There aren’t many games that feature Mexican culture, and even fewer that do so in a positive light; they tend to focus on drug cartels and gang members (see Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel, where you basically blow up Mexico). So a game like Guacamelee!, a bright and cheery celebration of Mexican folklore, really stands out. The game stars Juan Aguacate, an ordinary agave farmer who sets out an epic quest to rescue El Presidente’s daughter after she is kidnapped by the evil charro skeleton Carlos Calaca.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that Juan as-we-know-him is pretty much destroyed right away, but he soon finds a magical luchador mask that grants him superpowers and the ability to hop between the world of the living and that of the dead, which looks like stunning dia de los muertos art come to (un)life. Guacamelee! is a love letter to 16-bit video games, with charming references to Mario, Zelda, and Metroid in particular, from which it takes its greatest inspiration but adds its own unique spin.
The game starts out simply enough with basic melee-based combat but quickly ramps up as Juan gains new wrestling moves that open up the game. Each ability is color-based and can be used to break corresponding color blocks that reveal new areas. Enemies also have color shields, so you have to fight strategically to break them down before you can do any damage. Additionally, some enemies and platforms exist only in the land of the living or the land of the dead, requiring you to switch to the appropriate dimension on the fly. This seems like a lot to manage, but the controls are so tight and perfect that you always feel in control, even as you’re using almost every button on the controller.
Guacamelee! is gorgeously animated and bursting with color, and the mariachi-tinged soundtrack adds personality and flavor. It’s also genuinely clever and funny, full of gaming in-jokes that lovingly poke fun at long-standing conventions. For instance, early in the game Juan learns to turn into a chicken, which lets him pass through smaller spaces à la Metroid’s morph ball ability, a ridiculous, fun touch.
Developed by Drinkbox Studios, the game is available on PlayStation Network as a cross-buy title, meaning you can play it on both PS3 and PS Vita and transfer your save from one to the other. While it’s nice to have a quality game to play on the fledgling handheld and it controls just as well, at times the action is scaled back so far that it’s tough to see what’s happening on the portable screen. At under six hours, the game is a tad short and has limited replay value, with only a handful of side missions that are just fetch quests with little reward. Though you can play through the entire campaign with a friend via local co-op, with some of the intricate platforming required, I could see that leading to piledriving your teammate out of frustration.
While it lasts, Guacamelee! is undeniably a blast, a tasty mix of deep melee combat and precision platforming. It’s a joyous celebration of Mexican culture and gaming in general, and a loving homage to Super Metroid that stands alongside that classic as one of the great 2-D action-adventure games, even if it leaves you slightly hungry for more. A-
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