the artistry and psychology of gaming


Guacamelee! Gold Edition

Guacamelee! Gold Edition

The Good:
+ Combat is deep, fast-paced, challenging, and extremely satisfying
+ Excellent platforming mechanics and Metroidvania elements
+ Fantastic level design filled with background details
+ Secret areas and extra content offer extensive twists on the core gameplay
+ Visuals, audio, and sense of humour are wonderfully eccentric

The Bad:
– Story feels out of place and incomplete

Playing Guacamelee conjures memories of a lot of other great games – and not just because it references about 25 of them as background jokes. It’s a hyperactive amalgam of mechanics and themes that will be eerily familiar to players of Super Meat BoyCastle Crashers, and God of War, among many others. But more than anything, Guacamelee seems to owe its entire elevator pitch to Outland (which was itself a combination of Castlevania and Ikaruga, in case this family tree wasn’t broad enough), inasmuch as they’re both melee-focused light Metroidvanias with a distinctly Latin American aesthetic and a polarity-switching mechanic. If this is all sounding terribly unoriginal, that’s kind of the point. Guacamelee’s individual pieces already exist elsewhere, but their combination, especially when wrapped in such an unexplored setting and boisterous presentation, is unprecedented. And more importantly, the individual pieces are solid, but their combination is a near-flawless symbiotic relationship of combat, platforming, and personality.

One of my most common criticisms, especially for modern AAA games, is that they try to do too many things and end up doing none of them well. Guacamelee is the rare kind of game that proves you can be a jack of all trades without being a master of none, if your developers are as cohesive and talented as the staff at DrinkBox Studios apparently are. Crucially, many of the game’s pieces neatly overlap, so neither the combat nor the exploration and platforming feel like they’re making up for the other’s deficiency, and the goofy animation and flashy effects only enhance the gameplay. Furthermore, every facet of Guacamelee exhibits a boundless energy that ties the disparate elements together even tighter. The game is simply too lively and confident to ever slow down for downtime or gameplay transitions; it just melds into a smooth wave of colour and joy. I’d even call it an atmospheric game, just not with the usual connotation of subtle isolation. This is the atmosphere of being part of a world-spanning festival that you never want to end.

Ordinarily I have to search around for a screenshot that properly conveys the tone of a game. Not so difficult this time.

Let’s start with the combat. What initially shows signs of being another combo-driven button-masher soon grows into a frantic system where simple combos serve only as gateways for much more valuable and versatile throws and wrestling moves. Battles are further invigorated with the introduction of special moves executed with a Smash Bros-esque combination of analog stick and B button, and a dodge move that’s rendered immensely satisfying thanks to a split second of slowdown and a neat visual effect upon its successful use. Eventually you’ll meet enemies vulnerable only to specific special moves, and even the aforementioned polarity-switching gets in on the action, as certain enemies can only be damaged from the “world of the dead” (which is much more imaginative and enjoyable than Outland’s polarity system, where enemies wouldn’t flinch if you weren’t the right colour at the moment of attack). It’s certainly a robust setup, but its entertainment value isn’t descended from the abilities it offers the player. The heart of the fun of Guacamelee’s combat is in the enemy variety that forces the player to assume significantly different fighting styles for each encounter, the sheer chaos that arises when all of your skills are required at once, and the hearty crack of each connected hit.

The platforming ingeniously uses the same player abilities, but relies on its speed, precision, and clever level design for providing entertainment. Some special abilities are required to function as triple and quadruple jumps, and later abilities like vertical wall-running give a freedom of movement that even most parkour games fail to achieve. The game also masterfully reinvents how it uses its dodging and polarity-switching mechanics with each new area, ensuring the platforming remains a primary source of enjoyment, rather than a way of connecting combat sections. For example, a series of platforms could alternate between the worlds of the living and the dead, or pools of lava in one world could become harmless water in the other. Most gratifying of all, these sections are challenging but never frustrating or unfair, thanks to instantaneous respawns that place you at the last solid ground you touched. Even the level design offers more than just a standard video game challenge. Background touches offer yet another avenue for the game’s lively personality, with clever visual jokes and wonderfully subtle hints regarding the nature of the setting (my favourite was a row of flower-covered graves that became tables of food in the world of the dead).

Practical and pretty. The perfect level.

If there’s one thing that doesn’t quite connect with the rest of the package, it’s the story. A game that looks, feels, and sounds this ridiculous needs either an equally ridiculous story to reinforce it, or a straightforward one that sparks the gameplay and can be ignored from then on. Guacamelee seems to have tried for a middle ground, and subsequently inhabits the no man’s land of being noticeable without actually being worth noticing. The setting is a cartoonish love letter to every Mexican stereotype in existence; a world where luchadores are superheroes, tequila flows like water, and being dead actually seems like a lot of theatrical fun. The plot follows Juan Aguacate, freshly resurrected after finding a mysterious mask in the world of the dead, as he tracks down a team of four colourful villains who have kidnapped the president’s daughter for use in a ritual that will merge the worlds of the living and the dead. Sounds like the kind of straightforward introduction we needed, right?

Well, things get a little cloudier. Each character is given precisely one scene explaining their backstory and motives, but no payoff ever arrives for this knowledge; each villain simply disappears after their respective boss fight. Don’t get me wrong, I love the characters – I love their designs, their dialogue, and their actions in-game – I just don’t find Juan’s childhood dreams very worthwhile when he’s currently in a chicken suit punching out skeletons. On a similar note, there are good and bad endings, but the good ending is notably difficult to achieve on the first try, and the straight-faced tragedy of the bad ending is impossible to take seriously at the end of a game containing a villain named Flame Face. But my biggest problem with the story is that the mystery of Juan’s mask and its guardian (who Player 2 controls in the most ancillary co-op mode since the New Super Mario Bros. games), is never explained, or even touched upon. Apparently resurrecting people and giving them super powers and a mystical companion is just what it does.

Thankfully, the rest of the game is more cohesive in its chaos. The art style (which is along the lines of stereotypical Mexican iconography viewed through the lens of Adobe Flash), is a joy to look at, and the bouncy animation not only complements the gameplay by providing appropriate tells for enemy attacks, but also fits the theatrical lucha libre theme. The soundtrack is a delightful mix of traditional instruments and electronics, and I’m especially fond of how tunes from the world of the living contain rapid percussion in the background which is replaced with an ambient buzz while in the world of the dead. Finally, the game is surprisingly hilarious. Lucha libre-tinged internet memes plaster the world, but the real comedy comes from the characters and dialogue, especially the goofy mentor character who likes to hit on your mother and take the form of an indigo goat. It is possible that the aesthetics are too messy for their own good; hit boxes are a little difficult to discern and important parts of the environment don’t stand out as much they need to. But, unlike the story, which is just kind of distracting, the colours and flourishes only make the game more enjoyable, and the gameplay is so finely-tuned elsewhere that a couple of imperfections are a small price to pay.

This guy’s sprite alone makes me smile.

The final thing that pushed Guacamelee up from “good game” to “game of the year candidate” for me was its approach to secrets and extras. The standard Metroidvania-style secrets abound, with upgrades to your health and stamina available once you discover their location and overcome an extra challenge. But more important are the huge, extremely difficult optional areas that exhaust every possible variation on the game’s already very deep fighting and platforming mechanics. Where other, lesser developers would simply hide their secrets and be done with it, DrinkBox Studios crafted additional full-fledged play areas for its extras, rewarding enterprising players for their devotion to the game with new, engaging gameplay. It’s also worth mentioning that the biggest and best of these areas was originally DLC for Guacamelee’s PS3 incarnation, but has been included for free with the Gold Edition Steam release, so once again, PC gaming master race, etc.

In closing, Guacamelee is vastly more substantial than it looks. The trailers only promise aggressive comedy and beat-‘em-up gameplay; hell, I probably wouldn’t have even bothered if I hadn’t been told it was a Metroidvania. But against all expectations, the game turned out to be the best Metroidvania in years. Its unmatched energy, intense gameplay, and memorable aesthetic make it the most unadulterated fun I’ve had with a game all year. Oh, and did I mention you can transform into a chicken, in the Guacamelee equivalent of Metroid’s morph ball? Yeah, this game is kind of fantastic.

Score: 9/10

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