A game like Guacamelee doesn’t bring you back to the “glory days” solely because it’s retro-inspired—it brings you back because it gives those same classics that made you fall in love with the genre a run for their money. A spot-on mix of old and new, Guacamelee caters to the old-school Metroid fan, while at the same time offering new-school design sensibilities that eradicate frustration without also eliminating that rewarding feeling of overcoming a challenge; and trust me, Guacamelee offers more than enough challenge–the largest of which is to put the controller down and stop playing.
Crafted by Drinkbox Studios–a Toronto-based independent developer that, in my opinion, has made two of the best Vita titles to date–Guacamelee is a 2D side-scrolling “Metroidvania” style action platformer, released exclusively on the PlayStation Network for PS3 and Vita. It’s cross-buy/cross-save, so you’re able to take your save file with you on the go if you have a Vita. It features fully functional drop-in and drop-out co-op, and what’s even cooler is that you can use the Vita’s Remote Play feature to join in as Player 2, having the Vita’s screen display the game’s map. This is a fantastic feature, really, and it works beautifully.
You play as Juan: a Mexican farmer-turned-luchador on a justice-fueled mission to save El Presidente’s daughter. The game takes place throughout the “living” and “dead” dimensions in and around a small Mexican town where Juan starts off as a simple farmer, but soon realizes his fate as one tough muchacho, destined to quell the land of evil and save his loved ones. A cliché story archetype, yes, but this is only a catalyst to get the game going. Guacamelee does not, for a second, take itself seriously. And in this case, that’s a good thing.
The game is full of winks and nods to other games; from Mega Man to Castle Crashers, Alex Kidd to Grim Fandango (another game that revolves around Day of the Dead, or “Dia De Los Muertos”) and even Metroid to Portal, the latter two of which actually inspire most of the gameplay beats. Guacamelee pays homage to the classics while also giving newer games a high-five—or should I say, high-cinco (de Mayo?)–just for being great games. There’s also a ton of internet-inspired memes to be found throughout the game, like Grumpy Cat and the Me Gusta face. While these Easter eggs don’t affect the way you play, they set the overall hilarious tone for Guacamelee quite well, and just go to show the amount of detail and passion that went into creating the game’s world. While at times these references to pop culture closely treaded the line of being “too much,” I’ve got to admit that more than a few got a laugh or two out of me. Some of the game references, like getting your new abilities from nearly exact replicas of Metroid’s Chozo statues (aptly named "Choozo Statues"), made me so, so happy.
As is the case with all games dubbed “Metroidvania” in genre, the game features an open world where you’ll need to procure new Luchador abilities in order to explore and overcome obstacles. You’ll come across areas that you cannot access right away, where you must return later to do so. The single strongest part of Guacamelee’s design is how well the game teaches you to learn and master its mechanics. Every ability you get doubles as an attack and a means of platforming; Juan’s various wrestling moves can send him flying in a certain direction–either up, down or to the side. Each of these abilities is color-coded, a slick design choice that lets you know exactly which move you need to use, either in combat or when exploring. Say, for example, if an enemy has a red shield, you must use your red uppercut ability to first break through said shield in order to kick their already-dead butts. So, if you see a red block stopping you from advancing, you know that you must use that very same red uppercut to smash it. If you check your map (something you’ll be doing quite often), you’ll notice that the game tracks every block, chest and upgrade station—which, of course, is a table with a talking Day of the Dead skull on it (‘cause, you know, Mexico and stuff) that you come across. This quickly eliminates the headache of having to remember what you saw and where it was, should you decide to backtrack.
It’s these subtle details in the game’s layout that make the experience such a blast, without all the frustrating bits that would usually otherwise come with a game in this genre. For example, should you miss a jump and fall to your death, the game instantly teleports you to the last spot where you had solid footing on a platform. No deaths, no backtracking, not even a loss to your health meter—Guacamelee tosses that punishing mierda del toro out the window without compromising challenge. Delicious.
For a game with such solid platforming mechanics, it’s almost surprising to say that the melee combat is just as polished. The Square button is used for your regular punches and kicks, your special abilities are mapped to the Circle button, and after a little wear and tear enemies can be grappled by pressing Triangle. The game does a great job with easing players into its mechanics slowly, but noticeably ramping up the difficulty curve toward the end. I never felt stuck or cheated once. If I messed up or died in a fight, I knew it was my fault and felt no pain in retrying. It was always fun. You can’t say that for many games.
Guacamelee’s presentation is another fiesta of fun. The 2D art is absolutely gorgeous in motion and is always a pleasure to look at. Everything from the meme-ridden billboards, buildings, backgrounds and characters absolutely pop on-screen, especially on the Vita. Eventually, Juan gets the ability to switch between the living and dead worlds at will, which ends up playing a big role in both platforming and combat. Impressively enough, the world around you changes quite a bit when you switch over to the other side; almost completely new, stylized art, NPCs, and areas can discovered when comparing both worlds. What’s more is that each area’s music–usually catchy Mexican-themed folksongs with a groovy twist–also change when switching between both worlds. On their own, these small details don’t make the game what it is, but when taken as a whole, they’re a testament to how much love and detail went into Guacamelee’s audio/visual design. There isn’t any voice acting, per se, but I didn’t feel that the game was harmed in any way by this; however, there are so many interesting and absurd enemies and NPCs that this could have been a great venue to add even more hilarity to the already-amusing atmosphere.
Guacamelee doesn’t overstay its welcome. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was sad to have beaten the game when I did, only because I could have used a few more hours of content. It’s by no means too short, since a regular playthrough will last between 6-9 hours, but I only really started to feel challenged towards the end. My wanting more challenge is evidence that the game did such a great job at teaching me its mechanics, that when I started stringing them together in fights and in platforming, I felt so rewarded, which in turn, made me always want more.
There aren’t any areas of the game that scream the need for improvement, and that’s because the package is so tight, polished, fun and worth your money (remember, this is PS3/Vita cross-buy), that I can only do my worst by being nitpicky. Sure, the camera in co-op mode could’ve used some work, and some enemy types and variations got a tad stale by the end, but by no means does that overshadow everything else the game brings forth. In an age where we don’t see these kinds of games crafted with such passion anymore, or even barely at all, Drinkbox Studios saw an opening, capitalized on it, and sent Guacamelee frog splashing its way into my heart. It’s not perfect but it’s damn close to it, and I’ll be cursed by chicken magic if this isn’t one of the greatest games on PSN—and certainly the Vita. Viva Drinkbox Studios. Viva Guacamelee!