I recently played Super Meat Boy on XBox Live. It is a really fun game, and it manages innovation in a genre that I would have thought had passed innovation by decades ago. It's an impressive feat, and very much worth some attention.
Super Meat Boy is a 2-D platformer. Like all other successful indie games. Ninety percent of all indie games have to be 2-D platformers now, by federal law. Penalties for violation start at being forced to watch all of the Wandering Around In the Forest Being Emo scenes from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and rapidly get worse from there.
The plot is simple, elemental, and timeless. You play Meat Boy, a small, sentient wad of bloody meat. Your girlfriend, Bandage Girl, has been kidnapped by the evil Dr. Fetus. You have to rescue her. You do so by moving left and right and jumping, hopefully evading all obstacles on your way to get to Bandage Girl. That's it. That's the game. It's a bloodier (MUCH bloodier) version of Donkey Kong, which itself came out about the time Napoleon was getting bogged down in Russia.
And yet, it is insanely fun and amazingly innovative. And the innovation comes from the developers' attempt to answer this simple question:
How do you make a computer game that is extremely hardcore and difficult but, at the same time, light and fun and not frustrating?
Tough problem. And they come up with a great solution. Super Meat Boy has two innovations that make it unique:
1. Short, short levels. No death penalty.
Super Meat Boy is a tough platformer, one of the toughest you will ever play. However, the levels are short. Very short. A lot of them can be completed in less than five seconds. Practically all of them can be done in less than thirty. For all regular gameplay, you don't have "lives". There is no long, annoying death animation. When you die, you are instantly back at the start of the level and able to play again. In other words, you come back to life so fast you will be playing again before you fully realize that you died.
Super Meat Boy requires amazingly difficult jumps, dodges, maneuvers, etc. It can easily take fifty tries to finish a level. And yet, you will often have all of those deaths less than five seconds into a level. So fifty deaths sounds like a lot, but they take place in less that 250 seconds (four minutes or so), which is an entirely reasonable amount of time to spend completing a level.
And when, by some unholy combination of skill and luck, you reach that fifth minute and maneuver through a tough level, you feel like a gaming god.
2. The Awesome Replays
When you finish a level, you see a replay of your attempts. Sounds dull, yes? The difference here is that you see a replay of ALL your attempts, shown at once. You die fifty times before you win? Then the replay shows fifty-one Meat Boys running through the level simultaneously. Fifty of them die in explosions of gore, and one of them gets through. It looks really cool and funny, and you can save the replays and show them to your friends.
The really amazing thing about this feature is subtle but powerful. What the all-attempts replays mean is that every time you die you didn't just waste your time. You added one more Meat Boy to the final replay, making it look cooler. Die fifty times? Then the replay looks spectacular. You aren't just failing. You're creating a bit of video game art. This feature sometimes made me keep trying a level again and again even after my sore fingers begged me to stop, just because I knew that, when I won, the replay would be awesome.
Video game death as personal expression. How cool is that?
There's many levels in the game. Finish a level quickly enough and it unlocks a much more difficult "dark world" version of the level. Plus there are boss fights. Hidden characters. Secret bonus levels. It's one of the best examples I've ever seen of obsessed developers going the extra mile to add craftsmanship and polish to their labor of love. The controls are really tight. The cutscenes are hilarious. Seriously, play this game.
I am on the record as saying that indie game development is overrated from the perspective of innovation. There are plenty of indie developers making hackwork, genre pieces, and clones of more successful games, and EA has published plenty of innovative titles over the last few years. But this is definitely one game that argues for the specialness of indies, and it's definitely worth checking out.