I remember when games were hard. And not "hard" like the Xbox generation thinks of the word. I'm thinking of an era before checkpoint heroes like Gordon Freeman and Master Chief. I'm thinking of a time when retrying chapters — like in Devil May Cry 3 and Bayonetta — was a far-off dream. I remember when games were really, truly, abusively difficult.
I'm talking about endeavoring to play ceaselessly punishing titles like Bionic Commando while balancing on the teetering edge of a blue-screen-prone NES with a failing 72-pin connector. I'm talking about the moment when I landed a jump onto the two-pixel-wide eye of an alligator in Pitfall! on my 2600. Or when I beat Contra without the Konami code. I'm talking about going toe to toe with “Iron” Mike Tyson himself and coming out the winner. And best of all, I'm talking about Super Meat Boy.
But let's back up: I don't want to give Super Meat Boy a specious title. People have mistakenly rushed to name Super Meat Boy the hardest game of the last few years. It's not. It's very likely that many Meat Boy fans are totally unaware of the number of like-minded indie developers that the creators pay respect to in the game — a few of whom have engineered titles that are just as (or more) difficult than Meat Boy itself.
So, in service to those interested, here are a few self-flagellating experiences — directly referenced in Super Meat Boy — that are sure to make you head into the kitchen and bring a knife to your two favorite opposable digits.
And for anyone looking to wuss out…a bit of motivational music to get you started:
Flywrench — Mark “Messhof” Essen
Mark Essen creates some of the most wildly “out there” games around. If you want proof of fact, give Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist a try. It's a mind-bogglingly alienating and hard-to-play experience. And I think that's very important.
Unless we want to forecast our future only in terms of first- and third-person shooters, we should pay attention to what Essen presents us. Essen's games illustrate what the medium can be — or more succinctly, what it is: an out-of-body decision-making nirvana, where we grapple with nonsensical controls that attempt to reproduce the imperceptible intentions of the creator's mind.
Playing a game is a bit like trying to interpret another person's dreams. More prosaically, we can jump on mushroom men, we can roll things up into giant balls, and we can go on murderous rampages. Or, in the case of Flywrench, we can bang our heads against the wall while listening to migraine-inducing ambient techno and navigating nearly impossible, dexterity-focused mazes. (It's fun. I promise.)
Eessen has found some use for his surreal ideas in Flywrench as well as on AdultSwim.com. Also, his upcoming mulitplayer effort Nidhogg looks like tons of fun.
Play the game: Flywrench
Other titles: Cream Wolf, You Found the Grappling Hook, Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist, Nidhogg (video)
VVVVVV — Terry Canavaugh
If Super Meat Boy leads the U.N. council of punishing independent design, then VVVVVV's Terry Canavaugh is this year's “beat you to a bloody pulp” delegate. Canavaugh's oddly named title explodes with personality and features art, sound, and gameplay that are sure to lionize him in indie circles for years to come. Magnus “Souleye” Pålsson's incredible chiptune soundtrack is also of special note. It wouldn't surprise me if he becomes a sought-after composer for other indie efforts.
If anyone is likely to reproduce the successes of Super Meat Boy, Braid, Plants vs. Zombies, or World of Goo in the coming months, Terry Canavaugh looks to be your man.
Play the game: VVVVVV (demo), VVVVVV (full)
All Our Friends Are Dead — Amon26
The mysteriously named Amon26 is a bit of a renaissance man when it comes to game design. Though Super Meat Boy only features his art in a cursory manner — as a level lead in — his recent titles Au Sable and All Our Friends Are Dead are the result of his own artistic, programming, and music-making acumen.
Both games are run-and-gun Contra-style efforts, but what makes them so special is their overwhelming conveyance of isolation and their keen sense of oppressive devastation. A few fans have even gone out on a limb to say that his works are some of the scariest games recently produced. They're also damn hard. Due to his strength of vision, Amon26, like many of the indie devs on this list, is someone to look out for in the future.
Play the game: All Our Friends Are Dead
Other titles: Au Sable
Mighty Jill Off — Auntie Pixelante
Auntie Pixelante's Mighty Jill Off investigates spaces that most modern titles don't even bother to think about. Mighty Jill Off is a hypersexualized, bondage-themed platformer (though it actually contains very little explicit material). With her remake of a little-known NES title called Mighty Bomb Jack, she explores the power dynamics of sexuality and disassembles essentialist male and female sex roles as portrayed in video games — as well as the significance of difficulty and reward as a design method.
By turning Mighty Bomb Jack into the titular lesbian boot-fetishist Jill, Pixelante simultaneously comments on the power exchange between “the developer” and “the player” while also exploring how video-game merit systems mirror real-life reward structures in areas like sexuality and interpersonal relations.
Pixelante also gets major credit for coining “masocore” as a genre that describes titles purposely devised to challenge the player's expectations of developer demand and reprimand.
Play the game: Mighty Jill Off
Other titles: Redder
I Wanna Be the Guy — Michael "Kayin Nasaki" O'Reilly
It's the king daddy of them all: I Wanna Be the Guy. I'm not shitting you when I say that this may be one of the most difficult games ever created. Apples? They kill you. Clouds? They kill you. Mike Tyson? He'll probably kill you. Link? Definitely going to kill you. Ghost, ghouls, and/or goblins? Triple kill you. Giant mecha-Birdo? Who the hell knows! (Hint: It's probably going to kill you.)
Video-game references and nostalgia? Well, they're likely the only thing that will keep you alive — or at least entertained enough to keep on giving a shit.
What's crazy about the game is that it never — not once — breaks from any of the rules or conventions established by NES platformers. Instead, it just keeps piling on the hardest, most frustrating aspects of them all. If you die, it's your fault. And if you give up? Well, you're a wimp.
I've only ever made it to the fourth screen, and I watched most of the game on YouTube. You know what that makes me? A cringing, mewling baby.
Where's my New Super Mario Bros. Wii?!
Play the game: I Wanna Be the Guy