The inside of Edmund McMillen’s head must be a very strange place indeed. While I’m not sure I’d want to live there, the Basement collection gives us all a chance to visit. Edmund McMillen is best known for Super Meat Boy and the more recent Binding of Isaac, but he has been actively making games for many years. The Basement collection is essentially a kind of Critereon Collection of his earlier work, with added content, artwork and interviews.
The Basement collection is made up of 9 games, some of which you may have heard of or played before. The list includes the legendary Meat boy flash game, Coil, Triachnid, Aether, Time Fcuk, Spewer, Grey Matter and two secret games you unlock by completing the others. These games vary wildly in style and length; Meat Boy, Time Fcuck and Spewer falling broadly into the platformer category, while others are not nearly so easy to pigeon hole. Aether and Coil in particular venture into the realm of interactive art.
Coil is a profoundly strange game. It deliberately offers no explanation for what it is or how it’s meant to be played, but the gameplay seems to involve fertilizing an egg and then feeding and nurturing the resulting foetus. These sections are broken up by strange ‘poems’ (if you can even call them that) that tell the story of a woman who is haunted by a shadowy figure. McMillen reveals in the bonus content that Coil is based on his mother and how she dealt with the death of a loved one. It is unquestionably a very atmospheric experience and you can’t help but read your own meaning into it, but I must admit that I ultimately came away from it slightly nonplussed.
Aether is another peculiar art game, but unlike Coil it takes itself far less seriously and I found it a lot more enjoyable. In it, you float through space on an Octopus, using its tentacles to swing from planet to planet. Each planet you find has something wrong with it that you need to fix. These objectives are not immediately obvious and don’t make a lot of sense even after you’ve completed them, but I enjoyed the challenge of figuring them out and loved the liberating feeling of propelling myself up through the clouds and into space. While I don’t really understand what Aether is about, it is enormously charming.
Time Fcuk and Triachnid are probably my favourite games in the collection. Both offer fun and addictive gameplay and a unique atmosphere. Triachnid tasks you with moving a a three-legged insect around difficult terrain by controlling each leg individually. The Triachnid’s feet can cling to almost any material, allowing you to lumber over obstacles and even scale sheer cliffs. You must also carry an egg sack full of your young to the end of the level. If you are too rough with the Triachnid’s legs you can injure it, making it flash red and cry with pain. Incredibly, I felt genuinely concerned for this weird insect-thing and tried to assist it as best I could in performing its maternal duty. The controls are somewhat cumbersome, but therein lies the challenge.
Time Fcuk is a very different experience. Rather than being slow and methodical, the game is harsh and disturbing. It is a particularly brutal and disorientating puzzle platformer that grows exponentially more difficult with each level. The story is like a drug-induced nightmare, with the main character being lured into a strange black box by someone claiming to be him from 20 minutes in the future. Once trapped inside the box, he finds he cannot die and must try to escape before he completely loses his mind. All the while he is inundated with weird and unsettling messages from his future and past selves. The actual gameplay is somewhat reminiscent of VVVVVV and may have directly or indirectly inspired it.
I haven’t played too much of Spewer, but it seems like a fun and original little puzzle platformer where you have to use vomit (yes, vomit) to propel your squishy little self around the level, hitting switches and dodging deadly spikes. I can see the core mechanics being used in a lot of interesting ways and look forward to playing more of it. Grey Matter is an unusual ‘anti-shooter’, where you have to slam yourself into the vulnerable parts of enemies to kill them. Hitting a couple of enemies will draw a line between them, while the third impact completes a triangle and unleashes a violent flash that kills anything inside. I thought it was very cool, but found the controls overly twitchy. I can see skilled shooter fans enjoying themselves, though.
Finally, we come to the original Meat Boy. One of the best titles on Xbox Live Arcade started life as a flash game on Newgrounds and even though it’s years old now and very primitive compared to its successor, it is still enormously rewarding. McMillan has apparently improved the controls somewhat, although they still lack the near perfection of Super Meat Boy and you can’t use a game controller. Even so, it’s a game you can spend hours and hours playing without even touching anything else in The Basement Collection, but considering how popular it was when it came out you may have already played it to death.
The Basement Collection is a really interesting concept. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game collection treated in quite the same way as this. The 9 included titles are all fun and interesting in one way or another, and the bonus content is worth watching if you are a fan of indie gaming in general and Edmund McMillan in particular.