How Three ‘Super’ Indie Games Are Changing Gaming
Rowan Kaiser writes about the rise of the indie game to prominence.
The use of “Super” in indie game titles seems like it's a joke, a winking nod to the naming conventions of the Super Nintendo. There, most every sequel became Super, like Super Metroid or Super RBI Baseball or Super Punch-Out! These indie games slyly reference their influences here: fast-loading cartridges, two-dimensional graphics, and limited 16-bit/chiptune soundtracks. Three fairly recent indie darlings—Super Meat Boy, Super Crate Box, and Super Hexagon—all seem to follow this model. But that “Super” referent in their title is somewhat deceptive. These three games may have a throwback presentation, but they're actually in the vanguard of a new and positive trend in gaming.
For the bulk of video games' existence, life and death have been the primary currency players use to interact with the games. In the arcades, you literally purchased more lives with money. Games at home punished player death by forcing them back to the beginning of level, ending the game entirely, making you reload your game slowly, or worst of all, requiring a password in order to “restore” your game. As technology improved, many vestiges of these systems remained in games out of tradition—number of lives in platformers based on arcade heritage, or checkpoint systems constraining the ability to reload. Games also got bigger more than they got faster, making reloading take longer in a technical sense, especially once cartridges went out of style. Death was still a consistent punishment for the player.
That's not the case in these three Super indie games. Death is smoothed away in them. Super Meat Boy is a platformer filled with small, difficult levels lasting around 5-25 seconds. They're also filled with traps, enemies, and obstacles that will kill your little Meat Boy immediately. But there's no punishment for the player. Immediately the level starts again, with no waiting, no worrying about number of lives, letting you learn and experiment without issue. Dying is even amusingly rewarded at the end of each level, as you see a replay of all your attempts at once, with dozens or even hundreds of little Meat Boys exploding as they hit spinning blade after spinning blade, except for the one who's successful.
Super Crate Box is also a platformer from a side view, but its structure is quite different. On a constrained, unchanging level, a bunch of randomized enemies and boxes drop onto the screen. You move a character to get those crates, killing or avoiding the enemies. Each crate increases your score and gives you a different random weapon. The randomness is a stroke of genius, as it psychologically encourages the player to believe that the next game will be different and better. Super Crate Box makes that easy to test—just hit a button as soon as you die and the game starts immediately. Over and over and over. Even though you'll die a lot, and that's theoretically frustrating, removing the time punishment for death means that it's easy to sink hours of play into Super Crate Box.
Finally, this year's hit iOS and now Steam game Super Hexagon smooths over death in a way that includes the strengths of both Super Meat Boy and Super Crate Box. It isn't a platformer, though, it's an abstract action game where you guide a small triangle through a course of geometric obstacles. Those obstacles are semi-random, with pattern chunks occurring, or not, throughout each game. The repetition of those patterns means that you're constantly learning and having the chance to improve, but their randomness means that each game is different and therefore the next is always potentially better. It's extremely difficult—lasting more than a minute is considered mastery and unlocks the next difficulty level—but once again, a simple tap of the screen or a key starts the game over immediately. Death is a learning experience and not a punishment.
By making restarting levels so easy, these three Supers change the core currency of the player-game relationship into success instead of death. In Super Meat Boy you try to get the lowest possible time; in Super Hexagon, the highest; and in Super Crate Box, the highest number of crates. Sure, it's largely a coincidence that they're all named Super, and yes, other games do similar things. But these are three of the highest-profile games with instant respawns and scoreboards. They're changing games, for the better, and that's just…well, you know.