Although it belongs to the Metroidvania genre, the fast pace and overall simplicity of Guacamelee make it come off as something else: a testing platformer that is punctuated by beat ’em up portions and happens in a connected sidescrolling world
Amidst the onslaught of Metroidvania games that have been coming out of indie studios, there has been one recurring theme: the path the standout products of the niche have followed towards greatness. All of them, without exception, have looked fondly towards both Metroid and Castlevania while opting to dress up the non-linear progression found in many titles of those franchises with unique traits that had yet to be employed inside the genre. Theoretically, it is a simple route; but, in reality, it takes a special level of creativity and inspiration to uncover the elusive magical element that will characterize a work deeply enough for it not to be seen as a dull copy of the source material, especially when one considers how crowded the gameplay style currently is. Some, such as Hollow Knight, do it through the sheer power of art and structural ambition; others, like Iconoclasts, infuse the genre with unusual assets, such as a thick plot and an aura that recalls 16-bit action adventures; and there are those, like SteamWorld Dig, that toy around with the overall progression itself.
When compared to those efforts, and to most indie Metroidvania titles, Guacamelee is much less subtle in relation to how it constructs its identity. So much, in fact, that it is splattered all over its presentation: it is on the mask used by its protagonist; it is in the world where it chooses to set its quest; and it is even displayed proudly on its title. The game is as much about traversing a big and connected world looking for new abilities as it is about engaging in fierce physical struggles against vicious hordes of foes. And it is in this unexpected merging of exploration with beat ’em up combats that it thrives, bringing in a new degree of action and fast-paced thrills to a gameplay format that frequently leans in the direction of the atmospheric and methodical. The Metroidvania universe has never been a style recommended to all kinds of players, but Guacamelee injects it with such an impressive dose of adrenaline that it may as well have a chance to convert the doubters.
Truly, what is more interesting about Guacamelee is how the game achieves a nearly perfect synergy between theme and gameplay. That is, its beat ’em up inspirations are not used solely to punctuate the maps with fights; they also play a major role in defining the title’s visual contours and topical roots. Given beating foes into submission represents roughly half of what Guacamelee is all about, the team at DrinkBox Studios opted to make its hero be someone who knows how to do so quite well: a wrestler. And since the sport enjoys outstanding popularity in Mexico, it probably did not take much for developers to join the dots and decide to paint the world of their game with the country’s rich culture. The universe of Guacamelee, therefore, nods to many widely known – borderline clichéd – elements of Mexican folklore: sugar skulls and references to Día de los Muertos abound; mariachi groups make an appearance and their musical style is an integral part of the title’s fantastic soundtrack; characters mix Spanish words into the dialogue constantly; popular dishes of the country’s cuisine show up; and the festive colors and characteristic traces of Mexican art are evident in the vibrant hand-drawn art style Guacamelee boasts.
The game is a sight to behold; a delight to listen to; and an incredibly alluring and unique world into which to jump. The protagonist, Juan Aguacate, grew up wanting to be a luchador, but ended up becoming a humble farmer instead. One day, a long lost love and childhood friend, El Presidente’s Daughter, drops by the village where he lives and Juan decides to pay her a visit. Unfortunately, as they are about to meet, the woman is attacked by a sinister skeleton, Carlos Calaca. Juan confronts him, but is ultimately unable to stop the villain from running away with the unconscious girl; and as Calaca escapes, he kills the hero. Juan wakes up in the world of the dead and is led by a spirit to a place where a sacred wrestling mask lies in wait; upon putting it on, the hero becomes a mighty luchador, is resurrected, and sets out to rescue El Presidente’s Daughter. It is a fast simple introduction that effectively gets it all underway quickly; moreover, as a nice surprise, throughout the adventure Guacamelee holds a good deal of cleverly written dialogue, appealing characters (both heroes and villains), and even sneaks in a couple of surprising twists, making its story a great and important part of its fabric.
With the table set and a maiden to rescue, Juan is always pointed in the direction of a specific location that is clearly displayed on the map. When getting there, he must overcome obstacles, beat down enemies, acquire a new ability, and reach a boss. After getting rid of the big baddie, he will be sent to another area that can be accessed with his recently acquired skill, and the process will repeat. Thanks to that configuration, Guacamelee falls on a very light quadrant of the Metroidvania spectrum. It is impossible to get lost because there is never any doubt regarding the place players must head to; and, with the exception of some locations that end up working as hubs, it is not necessary to return to a previously cleared area unless one wants to look for collectibles that could not be reached when the place was originally explored. As a consequence, Guacamelee is very straightforward, as even if the pieces that make up its world do have a couple of detours here and there, their exploration is relatively linear and one could hardly dub them complicated.
With that in mind, the game is left to find its greatness elsewhere, and it does so in two notable areas: platforming and combat. As it turns out, Juan is pretty nimble for a guy his size, and due to that the platforming of Guacamelee gains a challenging and fast-paced edge that recalls that of Super Meat Boy. Surely, in terms of difficulty, the latter easily outmaneuvers the former, but Guacamelee can sometimes be pretty tough too. The relation between the two games, however, is strong due to other traits: namely, how Guacamelee builds very smart platforming segments with skills that are very simple, and how it avoids any sort of frustration by being smartly generous when it comes to either checkpoints or sending Juan back to where his last mistake was made. As his abilities expand, Juan will be able to wall-jump, execute a dodge that can be triggered while in the air, run up walls, turn into a small chicken, fly horizontally through the screen, and perform other tricks. And Guacamelee takes advantage of that by sprinkling its large maps with many enclosed rooms where the usage of these moves will be tested to degrees not usually seen in a Metroidvania game.
In that regard, though, the most original asset of Guacamelee – and one that influences its exploration, platforming, and even battles – is the fact it is possible to switch between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Initially, such a transition can only be performed via specific portals; however, down the line, Juan gains the power to travel between the two dimensions at will. Whether via portals or by using the character’s own skill, Guacamelee cleverly combines these shifts from one realm to another with the hero’s physical abilities to come up with some testing challenges that require a lot of precision and the fast pressing of sequences of buttons. And that is because some platforms or vertical poles only exist in one of the two worlds; consequently, often, players have to jump or soar through the air while traveling between dimensions to adjust the environment so that it suits their needs, such as making an obstacle that is on the way disappear and then switching to another dimension once more so that the surface where the landing will occur materializes. It is frantic; it is fun; and it can be tough, but Guacamelee makes its occasional brutality manageable because if he falls to his death, Juan will be – in the blink of an eye – automatically returned to the point from which he tumbled, generating no frustration whatsoever.
The most intelligent aspect of the various skills Juan acquires as his quest progresses is how nearly all of them have two effects. Firstly, as Metroidvania traditions dictate, they open the way to new areas or hidden locations that hold sweet collectibles. Secondly, and on what is a feature that could only exist in a game with such a heavy focus on battles, they double as wrestling moves. Therefore, as he is expanding the tools he has to interact with the world around him, Juan is also learning new ways to obliterate the bad guys, whether it is by pulling off a headbutt, unleashing a jumping punch that sends foes into the air, pounding them from up above with his mighty belly, and more. Although enemies are often strategically scattered around the map, the real meat of the combats – and the portions that make Guacamelee qualify as a beat ’em up – takes place when Juan is suddenly locked into a relatively tight space by walls that only vanish when he takes down a big wave of enemies; an event that happens with enough frequency to be quite prominent, but not to a point that harms the game’s excellent flow.
Be it on the ground or in the air, the luchador can execute a myriad of standard punches in rapid succession. However, the real stars of his arsenal come in the form of: the moves he acquires in the overworld, which consume a slice of his stamina; a temporary power-up mode that can be activated once an energy bar is filled up; and the wrestling throws he can use. The last are made available when enemies have had a certain part of their health depleted, which will cause a clear prompt to show up; when that happens, by pressing X, Juan will grab the foes and, with the use of the directional, gamers will indicate where the victim will be launched towards, allowing the character to go into a piledriver or cause a domino effect by throwing one bad guy onto the others. Combats are kept refreshing and exciting all the way through not just due to the solid variety of enemies Guacamelee holds, but also in how the game knows how to mix and match them, creating some very smart battle scenarios. Furthermore, the fact foes in the same arena are sometimes in different dimensions or are covered with color-coded shields that are only broken via specific special moves guarantees that gamers will be thoroughly tested in the mastering of all of Juan’s abilities; and since save points are very abundant, failing is not that big of a deal, because the progress that is lost is minimal.
Without being overly concerned about completion, gamers should spend somewhere between six and eight hours to get to the end of Guacamelee, which is a generally good length for the genre. However, if players want to fully sink their teeth into what the title has to offer, Guacamelee holds a nice level of extra content. It has seventeen specially tough challenges, which are bound to draw extreme players, in one of the areas of its overworld. In addition, it possesses a plethora of collectibles, many of which are stored safely behind great platforming challenges. These items include: upgrades for health, stamina, and the power-up mode; chests containing gold or silver, which are also gained from battles and can be exchanged for excellent costumes with interesting effects or general enhancements to Juan; and even seven very hard to reach orbs that, if fully gathered, unlock a special ending. What is most appealing about the collectibles, though, is how Guacamelee gives players all the tools to track them down, because warp points are well-placed, therefore diminishing unnecessary walking; and the map is very helpful in indicating not only the completion rate of all regions, but also the types of obstacles that block the passage to secret areas, showcasing an astonishing dedication to presentation and accessibility.
Featuring brilliant platforming, thrilling combats, and the option for up to four players to join forces, Guacamelee is a very refreshing take on the Metroidvania niche. As it turns down the complexity of its map, letting it peacefully rest on a level of simplicity far below the one seen in other giants of the genre, it allows its unique traits to take over the show. Due that, although it does have a good amount of secrets and plenty of backtracking to those who are willing to tackle it, the game ends up coming off as a fast-paced platformer that is punctuated by beat ’em up portions and takes place in a fully connected sidescrolling world. And the impressive synergy between the wrestling motifs of its battles and the Mexican-inspired tones of its art, dialogues, characters, music, and cultural references adds a layer of charm to the final product that makes it nearly irresistible; so much, in fact, that its colors, theme, and overall frantic rhythm may even convert – or at least temporarily please – gamers who are not big fans of the genre.