well as one of the thumb buttons. But still. How hard could it have been to let us reconfigure the controls ourselves? Did they just not care?

Anyway, I don’t want to get too nitpicky, because I have genuinely enjoyed playing Super Meat Boy. It’s frustrated me a lot along the way, but I guess the fact that I was willing to push through it all the way up to the final boss is a good sign, especially since my attention span tends to be on level with that of a rodent.

I still hold strongly in my assertion that old school games were hard because of their sloppy design, but Super Meat Boy does a lot to make the game varied and interesting enough to keep you going. It keeps a fast pace and whenever you die you can instantly start the level again.

I’m really glad the indie scene exists. Among other things, it allows niche genres like these to keep on living. I’m not sure if we’re ever going to see an indie developer give us the kind of depth we saw during the beloved “PC gaming golden age,” but at least some people are getting to relive their glory days.

One response

  1. Pingback: Deus Ex « Ninja Game Den

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