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Making Meat Boy Move

Nearly 10 years after its release, Super Meat Boy is still a game revered for its tight controls and level design. Within a well-defined set of rules and constraints, a masterpiece was born.

Making Meat Boy Move

Super Meat Boy is a small indie game released by Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes in October of 2010. Just two people. It's an incredible game that has received a lot of respect from gamers and game designers alike. The portion of the game that sees the most praise is its level design along with Meat Boy's precision platforming. The two concepts are closely intertwined. Levels are designed to make moving Meat Boy more enjoyable and the way Meat Boy moves is constrained by the placement of hazards throughout a given level. This article takes a brief look at both aspects of the successful platforming title to see what can be learned from a game design perspective.

 

Carefully Crafted

My little sister has recently found a passion for Super Meat Boy and watching her play the game for hours on end has helped illuminate just how carefully each level is designed.

SMB typically presents the player with a singular path through any given level. Very rarely are there alternate routes, you can't stealth your way past turrets, and you can't shoot obstacles or dodge through them with a few invincibility frames. Players have to understand how Meat Boy moves in order to overcome the challenge that each level presents and the levels are meticulously crafted to speed up that learning process.

 

In the image above - World 2-3 "Memories" - the ceiling is covered with small spikes (medical syringes to be exact) and sawblades fly along the bottom of each platform. This forces the player to carefully tap the jump button to get past the sawblades rather than launching themselves into the air and into the spikes above. Many of the game's levels make use of this need for tight controls and precise movement. The fun is in overcoming the rigid constraints of the level's physical space within the bounds of Meat Boy's range of motion.

 

Just Three Buttons

The movement of Meat Boy can be broken down into a few key motions: Run, jump, and wall slide. Each of those movements can be slightly modified by holding the jump button 'X' on a PlayStation controller. A small tap makes Meat Boy hop while a long press makes him leap. Then, to achieve maximum thrust, players use the left analog stick and L2 to run before jumping. A running jump will take players across large gaps, but you'll always jump further by pushing off a wall than you will outright sprinting across a platform. As simple as this may seem, the small amount of variance embedded into each button press helps create a much more engaging platforming experience.

Imagine for a moment if you got the same result whether you tapped or held the jump button in SMB. An immense amount of design space is lost and the entire game would be completely different. Platforming puzzles that take hours to overcome are suddenly trivial. Some areas of the game wouldn't even be possible without significant reworks since they require small, quick jumps like in the "Memories" level. It also hurts the ability to speedrun. Players would no longer be able to cut their jumps short to minimize unnecessary airtime. Removing the variance in jump height lessens the level of control players have over the character and the level of difficulty in the game. Essentially, the challenge of SMB is centered around performing each jump just right. If there is only one way to perform a jump, then levels become significantly less challenging and less interesting.

 

Learn on Every Level

Nearly every level in Super Meat Boy teaches the player something important that influences how they'll tackle levels in the future. Spikes, sawblades, lasers, and other enemy AI all work to push the player to move in a particular way. For example, on the boss level of Chapter 3: The Salt Factory, I watched my sister perform over 100 runs trying to outrun Brownie and the rising sea of salt. It was torment for both of us as I watched her grind away at the level and repeatedly turn Meat Boy into a pile of red mush.

Throughout her many playthroughs, she eventually learned to follow Brownie's movements to overcome some of the level's more difficult platforming segments. Notably, Brownie doesn't leave behind any trail on the platforms when he lands like Meat Boy does. This forces players to watch Brownie more closely rather than just following in his skid marks. By watching Brownie, players know where to go to outrun the salt pile and learn new and faster methods of moving Meat Boy. In this way, Brownie acts as an invisible tutorial for the player. In many other cases, sawblades help illustrate the sort of movement Meat Boy is capable of. Their placement is so precise that there is no way past the obstacle beyond mastery. The images below illustrate this perfectly.

 

In summary, through careful placement of its hazards, SMB teaches players to move Meat Boy in just the right ways. A small amount of variance embedded into the movement system gives players more control and elevates the skill ceiling. In many ways, level after level is a mini tutorial where players can only progress once they understand how they need to move Meat Boy. All of these aspects helped make it a successful game and a good study for us game designers.

Resources

The original Meat Boy Prototype on Newgrounds: https://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/463241

Super Meat Boy Postmortem:

https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/134717/postmortem_team_meats_super_meat_.php?page=1

Super Meat Boy Forever:

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/mb5d7b/super-meat-boy-has-been-out-for-8-years-but-its-still-not-finished-forever

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