The thesis statement (if previews of video games about supernatural luchadores can have such a thing) of last year’s PAX Prime coverage of Guacamelee! could probably be summed up in the question “why not?” In my short time with Drinkbox Studios’ third release then, it came across as an appropriate response to all the nonsense going on such as morphing into a chicken and a rather spectacular portmanteau’d title, but it had no bearing on the quality of the game. As a side-scrolling indie brawler, your expectations are exactly what you bring to it from past experiences, but at every turn, it seems Drinkbox instead asks why not make a great game?
Guacamelee! is a 2D platformer with a lot of style and sass. It’s about a fellow named Juan Aguacate who does nothing more than work in an agave field and watch as the luchadores go on to be hailed heroes of the Pueblucho community. In this world, lucha libre produce singular warriors that fight to defend the helpless and their honor, and Juan has nothing going for him expect some plebeian and reciprocal crush on El Presidente’s daughter. Then, on Dia de Muertos, Carlos Calaca, an evil charro skeleton who rules the world of the dead, kidnaps her and sets out to make her his queen as he merges the realms of the living and the dead together.
This sounds like a heavy, grave situation, but Guacamelee! takes it in stride; the game is nothing if not lighthearted. It is rife with humor, and not just throwaway jokes that you might simply sit and stare at as you acknowledge its joke-like qualities, but things that you will actually chuckle and snicker at.
And all of the references that the developers manage to tuck away into the corners and backgrounds of Guacamelee are mind-numbing. At every turn, you’ll see something that will make you go “oh, that’s from Final Fantasy!” or “oh my gosh, that makes me want to play Castle Crashers right now!” And more often than not, this is presented in the context of actual, real jokes. This is hard in any medium, but when gags and storytelling usually exist as a necessity and sometimes serve as inconveniences to actually playing the game, the fact that Guacamelee! does it right is rather impressive.
In fact, all of the surrounding accoutrement of Guacamelee! is impressive. The art style is perhaps the first thing you’ll notice as video games are a visual medium, but it won’t be the first thing you forget. It’s simple but striking. Characters are flat chunks of color assembled into ambulatory caricatures but they are set against smooth backgrounds of subtle gradients and superb use of depth-of-field. The hues of the world simply pop, for lack of a better word, and match well with the bumping club/house-style ranchera mixed with some mariachi influences. If you have a decent sound system, be sure to pump up the volume because it is some addictive aural goodness.
Both of those things are even more noteworthy when you consider that for as much as Drinkbox had to create to flesh out a full, living world, they had to double it to also create a dead one, too. Juan, you see, gains a supernaturally powered luchador mask and, as he progresses through the game, gains powers. He does it by busting up some rather familiar looking and sounding statues or by receiving them from other empowered folk, and one of them is the power to switch between the living and the dead at will.
The switching actually plays a lot into the gameplay and doesn’t just have some implications and impetus within the story. As you switch dimensions, things that exist in one world may disappear as they don’t exist in the other or vice versa. The lesson of them being absolutely parallel worlds is driven home in the solution to a few of the side quests as you are heartily made to realize that these are indeed the living and those are indeed the dead. They are actually a few of the more somber moments of the game and they hit rather hard.
But all that world switching also impacts the platforming and fighting. As you jump around, you’ll have to switch between the two realities to prevent yourself from getting impaled on some spikes or to create a ledge to stand on. One of the most grueling and devious platforming sections I’ve ever played (it’s totally optional, though) in any game exists in Guacamelee! and is qualified as such in no small part due to the dimensional interplay. And when the control is taken out of your hands, well, just be ready to have some sweaty hands.
The fighting is, for the most part, sectioned off into arenas where the game will literally stop you dead in your tracks and force you to fight a few rounds of enemies, usually topped off with a piñata full of coins you can bust open. The combat starts out simple to where you have one button to punch, another to jump, and another to dodge. Damage a bad guy enough and you can engage them in a grapple, and if you combine the stick direction with the punch, you can do uppercuts and downward slams. Simple, right?
Well, as you earn powers that also unlock additional areas of the map (this is, after all, a Metroidvania-style game), the circle button becomes dedicated to moves that drain your stamina meter. You have an air dash that can also punch the crap out of dudes, a headbutt that will launch people across the room, an uppercut that reminds me an awful lot of the up+B moves in Super Smash Bros., and a belly flop that stuns a wide area of bad guys. And then you can launch off of walls and up ledges, all of which double as great, room-clearing moves and triple as platforming necessities (hence the sweat-inducing difficulty levels in the optional stuff).
It all seems a bit disjointed until you find a gym with a chicken that will train you in some killer, amazingly intricate combos. They force you to not only input commands in a timely manner but manage you spacing and stamina. Eventually, you’ll have to put in a string of commands that spans the entire width of your television and, having just played Injustice: Gods Among Us, it is on par with most fighting games in terms of demand on the player. It is refreshing, seeing as how Guacamelee! could have just as easily turned out to be nothing more than a button-masher.
A lot of the design seems to be imbued with that sense, that it turned out a lot better than it could have been (or maybe should have been). The level designs are especially noteworthy because they are, more or less, linearly designed but feel a lot more open than they actually are. Some dungeons are entirely vertical while others are sprawling spiderwebs of offshoots and branches. And when you backtrack to finish off all of the collectibles, they still feel fairly fresh as new abilities open up new traversal options or entirely new areas.
Enemy designs are varied and their abilities are, for the most part, nuanced (you do deal with a fair amount of baddies who do nothing more than throw or smash) when combined with attack- or world-specific shields and vulnerabilities. The actual controls are responsive and feel as tight as a fitted tee on an overly confident McDonald’s addict. You have full air control that doesn’t feel neutered by the lack of ground-based traction and button inputs that utilize pre-loading. I never felt like I didn’t have a handle on Juan and thus never felt like I didn’t have a handle on the game.
The problems are few and far between: occasionally artificial-feeling backtracking shortcuts, co-op that produces more problems than fun, and an upgrade system that doesn’t seem to make any especially standout changes to Juan. The side quests can also feel a bit off-base and feel overly superfluous, as can a few of the jokes. A couple even feel dated, if only by a few months. But every instance of bad is spread out so far in this seven-hour experience that at each encounter, you can barely remember the last one. It continues at a quick and unrelenting pace that arouses a similar sense of compulsion as in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and contains no filler.
In many other online spaces, you’ll see people refer to Guacamelee! as retro or old school, but that is a disservice to the game. It merely borrows the concept of an open, two-dimensional world based on power acquisition, jumping, and fighting. It defies the temptation to be mired in tropes that don’t serve its own desires and instead responds with the same old question: why not? Why not make a Metroidvania-style game that doesn’t try to be either Metroid or Castlevania? Why not make an exceptional platformer and intricate brawler? Why not make a great 2D side-scroller full of great art, fantastic music, and mostly impeccable humor? I guess Drinkbox Studios couldn’t think of an answer, so they made Guacamelee!
+ Gorgeous art design that bleeds style that keeps your eyes occupied while your ears dance to the butt-shaking beats
+ Platforming that requires patience, skill, and a deft hand
+ Combat that focuses on mechanical interactions and not on overloading the player with needless options
+ Tight and responsive controls that feel like you’re handling a Ferrari in the form of a hulking, magic-infused luchador
– A lot of the optional stuff like the co-op and the side quests don’t feel as well designed or as organic as the rest of the game
Final Score: 9 out of 10