'Super Meat Boy' and the Rise of Micro-Level Video Games


Why is the incredibly silly video game Super Meat Boy so important? Released on Xbox Live earlier this month (and coming to the Wii and home computers soon), SMB puts players in control of an animated slab of meat who runs and hops to save a "princess" (Bandage Girl) from an evil villain (Dr. Fetus).

It's an homage to challenging, NES-style classics like Mega Man and Super Mario Brothers, but its art design, sense of humor, tight mechanics, and creative puzzles make it fresh. The two-man team who spent years designing it now bask in critical raves, and they've snuck a bunch of "indie" gaming characters into SMB as a show of underground brotherhood.

That fun list of bullet points tells a nice rags-to-riches video game tale, but last week's stories and accolades miss the biggest point, one that may shape the industry for years to come: micro-levels.

The average length of a Super Meat Boy level is about nine seconds. A screen pops up, and players are expected to plot a perfect series of four or five jumps and sprints from start to finish. SMB leaves no room for fluff. It doesn't put players on a long quest with minutes of downtime or repetition; it doesn't force a long walk through a boring valley. You show up, you pull off an amazing, brief set of jumps, and you're out. In the case of tougher levels, if you fail, you've only lost four or so seconds, and the game dumps you back immediately to try again.

I applaud this aspect, but maybe that's because I'm an arcade fan who particularly likes this full-circle moment in gaming history. With Pong and Space Invaders, games were simple experiments in stimulus and response, typically designed to squeeze out quarters in brief sessions. With '80s and '90s home game systems, those ideas grew more complex, until we eventually peaked with mega-worlds like Grand Theft Auto. Now, the bubble recedes with short-burst iPhone games like Angry Birds and downloadable Xbox games like 'Splosion Man and Limbo.

Nintendo has experimented with a brilliant micro-game series called WarioWare, but its 2003 Japanese debut predated an iPhone world. Now, the industry has caught up. Popular games are shrinking, and SMB makes Angry Birds' minute-long challenges look like Tolstoy. Mark my words: with a debut-week sales count of 150,000 and counting, and a growing market for mobile and online players, SMB's two-man team won't be the last to ask players how little they want their games.