In this trans-generational period of DRM debates, motion control ventures, and samey, me-too shooters flooding the gaming industry, Guacamelee is a breath of fresh air. Guacamelee foregoes these exhausting ambitions pounded into our living rooms and instead delivers a passionate love letter to the simple roots of gaming. Long ago, all that mattered was a clever, colorful world with a lighthearted conflict and a playground of obstacles to pass through. By applying the lessons learned from generations of playing and designing, Drinkbox Studios has crafted an interactive masterpiece that honors the deep roots of gaming with modern polish to produce a heartwarming experience that takes you back to 1989.
Guacamelee fits under the long-loved colloquial category "metroidvania." Presented with an open 2-D world, you are free to explore every nook and cranny to your heart’s content. However, most of the world is blocked by various obstacles that require specific abilities to break. These abilities must be acquired throughout your adventure, gradually revealing more and more to explore. In Guacamelee’s case, this may include ledges out of reach until you can acquire a wall jump or double jump, or cramped passageways too small for your luchador’s girth. As you progress through the game, you will discover new powers to open up new roads from earlier areas hidden in plain sight. Furthermore, little secrets here and there tease you with subtle hints, challenging you to search every corner to find just one more upgrade. Even when you do find a secret, sometimes it requires some fast footwork to run, jump, and dodge through the obstacles with split-second reflexes and a deliberate plan of attack. These artistically designed platforming challenges add to the satisfaction for every boost in health and stamina.
But while this explorative, power-hunting appeal has been cut and pasted for generations in many different games, it’s the tight, diverse gameplay and charming story that make this adventure a delight. Guacamelee is perhaps the first videogame to explore cartoonish Mexican culture and its famous wrestling luchadors, especially with such tongue-in-cheek teasing. In this setting, Guacamelee introduces an easy-to-learn, hard-to-master combat system that gives you free rein to improvise massive combos against a cunning slew of enemies that are as threatening as they are varied. Survival requires an observant eye to dodge the pain while dishing it out in your own in poetic rhythm. You could say that Guacamelee is like a simplified Super Smash Brothers perfectly tailored for a single-player adventure.
To keep you on your toes, Guacamelee introduces different mechanics to shake up the action. One such is world-switching. Shortly through the game, you gain the ability to switch between the world of the living and the world of the dead, alluding to Mexico’s tradition of Dia de los Muertos. Some enemies are exclusively vulnerable in one world, forcing you to shift between worlds while fighting so you can land your hits. Furthermore, enemies occasionally have a colored shield. These shields are indestructible except by one specific technique, requiring you you to set up an angle to hit them with that move before damaging. These twists shake up the gameplay, encouraging you to explore every move at your disposal and furthering your prowess at improvising even more deadly combos.
When you’re not fighting hordes of skeletal antagonists, Guacamelee makes level traversal a similarly flowing experience with cleverly designed passageways, hazards, teleporters, and shifting architecture. Each new room hints at different platforming mechanics, and encourages you to use them in new ways. The world-switching mechanics also come into play here. Between worlds, some walls appear and others disappear. You will have to plan and execute well-timed world swapping to trade the surfaces you need to acrobatically move on. If it sounds difficult, it is. Luckily, Drinkbox has your back with an intricately programmed checkpoint system that immediately respawns you at no penalty, giving you all the time you need to succeed and none of the taunting game-over screens brutally reminiscent of classic game history. As a result, Guacamelee keeps the challenge going without ever becoming unfairly punishing.
To top it all off, Guacamelee sports a hilarious script of goofy caricatures and pop culture jokes. Your mentor, Uay Chivo, is an ancient master of martial arts who has a thing for the older ladies. He transforms between a human and a goat, and it’s not exactly clear which is his “default” form. The revered Combo Chicken of Santa Luchita also possesses great knowledge of hand-to-hand combat, but also holds deep insecurity for his inability to fly. Other side quests in the town of Santa Luchita will have you hunting for ingredients to make the ultimate enchilada, or scouting for the missing member of a mariachi band. Without giving too much away, just know that Drinkbox’s independent status gives them free reign to poke fun at just about anything, and the characters show it in bold personalities rarely explored in your manufactured triple A’s.
To sweeten the deal, Guacamelee even has couch co-op (PS3 only) perfectly suited even for the least experienced players. Again, the combat is easy-to-learn, hard-to-master, giving button-mashers enough leeway to power through enemy waves. The only difficulties come in some later platforming obstacles that require synchronized movement and world-switching. However, this problem is easily solved thanks to the one-button drop in/drop out system. The occasional dysfunction is worth the effort, because combat is much more fun with a fellow wrestler to juggle with.
The only real problem with Guacamelee is its relatively short campaign. The main story can take anywhere from 4 to 6 hours, and picking up collectibles will add perhaps another 2 or 3. There is also a hard mode for extra challenge and a slew of trophies to snag for the most hardcore. Luckily, there are a couple inexpensive add-ons that bring some extra trophies, unique gameplay options, and challenge levels to extend its life. Still, this shortcoming only speaks to Guacamelee’s quality. Any person who loves games has nothing to fear in getting their money’s worth with this Playstation gem.