Guacamelee! / Guacamelee!: Super Turbo Championship Edition - Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One (April 9, 2013)
Metroidvanias can be a difficult genre to keep fresh, especially given the many, many stabs at the genre people have made over the years. Some do their best to try and vary themselves up, including things like adding the third dimension, or RPG elements. Unfortunately, despite their efforts, so many of them feel so similar, which is especially bad in a genre where you’re meant to wander back and forth across a massive, unchanging maze, gathering up the same sorts of abilities in different coats of paint. That's why Guacamelee is such a surprise, for managing to keep itself unique and interesting, far more than plenty of other games it's sharing the genre with.
You take the role of Juan, a simple agave farmer with a childhood crush on El Presidente's beautiful daughter. Unfortunately, she soon ends up being captured by the evil Carlos Calaca, who plans to use her in his schemes to rule the worlds of the living and the dead. And so, Juan ends up toasted by Calaca about ten seconds after encountering him. Thankfully, however, he comes across a powerful luchador's mask within the realm of the dead that restores him to life and gives him a bunch of sweet wrestling moves. Joined by Tostada, the guardian of the mask, Juan sets off to find and defeat Calaca. After he acquires a bunch of abilities that'll let him get rid of the color-coded obstacles in his way, of course.
Once Juan acquires the mask, it isn't too long before the game begins to set itself apart from other Metroidvanias, primarily on its focus on combat. Guacamelee is just as much a brawler as it is a platformer, and it might be the most combat-heavy Metroidvania you’ll see, short of Shadow Complex. Juan starts off with a three-hit combo that can be done from the ground and the air, an uppercut for starting juggles, and a downward smash to bring enemies back to earth. The most interesting moves of all, however, are the throws you can perform once you've hit most enemies enough times. You can chuck them in any direction to plow through other foes, boot them across the screen, or simply piledrive them for major damage.
The game is pretty proud of its combat, since it frequently locks you into rooms where you have to take out waves of enemies, so it's a good thing that it's as fun and frantic as it is. It always feels incredibly satisfying, from the split-second pause when you successfully dodge roll through an attack, or watching your combo counter build up as an enemy you toss knocks its way through a crowd. There are plenty of times when you'll end up with enemies all over the screen, which makes weaving around them and taking them all out in one big clump incredibly satisfying. Even though the basics to combat are pretty simple, there's a fair amount of depth in the way you can extend your combos, like being able to dodge roll towards an enemy you've knocked away to continue beating them.
There's a pretty wide variety of enemies, all of which have their own distinct patterns to watch out for. Most have tells that'll let you dodge harmlessly through their attacks, but you’ll hardly ever only have to watch out for one enemy at a time. Since you frequently do combat in enclosed rooms, you'll typically be surrounded, dealing with enemies that quickly charge towards you, massive enemies that only open themselves for a brief moment, enemies that shoot projectiles, enemies that explode if not dealt with quickly enough, and eventually, enemies with nasty, undodgeable flame attacks. There's also a few boss encounters as well, and while most of them aren't quite noteworthy, one particular highlight is with Jaguar Javier, an anthromorphic jaguar who shares most of your moves and never sticks to a particular pattern, making for one of the most exciting fights in the game.
The game itself is a little more linear in terms of exploration than most attempts in the genre. You're always directed on where you should go next, and there isn’t quite as much mandatory backtracking that you’ll have to do. It actually feels a little closer to a Zelda game than a Metroid title, since you'll mostly be traversing a vast overworld, broken up by large dungeons that test your skills with the new abilities you acquire. It's a nice change of pace, making the game feel a bit more like a cohesive world, and less like a maze full of locked doors. There's still plenty of exploration involved, since you'll want to use your new abilities to go back and discover secret areas, which will contain useful things like money and health upgrades. Even exploring across the furthest distances never feels like a slog, since you'll quickly find stone heads you can use to transport yourself around the world, save points are frequent and automatic, and dying respawns you a brief moment later.
The level design also gets surprisingly complex at points, far more than the static, unmoving platforms you often see in the genre. There's plenty of points where you’ll be tested on your new abilities with tricky platforming, like navigating corridors full of thorns, or figuring out how to get just enough airtime to cross a pit of acid. One particular highlight early on has you being chased by a big, dragon-esque creature called the Alebrije as he smashes his way across the walls and platforms you pass by. It's not a particularly long or difficult segment, but it's a fun moment in a genre where the level design can't typically surprise you. Thankfully, you never often have to do the toughest bits of platforming more than once, since you'll typically open up shortcuts or stone heads that'll let you bypass them in the future. It’s a very welcome bit of variety that never overstays its welcome.
Just about any game of this particular genre is judged on how fun the new abilities you get are to use, and Guacamelee doesn't disappoint. Four of them are special combat moves, like a rising uppercut and a powerful headbutt, which are both useful against enemies and smashing certain blocks that block your path. Using these moves costs you stamina, which you'll need to let regenerate if you overuse these powerful moves too much. You'll also need to use these specials to break through shields of different colors that enemies begin to use. (If you're colorblind, you're unfortunately out of luck, on that front.) Unfortunately, these shields are probably one of the most bits about the game, since you'll do absolutely no damage to an enemy that has one active. Even if you do bring their shield down, it'll come right back if you leave the enemy alone too long, which can easily happen given how many other foes you might be dealing with.
You'll also get the ability to leap off of walls and perform double jumps, and, in one of the oddest Morph Ball equivalents in the genre, turn yourself into a chicken at will to squeeze through tiny passages. Eventually, you'll even have the ability to run up sheer walls, which more or less opens up the map for you completely. One of the most interesting abilities, however, is the ability to swap between dimensions. From the start of the game, Juan's luchador mask allows him to use certain portals to switch between the realms of the living and the dead. The realm of the dead is, as you'd expect, a lot spookier, but also adds or removes certain things that wouldn't be in the realm of the living, letting you get to certain places you couldn't in one realm.
Eventually, you'll get the ability to switch realms at will, and the game loves to have moments where you'll have to dimension swap multiple times, even during a jump, to get to just where you want to go. Bits like these can be the toughest bits of platforming, since you always have to keep in mind just what'll change when you make the swap, all while handling the jumping itself. Dimension swapping's an important part of combat, too, and you’ll frequently deal with enemies that can only be harmed in one realm or another. The dimension switching thing even figures into the game’s plot, given that Calaca's plan involves merging the two realms together and enslaving them both. There are plenty of NPCs that hang out in one realm or another, but despite their decayed appearance, the dead folks are generally normal people with no love for Calaca, themselves.
All of these abilities get put to the test, especially if you're going for all the collectibles. You'll find items that’ll boost your health and stamina, some easy to find, some hidden behind tricky platforming gauntlets. You'll need money, too, gained from defeating enemies and hidden chests, to upgrade your health, stamina, and throw techniques. There are also six hidden orbs you’ll need to gather for the game's best ending, each of tend to be placed behind the nastiest bits of platforming the game can throw at you. To earn one of these, you'll have to brave El Infernio, hell itself, a series of challenge rooms that go from moderately tough to absolutely maddening. You probably won't get the best ending your first time through the game. It's definitely understandable.
If there's anything else that makes the game special, it's the goofy sense of humor it's got. You'll find plenty of references to video games and internet culture through.You can see famed characters like Mega Man and Link dressed up in luchador garb, on posters advertising "La Mascara" (it's patterned after Majora's Mask) and "Mega Hombre". Unfortunately, this backfires a bit, as seeing Pepe the Frog (pre-hate group appropriation) and Grumpy the Frog references nowadays tends to date the game just a little bit too hard. Some of them are giggle worthy, however, like the way you gain abilities by smashing the oddly familiar, bird-like statues scattered around the map. This makes the old hermit who owns them progressively more annoyed with you, although he persists in teaching you moves because he wants to date your mother. Still, it's not all gags, with just enough drama in the backstory of some of the game's cast to balance things out, and the ending you get for not getting all the hidden orbs is surprisingly downbeat.
The setting is interesting, as well, and isn't too unlike Grim Fandango, given that they both tackle Mexican culture and mythology with a comedic edge. Despite the game's goofy tone, there’s a surprising amount of research done, like the way the game’s villain resembles and shares the name of the skeletal figures seen during the Day of the Dead. There's still a bit of stereotyping in there, given the luchadores and mariachi music, but it does feel like there's genuine respect for the underlying culture.
The game's backgrounds look pretty nice, with a nice touch that each area has a slightly different look depending on which realm you're in. One area has statues with creepy glowing eyes when you’re in the realm of the dead, and more importantly, the water turns to lava. The characters themselves look fine as well, and animate smoothly, although it's pretty easy to notice the Flash-style animation in their movements. The bright side, however, is that with some technical knowhow, the Steam version allows you to create and download fan-made costumes, so you can get your wrestle on with anyone from Samus Aran to Strong Badman. The music is pretty culturally accurate, making use of a lot of trumpets and guitars for that mariachi sound, and in a nice touch, it also gets a little quieter and more tense whenever you're in the realm of the dead.
Overall, even if you're not a fan of the genre, Guacamelee's an extremely well rounded package that's definitely worth seeking out. Everything about it just feels so much more dynamic, for lack of a better word, than so many other games that it shares a genre with. The combat is fast and varied, while the level design is challenging, yet never feels completely insurmountable. It's a game that definitely deserves to be ranked along with the champions of the genre, if not higher.
The "Super Turbo Championship Edition", released a year after the release of the original game, adds quite a bit new content, making it worth grabbing even if you've beaten the original game already. There's a couple of new areas to explore, along with a new boss, the conjoined skeletons "El Trio de la Muerte", who themselves are a thinly-veiled parody of failed Kickstarter projects. There's also Intenso, the standard brawler power mode which can be activated by beating enough enemies to fill a meter. Once you've filled the meter, you can then unleash it to become immensely powerful for a short period of time, which definitely helps with the tougher combats. There's also four player co-op, two more than could be in the original release, although it's sadly local only.