There are lots of ways to make a game hard, and fiendish level design is only one of them. Mega Man 2 was hard largely because the levels were so long, and because being killed by a robot master meant replaying an entire level; Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was hard primarily because the controls sucked, and once you jumped, you had no control whatsoever over where you might land or what might have spawned beneath you while you were in the air. To get through these games, one needs a considerable measure of masochism. They’re punishing by design. But they’re not explicitly or intentionally messing with you.
Super Meat Boy, on the other hand, is explicitly and intentionally messing with you. I’ve died more than 8,500 times in Super Meat Boy, and I fully expect that number to exceed 10,000 by the time I collect every stray bandage and conquer every last warp zone. But while I will probably never finish Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, I have every intention of reaching that elusive 100% mark in Super Meat Boy, because frankly, it’s much more fun to tangle with a ridiculously demanding game mechanic than to wrestle with an essentially broken one.
Super Meat Boy belongs to the sub-genre sometimes called masocore, or else “frustration platformers.” These games subvert the player’s expectations, bend the rules without breaking them. Think of Super Mario Bros. 2 (the Japanese one, which is called The Lost Levels on this side of the Pacific), and the way it takes the Mario you know and makes it evil–transforming the Mushroom Kingdom into a waking nightmare wherein warp zones lead to barren hellscapes and mushrooms fucking kill you.
Many frustration platformers–like I Wanna Be The Guy, or the constellation of masocore Mario hacks, from Super Mario Forever to Kaizo Super Mario–take pride in their overt cruelty, allowing the player to see deadly obstacles far too late to avoid them, and demanding memorization, trial and error, and the sheer endurance of a seasoned marathon runner.
But Super Meat Boy might more accurately be filed under a sort of sub-sub-genre that does not yet have a name, to which Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV also belongs. You could call it zen masocore. As Kieron Gillen explains, VVVVVV “does everything it can to make the game as easy as possible. Except the game. Which, if you’re going to make a grotesquely difficult game like this, is the way to do it,” because “Humanity can endure anything but unfairness.”
The levels are short, and the action is constant. You restart almost instantly upon death. The controls are unassailably tight, and your goal is constantly clear, and when you die, you always know exactly why you’ve died, and how to avoid it next time. A frustration platformer, then, without all that unnecessary frustration.
The game is still messing with you, but the point is no longer to make you angry. The point is to make you accept that you’re going to fail again and again and again, but that with attention, practice, and a sort of “Sisyphean stoicism,” you can succeed. The point is to make the game’s challenges seem utterly impossible, and yet at the same time, absolutely fair. When you succeed, you’re on top of the world, because you’ve done the impossible, as you somehow always knew you could.
When you first start playing video games, that feeling of accomplishment is nearly constant. But as you get get older, and as you get better, such moments become ever fewer and farther between. Super Meat Boy guarantees that incomparable feeling to all of those who are willing put in the requisite time and effort. No one will breeze through this game, and so everyone who beats it will feel that peculiar rush that can only come from achieving the impossible.
Here difficulty isn’t a niche feature, intended as the exclusive province of extreme masochists. Here, difficulty is the great equalizer. I won’t say that it’s for everyone, but there is something about it that could only be called universal.