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How to make extreme challenge enjoyable

When videogames first started appearing in arcades and homes around the world it was the challenge that made them so exciting – the exhilaration that came with overcoming opponents and obstacles with skill and gaining that all-important number one ranking on the high score table.

These days games have seen a massive change in why people interact with them. It’s often the case that when we sit down to engage with a videogame we’re not interested in challenge, we simply want to enjoy the sensation of playing. It may be floating above the rolling fields of Flower, taking a souped-up Subaru Impreza for a few relaxed laps around The Nürburgring in Gran Turismo, or turning on No-Fail mode in Rock Band 3 and simply enjoying the tunes without fear of failure.

But over Christmas I played one game in which the extreme difficulty was part and parcel of what made the experience so enjoyable in the first place. Super Meat Boy is incredibly, horribly, teeth-grindingly difficult. It’s also utterly brilliant, and compellingly addictive. Unfortunately Super Meat Boy isn’t yet available on PSN, but I hope it is soon because Team Meat has done an amazing job of recalling some of that old-school difficulty and score chasing that made videogames so absorbing in the Eighties and Nineties.

Super Meat Boy is as retro as it gets. You play a skinless little cube of meat (ok, that’s perhaps not so retro) who’s attempting to save his damsel-in-distress, Bandage Girl. Levels are full of whirring saw blades, pits of lava, deadly drops, spiked walls and floors, and mounds of salt, which can be pretty painful for a guy who’s got no skin. You must navigate these levels using just three contol inputs – walk, run and jump. There are other moves like wall slides and wall jumps which must be used with pixel-perfect precision if you hope to complete each level.

And it’s damned hard. Like other difficult yet brilliant games such as Ninja Gaiden and Bayonetta, Super Meat Boy uses its simple set up to create ridiculously challenging gameplay. Timing, dexterity and patience are all vital skills if you hope to make your way through each obstacle course in Super Meat Boy without hitting any of the deadly, one-hit-kill hazards. But even with the utmost skill you’ll still die, a lot. Many of Super Meat Boy’s levels can take upwards of thirty attempts before you finally see a completion screen, and oftentimes even more than that. Upon completing a level you’ll get a replay of each and every one of your past attempts played out simultaneously, and it’s not uncommon to see a great clump of your Super Meat Boys swarming off the start point, only for half of them to die almost immediately.

And yet playing Super Meat Boy rarely boils the blood, or gets you feeling like you want to chuck the pad. Don’t get me wrong, it can certainly be infuriating, but it never loses the sensation of being fun. The levels are cleverly designed, and make the most of the simple control set-up. Movement is fast and fluid, and bouncing Super Meat Boy around never feels anything less than satisfying. Any death is met with an instant restart, too. There’s no loading or waiting, you’re put straight back at the beginning of whatever level you’re on the instant Meat Boy is turned to mince. And if you’re anything like me, no matter how many times you tell yourself “THIS is the last go”, it never is. Super Meat Boy is addictive a game as they come, and you’ll find yourself attempting the same levels over and over until you’ve got them cracked. That’s a huge part of what makes Super Meat Boy’s intense difficulty so entertaining. With every attempt you’re learning a bit more of the level, and how to best navigate its obstacles. By your last go you’ll be able to whip past and around the level like a flawless, expert gamer. It’s exhilarating, to say the least.

Super Meat Boy reminds me of one other Xbox Live Arcade title: N+. Like Super Meat Boy, N+ is a game about perpetual motion and staying one step ahead of the level’s traps and enemies using speed and dexterity. Both it and Super Meat Boy are incredibly hard, but it’s not the kind of difficulty that makes you want to switch off the console or throw your pad against the wall. It’s the kind of difficulty that makes you feel any mistake is your own fault, not the game’s, and as such you’re compelled to overcome the challenge and prove to yourself that you are capable of such a feat. There are few more rewarding sensations in gaming than that.

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