'Super Meat Boy' Switch, 'Forever' and Beyond

Super Meat Boy developer Tommy Refenes discusses what's next for him and Meat Boy

About seven and a half years after launching, Super Meat Boy last week hit what is likely its final platform: The Nintendo Switch. And much to the surprise of the developers, the game is selling nearly as well as it did when it hit its first platform in 2010: The Xbox 360.

“The last day or so has been really weird in a good way,” developer Tommy Refenes tells Glixel. “I saw day one sales for Super Meat Boy and I was blown away … I figured it would do OK because it's Meat Boy, but I also thought that with it being a 7.5-year-old game, that people wouldn't care ... but they did big time!”

That astounding reaction to Super Meat Boy isn’t just a nice affirmation for the team behind the tough-as-nails platformer, it’s also a good sign that the next Meat Boy game is likely to be well received too. “It makes me excited about releasing Super Meat Boy Forever because it's easy after 7.5 years to think your fans have all moved on, but the sales have reminded me that people don't really move on from their favorite games, they just pick right back up where they left off like visiting a good old friend,” Refenes says.

Super Meat Boy released on the Nintendo Switch on January 11th, bringing with it the tight controls, colorful graphics and teeth-clenching gameplay to an audience who likely already played the title on computer, Xbox, PlayStation, Vita, smartphone or Wii U in the past.

The decision to bring the title to the Switch was driven almost entirely by the console’s take on gaming. Refenes says he got his first look at Nintendo’s console about six months before it was announced. “I was like, ‘This is exactly what I wanted the Wii U to be,’” he says. “When we bought the Wii U I thought, ‘This is stupid, I want to be able to take this with me everywhere.’ I’m not the only one how had that thought, a billion people did and that why the Switch is so successful.”

The Switch version of Super Meat Boy has the exact same graphics as the original 2010 version, which was created with high definition graphics, the same gameplay, and the addition of a new race mode. “There was a thought initially that I would do all new HD graphics and release it on all the systems, but I was already working on Super Meat Boy Forever at the time, and Super Meat Boy is done, the game is done. So I kind of did the easiest port, but I wanted to do something new, so I added one new mode.”

The new mode came out of an idea that came up when developers Team Meat were working on the original game for the Xbox 360. “When we were making the game, we wanted to do a race mode on Xbox 360,” he says. “We would sit there and have two dev kits and race through to see who could beat the map fastest.” The race made built into the Switch version of the game adds the ability to choose which chapters to race and the ability to collect bandaids, which can then be used to skip levels. They also changed the way warp zones work to either randomly push you forward or backward or level with the person you’re racing.”

While the success of Super Meat Boy on Nintendo Switch is a nice surprise for Refenes, he doesn’t have a lot of time to dwell on it. He’s still in the midst of building out a sequel of sorts to the game in Super Meat Boy Forever.

Forever started out as a game for the smartphone. “Around 2011, right after Super Meat Boy came out, the iPhone craze was going on and all of these games that shouldn’t be on there were, like a Megaman game with on-screen controls,” Refenes says. “There were a bunch of cash-in games and I was constantly getting bombarded with people asking, ‘When is [Super Meat Boy] coming to Android? When is this coming to iOS?’ It was frustrating because I was like, ‘No, you don’t want this on the iPhone.’

But Refenes says he was “too stupid” at the time to realize that what people wanted on the iPhone wasn’t necessarily Super Meat Boy, but some Super Meat Boy game.

It wasn’t until later that year, following a series of GDC talks, that Refenes started thinking about ways to make the game work on a smartphone. “I’m sitting in a hotel room, I had my laptop with me - I don’t really go to parties - and I made a special Meat Boy character who always ran and switched directions when he jumps off walls. From that, I sort of expanded on it.”

Originally, the game was going to be much smaller. In 2014, Refenes came back to that special character and the idea for an endless runner Super Meat Boy in 2014. The idea, he says, was to create a game with three levels per a chapter and maybe three chapters in total. But he became distracted again with life and work and it wasn’t until early 2017 that he picked up the game idea a third time. “Playing it - I still wasn’t seeing any real, substantial platformer game for mobile devices - and I’m playing the Super Meat Boy Forever prototype and thinking, ‘This game has a ton of potential.’”

So Refenes decided to build on the idea and expand it beyond a smartphone release to something that would come to Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android and Xbox One. “I decided that I’m going to make this into a full sequel of Super Meat Boy,” he says. “I wanted to make a sequel but the last thing I wanted to do was add HD and throw in 300 levels. I always go for the challenging thing. It keeps my attention longer.”

Refenes is working with level designer Kyle Pulver and a slew of artists including Lala, Temmie Chang, Ivan Almighty and Paul ter Voorde. The music is being composed by Matthias Bossi and Jon Evans. “It’s a bigger team than the first game, but it’s also a way bigger game,” Refenes says.

Where the first game was just over 320 levels, Forever has a seemingly unlimited number of levels. “An interesting thing about Forever, and why it’s called Forever - and it’s not because it’s taking forever to make - is that each level is randomly generated. They’re each built out of tiny little level sections.” Refenes says the team created these little chunks of levels and that the game then intelligently, randomly pulls the chunks from a bank and puts them together to build a level on the fly. So the first chapter alone has more than 300 of these chunks the game can pull from to create unique levels. “It pieces those chunks together with a cadence to create a level,” he says. “There are so many combinations of the game.”

Internally, they call the mashing of levels together a cadence and the result a cadence string. Those cadence strings end up playing like one giant level - think Mario’s 1-1 level. The game will ship with six chapters, but those chapters will rarely be the same because of the way they’re constructed.

While the game is still essentially an runner, the result of the design, art, music, seems to be a game that people can’t get enough of. “The first time you play the game, and I’ve seen this because I’ve shown it at PAX, EGX and PSX, you play it until you beat the level. There was this one guy trying to beat this one level for an hour. It grabbed him. Anyone who picks the game up is going to say, ‘This plays like Meat Boy, it feels like Meat Boy.’”

Refenes isn’t worried about the game being dismissed as a simple runner, because beyond the mechanics, it isn’t. There is much more to the game then people might expect, he says. “As we get closer to launch, I’ll be showing more of the game and there’s a lot to show.”

The plan now is to bring the game to Steam and consoles first and then at some point to bring it out on mobile. “I have no idea how to charge money for it on mobile,” he says. “No way am I going to charge a dollar for it on the iPhone because it is worth way more than that. It’s worth what you’d pay on console. I don’t know … It works on mobile and plays perfect on mobile, but that’s a market I don’t really understand. I don’t know how to put it out on that without shooting myself in the foot.”

Right now, he’s thinking that he will likely charge about $15 for the game on non-mobile platforms and hope it sells. Fortunately, he says, it has the branding of Meat Boy. These days getting attention in a crowded market seems like a much more daunting task. “It’s harder now because while I don’t know how many games came out on Steam yesterday, I can guarantee you that it was more than came out the month the original Super Meat Boy came out,” he says. “If Super Meat Boy were to come out today, I’m not sure it would do as well.”

In terms of timing for Super Meat Boy Forever’s release?

“Question mark,” Refenes says, adding, “Sometime this year.”

What's Next
Usually when I ask a developer who is working on a pending release, what they plan on working on next, the answer is a shrug, a glare or a change of topic. But Refenes is quick to give me an answer. “OK, I’m going to tell you my crazy dream. I want to get the rights to ActRaiser and I want to make a new ActRaiser,” he says.

ActRaiser, for the uninitiated, is a crazy 1990 mash-up of simulator, platformer, city-builder and god gamer. It was developed by Quintet for Enix by, among others, architect turned Enix founder Yasuhiro Fukushima. The Super NES game didn’t sell very well, but developed a cult-following of sorts. Among its devotees, apparently, is Refenes. “I have a story in my head, how I want to approach the gameplay and everything,” he says. “I have concept art, all of this stuff. I want to make this game, a spiritual successor to ActRaiser or ActRaiser 2.

Other ideas Refenes has is working on his own Metrovania-style game. “I got super interested in generated stuff,” he says. “I starting making algorithms that would build Metroid maps.” He says he would print out maps from Metroid games and then try to figure out how he could create an algorithm that would eventually make those maps. “I got pretty obsessed with that for awhile. A lot of that came through in Forever. I want to make these levels and make them feel like coherent levels. I don’t want people to know what’s coming next.

“That’s kind of my whole career with whatever I do.”