Hard games are enjoying a revival right now. But while Demon's Souls may be notorious for offering a gruelling RPG experience, the most punitive titles are often to be found within the platform genre. And it's indie developers who seem keenest to add liberal dollops of pain to your gaming pleasure.
Super Meat Boy practically makes it the player's business to die. Then die again. Then stop and think for a minute, only to die harder.
Meanwhile, VVVVVV's levels are littered with shiny trinkets which are nigh-impossible to obtain. To some these present a challenge, a big, obnoxious sign saying "No, you can't" which begs to be knocked down. To others trying to collect them is a futile task, generating only additional frustration which is best avoided.
In fact, some of these games are so difficult that playing them could be considered an exercise in masochism. Or could it? This is an awkward question to ask, since players won't always agree on which games are "hard" and which are "easy".
In other words, discussing difficulty is difficult. The creator of Super Meat Boy, Edmund McMillen, prefers to see Super Meat Boy as a challenge.
"I wouldn't call it masochistic, because masochism usually means punishment," he says.
"I wouldn't say the game is punishing, because it's kind of my goal to make it not as punishing as old games were. There was a lot of penalty in old games which caused frustration and discouragement.
"Those were things I tried to avoid with the design of Super Meat Boy. It doesn't go out of its way to hurt the player, or to get the player to want to hurt himself.
"I think it's more that people want to push their limits. I wouldn't necessarily say push their limits of punishment or torture, but I would definitely say that it gets people to want to push the limits of their own personal skill. And with that comes dying a lot."
When mainstream blockbusters are put through testing and players get stuck, the temptation for the designer is to rip out whatever is interrupting the flow of play. But there must be balance. The problem might not be an inherent flaw in the game. Maybe the tester is still learning.
Developers must then decide why something is hard to achieve. It could be that the mechanic is unrefined. It could be that the objective wasn't clear. It could just be that the tester is rubbish at jumping over pits.
The issue of players getting stuck doesn't seem to bother the indie crowd as much. "Most independent developers do make games pretty difficult, because they want their games to be challenging," says McMillen.
"There's something to be said for a game which can challenge you and make you feel good about it."
In these terms, a game is not masochistic when it presents a challenge accompanied by a reward. The result is a purging process which makes the player feel accomplished when they unlock the coveted "You died an awful lot" achievement.
As with so many similar titles, the sense of satisfaction which comes with completing even one level in Super Meat Boy is payback for hours spent fine-tuning your muscle memory.
But what about those games which are so hard they can't be finished? "I will say this: you can beat Super Meat Boy. You can't beat Canabalt," observes McMillen.
Canabalt, Adam Saltsman's one-button game about leaping from rooftop to rooftop, does in fact have a killscreen built-in. But, Saltsman says, you'd have to run "like, a hundred million miles" to see it.
Surely you'd have to be a masochist to take on that kind of challenge. Setting yourself a gruelling, repetitive and impossible task is definitely masochistic, as is spending so long attempting to complete the task you end up feeling bad.
A masochistic gamer, then, must be someone who is defined by failure. Who cannot win, who knows they cannot win, yet carries on regardless and, most importantly, enjoys failing.
But the argument doesn't hold up. Constant loss is not why most people play Canabalt. It can't be completed in the traditional sense, but it still offers rewards in the form of a high scores list.
In a way the achievement comes from pushing your limits, just as it does when playing Super Meat Boy. Though Canabalt is as simple a video game can get in terms of mechanics, Saltsman argues that the spectrum the titles sit on is complex.
"It's just not a single axis, is the thing... I feel there's this completely invented idea that there is a challenge axis and the challenge axis has masochistic, hardcore games on one end and it has accessible games on the other end.
"I actually think there are two axes. There's an axis of accessibility and there's an axis of challenge. And inaccessible games will affect the challenge axis. Like, a game that's hard to physically interact with... Is going to increase the challenge of the game, but I think that's just kind of a crappy challenge.
"Whereas something like Super Meat Boy, it's just move and jump. That's how you interact with the game. So I feel that Meat Boy, despite its high challenge level, is highly accessible, in the same way Canabalt is fairly challenging game."
If you find talk of "axes of interaction" hard to follow, try out this exercise. Go back and read the above paragraphs again and again, until you understand perfectly what Saltsman means.
Done? Did you give up after a few tries, or press on and draw yourself a diagram? This should give you some indication of the kind of person you are.
If you pressed on, the question remains as to whether you're a masochist or just a determined learner. The answer depends on how arduous you found the process.
Difficulty in games usually comes in two forms and elicits two responses. Firstly there's: "I don't know what to do!"
Secondly: "I know exactly what to do, but I can't physically do it!"
Platformers like Super Meat Boy and Canabalt generate the latter response. You know how to avoid the spinning blades or sudden drops; it's just a matter of practicing your timing to perfection.
But the former kind of difficulty breeds an altogether more trying type of masochism. It's not another platformer which comes to mind here, but a game called Dwarf Fortress.
For those who aren't familiar, Dwarf Fortress is a management game which puts the player in charge of a band of seven dwarves, out to establish a new colony. The simulation is immeasurably detailed. Goblins besiege your settlement, your dwarves go mad from lack of alcohol and wildlife is a constant threat.
The whole thing is presented in ASCII. The indecipherable menu system alone probably causes many players to give up minutes into their first game.
"I don't consider Dwarf Fortress to be strictly "masochistic", in the way I'd describe a platformer," says its creator, Tarn Adams.
"But they are similar in that they include elements of user torture. In the case of DF, it's not a good thing, but rather an interface flaw. In the case of, say, a hard platformer, it's a fine thing for people who like it.
"I think it is the user interface, more than the content, that would get somebody to call Dwarf Fortress a masochistic game... Because it troubles you at every turn, even as you try to do easy things."
Adams doesn't believe everyone should copy his model. "I don't think that's a good goal for [designers]. I like games with depth, but depth doesn't imply inaccessibility. In the end, though, developers have to prioritise their time, and we've all got different things we hope to get out of the process."
Like Canabalt, Dwarf Fortress is designed so that there is no endgame. It just continues until the player gets fed up and quits playing, or their fortress is ruined. So does this lack of completion make it masochistic?
"Nah," says Adams. "There are plenty of simulation-style games, such as Life, that don't have an ending, but which you wouldn't label masochistic by themselves. You can set impossible goals for yourself in many games, but then it's less the game being masochistic by design and more the player being a masochist.
"The more the game induces or blatantly railroads the player down difficult paths, the more masochistic the game becomes, I think. Provided it crosses a certain threshold of addiction and replayability."
According to Adams, setting difficult goals doesn't automatically make a game masochistic.
"There's more to it than that. Take I Wanna Be The Guy, for example. There's an extreme, unavoidable, repetitive element to the failures. A game that induces a player to try something over and over again, while giving just a little bit of progress in return, is a good example of a masochistic game.
"Dwarf Fortress lashes you repeatedly with the interface while you struggle to extract pleasure despite all the pain, without the same kind of repetitive element."
Adams says that the satisfaction to be had while playing Dwarf Fortress comes "despite the torments", rather than overcoming repetitive failures. "Perhaps in this sense the repetitive, linear game can be said to be properly masochistic, whereas Dwarf Fortress is just torturing you while you are trying to have a good time."
It is true that in Dwarf Fortress you can set your own goals - deciding what to mine, what to build and what to trade with outsiders - but the only possible future for your fortress is an often frightening, more often amusing, but always tragic one.
It may then be fair to say, then, that the game attracts a certain type of player. Masochists. Madmen and madwomen. What other way is there to describe a person whose idea of a good time is to erect an underground fort via the use of a torturous GUI, only to see it crumble in the face of any one of tmany potential catastrophes? It is fitting that one of the possible downfalls of a dwarven outpost is that the inhabitants go berserk.
When you suggest this to the playerbase, the response is a jubilant scream, a terrifying rally of bloodied, grinning faces laughing into their pus-filled rags while holding aloft a banner made of dismembered torsos. It's adorned with the community motto: "Losing is fun!"
"Given that it's the dwarves who are suffering when you fail, perhaps it's more sadistic than masochistic," Adams laughs. "I wouldn't see it that way though, since the demise of a fortress can be enjoyable in many ways.
"I'm not sure it's masochistic, undertaking a process in which you know something you work hard on over time is going to fall apart. The game is easy enough once you learn it that this might not be an expectation anyway.
"For me, a fortress loss can bounce between being hilarious, being bittersweet and causing panic. And it can have a longer term feel to it, like an embrace of fate or entropy. As the game's development progresses it should also feel like becoming part of history or leaving a legacy."
Video: Meat your maker.
"It'll be necessary to encourage losing in full, rather than reloading saves, to allow the player to experience the full breadth of the game."
In conclusion, then. When a game incorporates excessive or extreme loss into the core gameplay, and not only remains enjoyable but becomes more enjoyable as a result, it becomes masochistic.
Developers have begun to realise this and are now creating game features which subtly reward death. It's why, with Super Meat Boy, you get a video replay when you finally complete a level, showing hundreds of your death-splatters and failed attempts.
This is a reward for overcoming the odds. It's also a means of making you associate all those bloodstains and failures with a sense of victory.
Maybe there are no such things as masochist games, just masochistic gamers. Regardless of mechanics, Meat Boy and Captain Viridian are undeniably masochistic characters. Despite thousands of deaths they each sport a constant grin, crazed and joyous, enthusiastic and unsettling.
Look closely. It's a grin you might wear yourself.
The studio behind Super Meat Boy has revealed that it's planning to follow up its ace indie platformer with a 3DS title.
After re-affirming that the WiiWare version of Super Meat Boy had been scrapped during a presentation at the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco today, co-CEO Tommy Refenes announced that Team Meat has a 3DS dev kit and plans to use it.
On what? He wasn't saying, but a handheld version of Super Meat Boy wasn't ruled out.
"We do have a 3DS dev kit. We will be working on something on the 3DS in the future. We don't know if it's going to be Meat Boy," he explained.
"If it feels right to do 3DS Meat Boy, we'll do 3DS Meat Boy. If it doesn't, we'll do something else, and we'll try and make it super-awesome."
The rock hard jumper launched on PC and Xbox Live Arcade late last year to glowing reviews.
"Super Meat Boy starts out as just another indie game that revels in driving you crazy," wrote Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell during his 9/10 write-up, "but you end up crazy in love."
Team Meat, the indie studio behind hit platformer Super Meat Boy, has launched a bitter attack on Microsoft for not following through on marketing promises it made for the game's Xbox Live Arcade launch.
Speaking at the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco today, co-CEO Tommy Refenes explained that, as part of the platform's Game Feast promotion last October, Super Meat Boy had been promised the release schedule to itself for the week.
However, as it turned out, Double Fine's Costume Quest was added to their launch week at the last minute.
"We were just like 'what the f***? Everyone else gets a free week except for us?'," recalled co-founder Tommy Refenes.
When Refenes turned on his 360 on launch day, things got worse. Team Meat had been told the game would get top billing in the Spotlight feed on the Xbox 360 dashboard, but there was no sign of any promotion for the title whatsoever.
In a state of panic, he immediately fired off an email to the studio's producer at Microsoft.
"I was like 'What's the deal? Are you guys pulling out? Where's our stuff?'," he explained.
"It finally went up half way through our launch day. It was the number four spot; it wasn't number one. The 'spooktacular sale', which was a whole bunch of other games that already came out that was the number one slot.
"An ad for a Mazda 3 was the number two slot because you all go on Xbox to figure out what car you want, right?
"We were number four and we stayed number four the entire week," he continued.
Microsoft then apparently told Team Meat that the better the game performed, the more promotion it would receive. However, despite outselling other Game Feast titles Comic Jumper and Hydrophobia by a significant margin, and racking up great reviews, no further marketing support came.
"We just kind of got pushed to the side, and that's basically how the Xbox Live launch went. The only reason the game sold well was because of how we promoted it. The help from Microsoft was there in a very limited capacity," Refenes insisted.
"It's not supposed to hurt your feelings because it's business, but it totally f***ing hurt my feelings. Me and Ed just killed ourselves trying to get this game done and now we're just pushed to the side.
"It was a f****** mindf***," added the other half of Team Meat, Edmund McMillen.
"It was really confusing. At that point I think we were so f***** up in our heads from development, it almost felt like 'are these people out to get us? What's happening here? Did we do something wrong? Are they trying to screw us because we did something wrong?'"
Later on in the presentation, McMillen tempered the attack a little, insisting that "working with the creative side of Microsoft was great".
"Everybody that we could talk to were great; the people who we couldn't talk to were the problem. So everyone who we worked with was wonderful. Everyone who was making decisions, not so much."
Thankfully for Team Meat, there was a happy ending. The Steam launch went much more smoothly, with PC sales easily outstripping those on Xbox 360. Refenes revealed that the game is now closing in on 400,000 sales across all platforms.
New content is available to download for rock hard platformer Super Meat Boy.
Two new chapters, Expert Remix and Cramps, are ready to download from Xbox Live Arcade.
The Expert Remix level pack "remixes and raises the difficulty of the top 20 best levels in the game" (picked by fans and Team Meat's Edmund McMillen).
Cramps, Super Meat Boy's first user-generated level pack, is "a very well designed chapter that should be easy enough for those of you just starting out but still quite enjoyable for the masochists out there".
Both chapters are part of "The Internets", an XBLA-exclusive chapter that players can only access if they've completed 40 levels from the original game or collected 15 bandages. Best get to work.
Tom reviewed indie darling Super Meat Boy last year, awarding it a super 9/10.
Three tracks from hit indie platformer Super Meat Boy's soundtrack are heading to Rock Band Network, composer Danny Baranowsky has confirmed.
As reported by Joystiq, extended versions The Battle of Lil' Slugger and Can o' Salt, and a retro remix of Betus Blues.
Befitting the relentlessly unforgiving game from which they've sprung, it looks like the tracks will offer a similarly sturdy challenge to seasoned Rock Banders.
"I wanted to have some stuff in there for the people who delight in 100-percenting expert Dragonforce," threatened Baranowsky who also wrote the music for iPhone indie hit Canabalt.
No release date has been confirmed for the tracks yet but Baranowsky promised they'll be available "soon".
In other Meat Boy news, a new level pack is due for the Xbox 360 version of the game soon, while a PC level editor hits any day now.
Super Meat Boy's developer has launched a twin-pronged retort to animal rights group PETA's recent Super Tofu Boy spoof.
Team Meat's co-CEO Edmund McMillen didn't, ahem, mince his words in a lengthy post on the studio's website.
"Honestly this is a major high point for me personally," he claimed.
"Putting all my cards on the table right now, I actually repeatedly made fake user names in PETA's forum pushing the game at them in hopes something like this would happen but gave up, realising that PETA wouldn't ever put effort into something "meat related" that was so small and unknown, that's exactly why this parody is so important and eye opening for us.
"PETA is 1000 times more well known then Super Meat Boy and the fact that they went out of their way to make a parody like this is beyond flattering and amazingly helpful.
"First off," he continues, "I want to thank PETA for helping us turn Super Meat Boy into a house hold name and of course for making themselves look quite foolish in the process... see (as mentioned in countless interviews) Meat Boy isn't made of animal meat, he's simply a boy without skin whose name is Meat Boy... but sshh don't tell them that.
"Now don't get me wrong, I have NOTHING against vegans or vegetarians. I was vegetarian for many years, and was an animal control officer who saved animals for a living for a long time, I empathise, understand and accept why people choose to eat, and live as they wish, and obviously I believe everyone should have the freedom to express themselves in anyway as long as it doesn't hurt others.
"But," McMillen explains, "I don't support an organisation who is 100 per cent against all animal testing, because that would mean my best friend in the world would be dead, not to mention his mother and many of my family members and friends who also are diabetic.
"It's hard to make a come back to a company that is high brow enough to compare concentration camps to chicken coops," he adds, "but I'll try and close this with a joke that's a bit more light hearted.
"How many PETA members does it take to change a lightbulb? None - PETA can't change anything."
BOOM. And it doesn't end there. Team Meat is preparing an update for the PC version of its wonderful platformer that will add in its own take on Tofu Boy, a character it claims it invented long before PETA's effort came along.
Any flesh-shy vegetarian gamers who fell for Super Meat Boy's perfect platforming but balked at all the gore sloshing about might welcome news that US animal rights group PETA has just launched its own food-based jumper: Super Tofu Boy.
Rather than take control of a cube of raw steak as you did in Team Meat's Xbox Live Arcade hit, PETA's effort sees the titular lump of bean curd trying to save Bandage Girl from the clutches of jilted ex-boyfriend Meat Boy.
Have a go - it's not half bad actually.
When Eurogamer spoke to Team Meat prior to the game's release, co-CEO Edmund McMillen told us he was disappointed that the game hadn't already attracted PETA's attention.
"I kind of wish that PETA had flipped out over it so that we could get some crazy press out of it," he said,
"but no, they don't seem to care at all."
A post on Team Meat's Twitter feed today reads "Holy sh*t, Peta made a Tofu parody game of Super Meat Boy... my dreams have come through!"
The first in a series of free level packs has just gone live for vicious Xbox Live Arcade jumper Super Meat Boy.
Exclusive to Xbox 360, The Sewers of Dross pack adds 20 new levels, though the game's titular hero cedes the limelight to Gish, a 12lb lump of tar moonlighting from the 2004 PC indie platformer of the same name.
"This setup allows us to make chapters that no other character could beat except the one in question, a very fun restriction that allows us to make totally fresh levels that almost make the game feel like a whole new platformer," explained developer Team Meat on its blog.
The DLC will be free, though you'll need to have unlocked the 'Teh Internets' area in the game by collecting at least 20 bandages.
Team Meat also lifted the lid on future DLC plans for the game, posting the following schedule:
Can't wait for I Meat Boy. It's not as if the game was hard enough already.
Super Meat Boy launched on Xbox Live Arcade last month, winning a 9/10 from Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell.
A PC version is due on 30th November, with a WiiWare take to hopefully follow next year.
Masochistic platformer Super Meat Boy will release for PC on 30th November, creator Team Meat's announced.
The Steam edition will come with an exclusive playable character: the Headcrab from Half-Life.
"We asked Valve about this almost half joking and they were totally down," said the developer. "(We LOVE Steam...like...a lot. MS is the hot chick you hook up with, Steam is the girl you spend your life with). The Headcrab will replace Gish as the 1st unlockable bandage character. Much like Gish, he will stick to walls but also have more horizontal jumping power as a head crab should.
"Some of you (trolls) may be thinking, 'HAY HEADCRAB ISNT INDIE, F*** YOU SELLOUT A**HOLES,' Well... I dare you to turn down a Headcrab. They are adorable."
Those who buy the game from non-Steam sources get a Goo Ball from World of Goo!.
While we're on the subject of Super Meat Boy, know this: on 21st November the XBLA version will return to its natural price of 1200 MS Points from the 800 MS Points it's currently going for.
Why should you care? That's why.
Super Meat Boy developer Team Meat wants to make one thing clear: there will never - not in a million years - be Super Meat Boy on PS3.
"Why wont this question die?" the carnivorous developer asked. "We have answered it publicly at least 15 times but it just never ends."
"We can't EVER do a PS3 version of Super Meat Boy because when we were going into negotiations with publishers, Sony was the only one that didn't express much interest in the game. We assumed this meant they didn't want the game, and [we] decided to sign with Nintendo and Microsoft.
"Our contracts excluded any release on PS3," the post added. "We would have loved to do a PS3 version, but its not at all possible whatsoever now, so please stop asking about it."
But a PC version of the super-hard, super-retro, super-fantastic timed platform game is very much part of the plan. "Our goal is to release the PC version on Steam by the last week of Nov," Team Meat explained.
PC fans can look forward to exclusive unlockable secret characters in their version of the hit game. There will be six in total, including Captain Viridian from indie smash VVVVVV. A clue to those remaining reads: "One of them sticks, one of them dashes, one of them changes form and one of them isn't organic."
These characters aren't going to make their way to the Xbox Live Arcade game - "No, never."
The PC audience also gets a level editor. The planned release for this is "sometime in December". "The initial release will be a bit rough," warned Team Meat, "but as time passes we will take in your suggestions and fine-tune the editor and level portal into a super smooth piece of awesomeness that will keep the community going for years."
It'll also be "100 per cent free".
Xbox Live Arcade fans can look forward to a beefy title update coming their way on - tentatively - 21st November.
Under the chapter heading "The Sewers of Dross", 20 new levels stuffed. They range from medium difficulty to "soul crushing" and revolved around character Gish and his sticky abilities.
"This update will fix all known bugs, erase all 0.0 times from the leaderboards and come with a totally new music track by Danny called Dr. Fetus's Castle," the blog explained.
The Sewers of Dross will be one of three new chapters released on XBLA this year.
Super Meat Boy arrived in mid-October on Xbox Live Arcade. Like the fantastic Trials HD before it, the hook comes from completing levels as fast as you can.
Engineered to perfection, Eurogamer editor Tom Bramwell eventually found himself "crazy in love" with Super Meat Boy.