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Untold Riches: Super Meat Boy level 5-3

A short look at a very intelligent and provocative bit of level design

Hamish Todd, Blogger

October 19, 2013

4 Min Read

Super Meat Boy is full of great design. This is a short post looking at one particularly clever little thing that happens in level 5-3.

As a level designer, the "obvious" thing to do is often to make a level out of a bunch of closely-related challenges, in ascending order of difficulty. "The difficulty of the game matches the player's [escalating] skill level" is what is prized by designers who look for "flow". But there are interesting things you can do which defy this thinking, and 5-3 presents a good example of this.

Basically we're talking about one specific sawblade-avoiding challenge at the very end of the level. Here's a picture:

First to say, getting past this part is very hard, even for Super Meat Boy. Upward momentum is conserved when you hit a wall - here you're required incorporate that into a strategy.

Second thing to say, this thing comes at the very end of a decently-sized and difficult level. Here's a picture of the whole level.

(There's a bigger version on this page)

As I say, our challenge is on the far right, at the end of the level. For the player to get to it or even see it, they'll need to have run quite a gauntlet.

The gauntlet is a few interesting challenges related to anti-gravity balls - which have nothing at all to do with the challenge we're looking at. That happens a lot in Super Meat Boy - the final hurdle is unrelated to (and usually easier than) all the preceding hurdles. These "denouement"-like things can give a game a very colourful structure; anna anthropy has talked about the way this is done in NightSky.

On the face of it though, our challenge is much crueller than the usual end-level challenges. Our thing is "puzzle" platforming; it asks for contemplation and experimentation. But the player's capacity for both of these seem to be unfairly limited due to its placement at the end of the level!

If you screw up an attempt, it'll be a while before you get try it again. Therefore your experiences of it are spaced apart, so you can't contemplate it so well. Plus since it's so punishing, experimenting with strategies could feel awful. This might be the kind of situation you'd expect to encounter in games like Dark Souls, but not in Super Meat Boy, which is meant to be a more "dynamic" experience.

But it turns out there's something more clever going on! Here's a close look at the start of the level:

This is symmetric with the end, our challenge. But think about how you'd get through it and you'll see it's different. In order to get past, all you have to do is slide down the wall while the sawblade's out of the way.  On the offchance that you hit the sawblade, your death will lose you less than one second of progress. By the game's standards this is a laughably, pointlessly easy mini-hurdle, something you can blaze straight past without a second thought - but after you've seen what the end of the level looks like, you certainly should be giving it a second thought!

What's happening here is that the game is making you a polite offer. It is giving you the opportunity to be clever. What the player can do is to use this place as the practicing ground for its mirror-reversed twin sibling. To practice, you slide down, then try to get back up.


The mirror symmetry of the whole level is a visually appealing clue for the player, as are the small grey lines (pipes?) near the ceilings. Also, Super Meat Boy is famous for its instantaneous restart, which here would be teleporting you from the difficult final thing straight to the practicing place. All this helps nudge the player to the idea of "practicing" here (though with player behaviour, there are seldom ever "guarantees").

Realize that they could have done this differently. They could have had the final part earlier in the level. It could have been a straightforward "here is a challenge, deal with it by normal means". It would have been perfectly fine that way. But Team Meat added this interesting extra layer, this "strategizing about strategizing".

For those interested in reading more about level design and especially good "teaching" techniques, I recently put together this compilation of articles from many clever writers. It also has all my previous work.

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