One of the reasons indie games got big is because they’re able to do new and innovative things! That’s why when one indie game hits it big, dozens of other indie devs follow in its footsteps and produce clones, saturating the market until even thinking of, say, a voxel-based building game involving cubes makes you want to drink Clorox. It’s called innovation, geez, you AAA suits just don’t “get” it, everyone can make games, something something zines.
Anyway, these things tend to come and go in cycles based on whatever the indie darling of the week happens to be. Some of the earliest indie game fads included puzzle platformers (thanks to Braid) and Metroidvanias (thanks to Cave Story and, later, La-Mulana). Today we’re interested in the frustration platformer or “masocore” genre, platforming games revolving around dying repeatedly in order to learn patterns and proper execution to get through seemingly impossible levels. Most associate them with 2010’s breakout hit Super Meat Boy.
These became a hot property for some time after Super Meat Boy met with acclaim, then largely died off around the time the hundredth or so was released and people were mostly spending their time dying repeatedly in Souls instead. Years later, the very developers that started the craze, including Edmund McMillen, are taking a step back and revisiting the genre with The End is Nigh.
The world’s ended, as it tends to in video games, and black blob Ash is left without a friend in the world. Well, he’s got his favorite game at least…which has just broken, so there goes that. What’s the cure for the crippling loneliness of the post-apocalypse? Making friends, of course, and since nobody’s left to do that with in a figurative sense, Ash decides to do it in a literal sense and journeys out into the wasteland searching for parts. If you’ve played Super Meat Boy you’ve got a general idea of how this is going to go: Ash dies in a single hit, there are plenty of things out to hit him, have fun.
Controls feel much like the slippery, slidey movement of Super Meat Boy, offering a surprising degree of speed and accuracy once you’ve gotten the hang of things. The End is Nigh mixes things up in the platforming department by, for instance, switching Meat Boy’s wall jumping for a ledge grab and associated push-jump used for longer lateral distance. Don’t expect the new moves to change much on the death front, though, as new abilities tend to just mean there are new ways to kill you.
Another interesting change from Super Meat Boy is the fact that The End is Nigh takes place in a sort of Metroidvania-styled interconnected world rather than an explicit series of levels. Yes, we’re mixing indie game staple genres now with a Metroidvania frustration platformer. Some of the levels even have minor puzzle elements! It’s indieception! In all seriousness, the tightness of The End is Nigh’s level design and gameplay are representative of the fine-tuning that frustration platformers received during the period where everybody was making them. It’s nice in a way, especially when you consider the collectable tumors and game carts scattered throughout the levels that add a new dimension of challenge.
Then you’ll die ten times on the same jump, at which point you start to remember why we stopped playing these (we got jobs, started families, decided to do better things with our lives like the aforementioned Clorox cocktails) and it feels a little less nice.
Something must also be said for the game’s presentation, which is surprisingly great-looking. I’d argue that this is another throwback, a memory of a time when indie games had to look and play great to get any attention at all. For a little black blob Ash exudes a lot of character, much like earlier McMillen-born black blob Gish (who may or may not make a cameo appearance here), and each area has its own unique feel that makes progression a joy. I played the Switch version specifically for this review and found the game to fit perfectly on the little hybrid that could, so if you own one (and you should by now!) then it’s a good fit for The End is Nigh.
If frustration platformers had gotten big today I’d be writing snide articles about how they’re bait for the modern generation of screaming adolescent YouTubers. Instead, I can write snide articles about how they saturated the market with me-too clones, so basically I’m able to win no matter the circumstances. I considered inserting a paragraph about how “discoverability” problems on Steam are directly related to the everyone-can-make-games and we-need-top-billing-too indie paradigms of the early 2010s, but we’ve already strayed from the topic a bit too much.
Snideness aside, The End is Nigh is a superlative example of a genre whose fifteen minutes of fame has come and gone and a great callback to what was arguably the best game of that genre. If you’ve got fond memories of staying up late flipping out over Super Meat Boy, you can’t really go wrong here.