I love Super Meat Boy. The 2010 hit from developers Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes featured fun level design, intense difficulty, and perfect controls. To call that game one of my all-time favorites would be accurate, which is why I was ecstatic to find out that McMillen had collaborated with Tyler Glaiel on a new project, The End Is Nigh. I tend to get excited whenever McMillen announces anything new, but The End Is Nigh was different. Looking at the game's trailer, I saw what could be described as a spiritual successor to Super Meat Boy.
And it kind of is a spiritual successor in that it's a tough-as-heck 2D platformer with similar level designs and squishy sound effects. That said, I didn't love The End Is Nigh, unfortunately. However, I did like it. Very much so.
A Bizarre Tale About Friendship and the Apocalypse … and Tumors
The End Is Nigh follows Ash, a lonely video game streamer who continues to broadcast gameplay footage despite the demise of the world itself. One day, after his favorite cartridge craps out on him, Ash decides to head out into the world — or rather, what's left of it — in order to make a new friend. By that I mean he's out to literally make a new friend using different body parts. The setup is exactly what you'd expect from an Edmund McMillen game. It's kind of dark and gruesome, but it doesn't take itself too seriously.
Like Super Meat Boy, The End Is Nigh prides itself on difficult platforming gameplay filled with tricky obstacles and deranged hazards. Also like its predecessor, as much as the game is out to kill you, it gives you the tools necessary so that you know you can beat each of its levels — it's just going to be super challenging to do so. Every massive pitfall, every bit of rapid gunfire that comes your way, every Chain Chomp-like enemy, all of the traps and dangers you encounter will fill you with dread, but you can beat them.
The reason The End Is Nigh is so encouraging is because it controls beautifully. Guiding Ash through the post-apocalyptic levels is a pure joy thanks to the game's tight controls. Your jumps are a touch floaty, but this actually helps you navigate certain airborne obstacles. This is one of those games that just feels really good to play, and McMillen's dedication to precise control is the reason for that.
A big gameplay mechanic in Super Meat Boy was the titular character's ability to wall-jump. That element is absent here, and in its place is a brand new ledge-grab, which a lot of the levels' biggest challenges are centered around. You can easily cling to edges of platforms and hooks, and getting around the levels requires that you master the art of ledge-grabbing.
Swimming Stages? Aw, Man!
I have not-so-fond memories of being a kid and begrudgingly playing through the water levels in games like Super Mario Bros. and Banjo-Kazooie. The End Is Nigh sadly falls victim to these pesky types of stages. As if trying to navigate around heinous spikes underwater wasn't enough, later levels introduce poisonous water, giving you only a few moments to move about below and forcing you to hastily surface for air. It's a pain and not very fun at all. These levels aren't even satisfying to get through; instead, it's just a relief to finally be done with them.
Littered everywhere are collectibles and secret areas. Collectibles come in the form of tumors (yup) and game cartridges, which unlock retro-themed bonus levels. The tumors have a different purpose altogether. Though seemingly arbitrary at first, these actually serve a very specific purpose after you finish the game the first time. I won't spoil anything here, but in case you're wondering, you can revisit all of the levels at any point to snag the tumors you may have missed on your first go.
Discovering secret areas requires that you do a bit of exploration. No, you won't be digging too deep into each of the levels or unlocking new abilities. Instead, stages in The End Is Nigh are interconnected to one another and split into multiple worlds. So rather than landing on an overworld map after clearing one level, you're immediately placed in a new level. The only time you see the overworld is after you clear all of the levels in an individual world (or if you pause the game and choose to fast travel to the different worlds you've cleared).
The interesting thing about this design is that you can travel back-and-forth between levels. So if you spot an elusive tumor at the bottom of a level, it's possible that you'll find an alternate route to that tumor somewhere in the neighboring level. This gives the game a more puzzle-like aspect than what we've seen in past titles from Edmund McMillen. And though getting to all of the tumors can sometimes be a bit of a nuisance, it also forces you to think a bit more creatively about just how you'll clear certain areas and reach hidden secrets.
Light and Dark
The art direction of The End Is Nigh reflects the lighthearted tone of the game. Ash's design is especially gruesome-yet-cheery, with his missing eye and winning smile. As for the enemy designs, if you've played games from McMillen in the past — especially The Binding of Isaac — then you can expect all manner of grotesque creatures that are both nightmarish and cartoon-like.
Admittedly, the art style is a bit too familiar. In The End Is Nigh especially, that trademark look of McMillen's games wears thin much faster. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it looks like a Flash game or that it even looks bad, but the level designs don't have that same charm as they did seven years ago when Super Meat Boy debuted. In addition, the characters feel a bit too close to something you'd find on a shirt at your local Hot Topic.
Following a Classic
The End Is Nigh had a lot to live up to following Super Meat Boy. Even after just seven years, that game can be considered a classic. The End Is Nigh isn't as good as Super Meat Boy, and it's not exactly as fun either, but it is a very good game in its own right. It does some new things that don't work well, like swimming stages, but it also features some excellent gameplay mechanics. The interconnected levels and ledge-grab stand out as two great features that McMillen will hopefully include in future platformers.
Above all else, though, The End Is Nigh is worth checking out because of just how good it feels to play. Even despite its flaws, the controls are so good that going through the masochistic levels is absolutely cathartic. The End Is Nigh may live in the shadow of Super Meat Boy, but even then, it's a high-quality platformer that's worth your time and patience.