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A Lesson in Difficulty

Despite that I’m against what Super Meat Boy stands for — namely, the proliferation of “faux-retro” indie games that flip game design ideas and repackage them — I have to admit that it’s a well-made game. As far as the masocore genre is concerned, SMB hits a lot of the points that should be hit. Instant restarts, quick pacing, and bite-sized gameplay all fit to counteract frustration.

But as I made my way through the game, something began feeling off. The levels I was playing were certainly harder than the ones I’d played before, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. I was getting through these levels about as quickly as I was the earlier ones, but I had started enjoying them less. Then I realized why I enjoyed them less: they were longer.

As far as I could tell, that was the only difference in the level design after about world 3. The timing got a little rougher, but I by the time I realized what was going on, I was sure that the length was my issue. The levels were harder mostly because they were longer. What that meant for a game like Super Meat Boy was that when you died, you had to re-do a larger chunk of the game. Which to me ended up feeling like a poor decision. The game’s strength lies with the fact that you’re completing (but usually failing at) the game in small sections at a time, which means that your progress, while incremental, was set. The longer levels just make the game seem more unfair.

And it wasn’t like there were some revelatory or creative twists at the end; the last section of the game has the same jumping over saws and airtime manipulation as the rest of the game. The game had run out of unique ideas, and resorted to changing its difficulty from “the things you have to do” to “how much you have to re-do when you fail.” Which it didn’t need to. N+ is a similar game that doesn’t cross this length line. it keeps the level small enough to fit inside a single screen, meaning that you never have that “start all over” experience that you do with Super Meat Boy.

I don’t think that a longer stretch of time without saving makes games harder — it just makes them more frustrating, and more defeating. I was more inclined to stop playing as the levels got longer. I did beat the game, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I think I should have, considering my wholehearted love of N+. But then again they are an indie, so no harm no foul, right? Right?

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