Remember Super Metroid? Indie developer Drinkbox certainly does, but with their latest PSN title they’ve decided that what Nintendo’s classic really needed was fewer bounty hunters and space pirates, and a whole lot more sombreros.
Guacamelee follows the adventures of barrel-chested agave farmer Juan as he attempts to rescue the daughter of “El Presidente” from the clutches of evil skeleton bandit Carlos Calaca, a quest that begins quite badly when Juan is immediately killed in his first confrontation.
All is not lost though, as the game takes a quick rummage through the big bag of crazy plot contrivances and pulls out a magical wrestling mask, which instantly resurrects Juan as a superpowered Luchadore. Thus equipped, Juan sets out across a beautifully stylised version of rural Mexico, to rescue the damsel, beat up all the baddies and generally be all heroic and stuff.
Mechanically, Guacamelee plays very similarly to the Metroid and Castlevania titles it’s primarily paying homage to. Juan runs and jumps his way through the non-linear 2D stages, battling Calaca’s various skeletal minions and locating the necessary upgrades to his powers that will allow him access to new areas (these powers are mainly acquired by locating and smashing “Chozo” statues, in another nod to its inspiration).
Upgrades range from the faintly ridiculous, like Juan’s morph-ball-esque ability to fit through small spaces by turning himself into a chicken, to the more impressive – a couple of hours in Juan acquires the ability to flip between the land of the living and the land of the dead at will, with platforms and enemies phasing in and out of solidity depending on which realm he’s currently in. This sets up the possibility for some fiendish platforming shenanigans, and the game doesn’t disappoint – the difficulty ratchets up quickly and you’ll soon be expected to make use of a number of Juan’s powers in sequence to get through the more complex sections.
This puzzle-platform style could (and in the more difficult areas, occasionally does) get a little frustrating, but there’s a satisfaction to be had from working out the correct way to apply Juan’s skills to get to the next screen. Even failure generally inspires a bout of just-one-more-go syndrome, especially since the game leniently places Juan back on the starting ledge in the event of a plunge into the abyss.
It’s not all wall-jumping and spikes though, there’s also plenty of fighting. Being a wrestler, Juan gets up close and personal with his foes, with a basic three-punch combo backed up by a jump kick and uppercut with which to batter his way through. A few quick hits will open up an enemy for a wrestling move, or a directionally controlled throw, which becomes really important later on – throwing enemies into others will skittle over the whole group and buy you a few seconds, and you’ll need them.
The combat is fast paced and fun, but the game likes to lock Juan in a room and throw waves of enemies at him, which does get a bit frantic, particularly once enemies start appearing with colour coded shields that can only be broken by a specific attack, or enemies that exist only in one dimension or the other (despite being able to hit you in both). Couple that to a slightly stiff dodge roll and the later fights can feel a bit unfairly overwhelming, unless you’re packing a set of fly-meet-chopstick level twitch reflexes.
So far, so old school, but Guacamelee has a few more tricks up its poncho to keep you interested, the first of which is the sumptuous art direction – Bizarro Mexico never looked so pretty. Everything is drawn in a distinctive angular style, swathed in bright colours and bold designs – even switching over to the murkier world of the dead still keeps everything looking great, with menacing purple skies and lurid green slime everywhere.
Enemy designs are variously drawn from Mexican folklore and festivals, from the day of the dead skeletons to the flying Chupacabras, and they all animate nicely as Juan beats them up and throws them around.
Another nice touch is that this is not a game that takes itself too seriously, being liberally sprinkled with goofy references to retro games culture and internet memes all over the place. You’ll spot background references and parodies everywhere, such as posters stuck around town advertising the exploits of the familiar looking “Los Super Hermanos” wrestling tag team, or the road into the desert being plastered with what looks suspiciously like rage comics. These little visual gags don’t really add anything to the gameplay, but they’re fun to spot nonetheless.
Downsides? Well, as mentioned earlier, the difficulty curve is quite steep and at various points both the platforming and the combat can get a little more frustrating than they should do. It’s also quite short, clocking in at about five hours, but then that’s maybe being unfair since it is after all only a tenner (and that’s a cross-buy with the Vita version).
I’m nitpicking though, Guacamelee is a pretty top-drawer product. It’s charming, funny and good looking, while offering up a solid take on the timeless Metroidvania template – more than enough to send it suplexing its way into the top tier of PSN titles.
Thank you. TiA.