Super Meat Boy changed the game when it released in 2010, as one of the first ‘big’ indie hits of the decade and one of the creators of a subgenre of hard platformers. One would think that such a legendary release would spawn a broader franchise, yet it never got a proper sequel, and Meat Boy only recently received another starring role in Super Meat Boy Forever, an auto-runner that failed to come anywhere close to matching the legendary status of his first game. Now Headup Development is trying again with Dr. Fetus’ Mean Meat Machine, a Puyo Puyo-style falling block puzzler that focuses heavily on crushing difficulty. It has its charms, but this is ultimately another middling new release for Meat Boy.
Taking place after the events of Super Meat Boy Forever, Dr. Fetus’ Mean Meat Machine places you in the role of the youthful villain as he sets up a lab and attempts to make the perfect clone of Meat Boy. Unfortunately, the DNA sample that he has is flawed, resulting in thousands of imperfect clones which are of no use to him. He thus puts the clones through a literal meat grinder, slowly weeding out the weak and imperfect ones while the best clones evolve and gradually become closer to the real deal.
Gameplay follows a classic Puyo Puyo tile-matching template wherein pairs of differently colored clones will constantly drop onto the board, and your goal is to get any four of the same color to touch so they can be cleared. If you’re crafty and set up your stacks in the right way, cleared groupings will cause a chain reaction that nets you a combo. So far, so similar, but this is a Meat Boy game, so it has to be excessively cruel and difficult in some fashion, right?
Mean Meat Machine certainly is punishing; the main gimmick here is that there will almost always be some dynamic hazards on the board to mess with your clones. Whether it be buzzsaws, rockets, or ghosts, your poor clones hardly ever have a clear path to the bottom of the board, and if you happen to get hit by anything on the way down, you fail and have to start over at the next checkpoint. Get enough matches, and you’ll blow a fuse on the machine, which will set the next checkpoint and cause more nonsense to appear on the board to hamper your matches.
We admire this unique approach to the falling block puzzler, as your primary concern with these games is usually just to figure out where to put a never-ending supply of blocks. Having to consider not just this, but the specific route you’re going to take to make matches means that there’s a much higher skill element to block placement, not to mention the quick thinking it takes to adjust your strategy on the fly. Sometimes, you just can’t maneuver your current block to where you’d ideally like to put it, and you’re forced to place it somewhere a little safer.
In the long run, however, it feels like this hazard-centric game design is sort of working against itself when placed in the falling block framework. Levels often demand that you thread such a fine needle with your blocks that it feels like the foundational concept of matching tiles is getting too lost in the sauce. You’re not really paying attention to where blocks are going or what combos you’re setting up because you’re too busy fighting for your life trying not to touch any pointy things on the way down.
As a result, Mean Meat Machine feels like a rather poor tile-matching puzzler because it clearly isn’t very focused on tile-matching. On the other hand, it’s not really about avoiding obstacles either, because you’re ultimately still stuck trying to make matches on a board that isn’t always conducive to setting up combos or focusing on chasing high scores.
The original Super Meat Boy, of course, made narrowly slipping through a seemingly impossible level full of traps the cornerstone of its design, but where that game excelled in teaching you how to learn from your mistakes and improve your skills, Mean Meat Machine is just… well, mean. There is zero margin for error in most levels, and mistakes are swiftly punished by taking away any progress you made since the last checkpoint and forcing you to do everything again. It’s bad enough in the early stages, but later levels really dial up the pain with all the obstacles, and it can be quite frustrating when you hit a wall and find yourself repeating the same section of a level over and over to little success.
Part of the problem is that death can often be something completely beyond the player’s control, as the hazards may happen to align just right and give the player nowhere to move their block without touching something. Many times, we felt like victory was a product of random chance—that we only won because the stage hazards happened to be in the right places at the right times. It’s not always this bad, but Mean Meat Machine is the kind of game that often feels more discouraging than it is challenging. If you want to, you can always go into the settings and activate things like slower block speed or an invincibility mode, but this then reduces Mean Meat Machine to a weird, halfhearted clone of Puyo Puyo that doesn’t really let you score chase.
Perhaps most disappointing is that Mean Meat Machine often shows lots of promise. The controls feel great, the presentation is charming, and when levels aren’t overly concerned with completely burying you in traps to avoid, the hazards present genuinely interesting game mechanics that feel like they could work well in a falling block puzzler. Mean Meat Machine can never quite get out of its own way, however, and usually leans too much into difficulty for the sake of it.
It also feels rather odd that there’s no endless mode, or any kind of multiplayer component at all. Once you’ve managed to beat all 20 levels in each world, all that you can do is attempt the masochistic struggle of going back and beating each level with a time that falls under a strict limit. If that’s not your thing, Mean Meat Machine doesn’t really have much replayability, which is strange considering it falls under a specific genre that’s notorious for being addictive and highly replayable. At the very least, we would’ve appreciated the inclusion of some kind of head-to-head local multiplayer mode, or maybe a marathon mode with leaderboard support. What could’ve been a much more replayable game is thus reduced to something that you play for a relatively brief amount of time and then never return to.
Fortunately, the visuals and soundtrack are generally quite polished. Boards are easily readable no matter how much is going on and each of the worlds feel quite visually distinct from each other. That cartoonishly gross art style that defined Super Meat Boy still works well in this puzzler format, and it looks impressively sharp on both a TV and the Switch. These visuals are supplemented by a soundtrack produced by RIDICULON, which goes for a Halloween vibe with a somewhat comical and creepy tone. It feels fitting for the premise and the action on screen, though we found that some tracks got obnoxiously repetitive during longer sessions.
Dr. Fetus’ Mean Meat Machine doesn’t meet the standard that Super Meat Boy set, but it’s a serviceable puzzler that does bring something new to the genre. Appealing visuals and tight controls are positives here, though these are balanced out by the often excessively punishing difficulty and the lack of multiplayer or other modes. We’d give this one a light recommendation if you’re tired of falling block puzzlers treading the same ground and want to try something that stands out from the pack. Otherwise, we’d suggest sticking with games like Mixolumia and Lumines Remastered.