Outside of obscure fighting game characters, Mexican professional wrestlers aren’t often seen in videogames. El Fuerte from the relatively recent Street Fighter IV tops the list along with King from Tekken as gaming’s most prominent luchadors, but DrinkBox Studios has set out to change gaming’s distinct lack of them with its PlayStation 3 and Vita cross-buy title, Guacamelee!
Despite obvious inspiration drawn from early Metroid and Castlevania games, it would be a mistake to assume Guacamelee! is merely a gorgeous Metroidvania clone. Sure, you’ll spend most of the game acquiring new techniques like wall jumps and block-destroying body slams to fully explore large labyrinths, but Guacamelee! has much more going for it than that. In fact, what Guacamelee! does best is take these Metroidvania concepts and wrap them in an original lucha libre coat of paint while still maintaining an identity of its own.
In Guacamelee! you control Juan, a humble agave farmer living on the outskirts of a small Mexican town called Pueblucho. In the game’s opening moments, Pueblucho is attacked by the ruler of the dead world, Carlos Calaca. In an effort to stop him Juan is murdered and Calaca kidnaps El Presidente’s daugher. Juan wakes up in the dead world and obtains a magical luchador mask and sets off to win back his love.
The narrative unfortunately doesn’t serve as much more than an excuse to move the action along. However, what Guacamelee! lacks in interesting plot it makes up for in humorous and intriguing characters. Most prominently, several villains impede your progress throughout the game, and each one of them oozes charm. Flame Face, for example, is an alcoholic who drinks to ease the pain of an always flaming face, and X’tabay is like a jealous Disney Princess turned villain.
Guacamelee! emphasizes its charm through its refreshing visual design. With an animated style reminiscent of 90s cartoons mixed with Mexican and Mayan imagery, Guacamelee! maintains a strong visual identity. Skeletons wear sombreros and Mayan-like temples make up the brunt of explorable labyrinths. Throw in a wide color palette and slick animations, and Guacamelee! is incredibly refreshing to look at.
Similarly, Guacamelee! features electronic music mixed with Mexican influences which keeps a steady pace and the action flowing. However, halfway through the game some of the tunes began to outstay their welcome from sheer repetition, and by the end of the seven-hour adventure I was thoroughly annoyed by a couple tracks.
If you can’t already tell, Guacamelee! places an emphasis on humor. Some jokes are obvious, such as when Juan gains Pollo Power–his ability to turn into a chicken and the game’s answer to Metroid’s morph ball. Guacamelee! warrants quite a few laugh-out-loud moments like this, but unfortunately many jokes fall flat with multiple meme references like Me Gusta-brand tequila billboards. However, its references to gaming, such as the advertisements for the luchador El Linko and blatant copies of Chozo statues, are much more befitting because Guacamelee! draws so many inspirations from these classic titles.
Much like the early Metroid games, Guacamelee! divides gameplay between exploration, combat and platforming. At first, I found the exploration to be unrewarding. Aside from 100-percent completion, the only rewards for exploring are heart pieces, stamina upgrades and coins, but the game offers so much of these three things that it felt unnecessary to seek them all out. However, near the end Guacamelee! fixes this problem by introducing a mysterious quest to find several well-hidden and difficult to obtain pieces of a luchador mask. Because Guacamelee! is otherwise too short, the mystery of this mask will have you retreading and exploring every inch of the world, which helps extend the game’s length by a much needed few hours.
While Juan’s steadily growing arsenal of luchador moves keeps battles with Calaca’s minions fresh, it doesn’t offer much challenge. Juan punches, kicks, grapples and launches enemies around for large combos which are easy to pull off and fun to maintain. Juan’s enemies evolve over the course of the game and become more difficult with different shields and the like, but these upgrades only add a small layer of complexity rather than difficulty.
Nevertheless, what the combat lacks in difficulty the game’s platforming makes up for. In fact, Guacamelee! places a heavier emphasis on platforming than other games of the same style, and using all of Juan’s tricks, from uppercuts to shifting between the living and dead worlds, make for some mind-bending platforming puzzles. Masochistic gamers will love the challenge the platforming puzzles offer late in the game.
Much like many early Metroid and Castlevania games, Guacamelee! is a short and sweet adventure; Juan’s quest will run you about seven hours to complete 100 percent, but it also offers competent two player co-op play, an unlockable higher difficulty and two endings. What makes Guacamelee! an adventure worth playing more than once isn’t just any of the above, or the unique visual design, difficult platforming and humor which hits more than it misses, but rather how well the game takes all of these things and bases it off the luchador icon. We could use more luchadores in games. Guacamelee! is evidence of that fact.