I first found out about Guacamelee! by complete accident. I was at the most recent PAX East looking around for mushrooms that had been hidden by Riot Games (finding one and bringing it to their booth won you a pretty sweet League of Legends hat) and my search caused me to unknowingly enter the territory of Drinkbox Studios.

There was an awkward conversation when my snooping around was interrupted by a guy who assumed that my approaching their booth was due to interest in their game. I didn't wish to be rude; so I stuck around and heard him out on his pitch to me and I asked some questions to keep engaged in the conversation but the whole time I knew, in the back of my mind, that other people were out there finding mushrooms and winning hats while I was trapped in conversation about a game that I wasn't terribly interested in.

When I managed to break away I hadn't honestly learned much about Guacamelee! other than it was a "Metroidvania" (yes, they used that word) title set in Mexico, that it starred a luchador, and that it had couch co-op (but not online co-op). Also the game was nice to look at. Truthfully I pretty much forgot the majority of the conversation's details in short order.

Perhaps partially out of guilt for brushing Drinkbox off the way I did; I decided to give Guacamelee! a closer look when I saw that it had released on the Playstation Network not long ago. I had some extra money sitting in my PSN wallet anyways and I figured that at worst I could hate it and rant about it to my buddy Zudz later.
(...also I hadn't played anything on the PS3 lately and this seemed like a cheap way to fix that.)

Initially I actually considered doing something of a review for it. But instead...well, I think it's more interesting to take a look at what makes this particular game genre work and pick out exactly where Guacamelee gets it right and where it drops the ball. I guess that's still a review. Okay, it's still a review. Kind of. It's a review only if you want it to be. There.

Guacamelee! is a fun but flawed product. One can't go into talking about a "Metroidvania" style game without drawing immediate comparisons to Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Those are hard acts to follow. I'm pretty much just going to dive right into this...

The Good

Guacamelee!'s visuals are excellent. The game world is vivid and makes great use of color that is appropriate to the Mexican setting and folklore it's representing. The characters that actually matter are drawn well and have a great deal of personality to their movements -- making the whole package really appealing to look at.

Just look at this scene from the game's start and tell me that you don't want to find out more about these characters.
Día de Muertos skeleton guy (with kidnapped damsel), the player character, gunslinger dude who is perpetually on fire, evil chick with wavy hair. I'm five minutes in and I'm already sold on this.
So pretty much the above-pictured dbags steal your girl, wreck up the place, and foolishly assume that you can never rise up and stop them. It's a simple, cliche plot -- but the game plays it tongue-in-cheek enough to make it rather entertaining. Heck, the love interest is referred to only as "El Presidente's Daughter" throughout the entire game. At least the game is being straightforward with you.

As long as we're talking about the game's presentation; it's worth mentioning that the world you explore is absolutely stuffed with references to other games, movies, and even internet memes. Some of these fall flat (especially when a character needlessly drops "Your princess is in another castle"). But a lot of the visual references are a treat. I absolutely loved seeing advertisements for wrestling matches that are clearly Luchador'd versions of childhood favorite characters.
There's a ton of stuff like this; and I found myself running all around the towns just to seek them out.
In the gameplay department, Guacamelee! should have been called Guacaplatforming! because that is honestly the game's core strength. The best part of being a luchador is apparently running, jumping, and using your special moves to get into all the nooks and crannies of the game world. And as you learn new powers you'll have those delightful "Ah-ha!" moments where you remember something you couldn't reach before and know that you now have the power to get there. These are the moments that make the genre -- and you get that here.

Speaking of the platforming; the game has enough tricks up its sleeve to make for some genuinely tricky challenges in this realm. The really taxing ones are optional, as they should be, but they provide a nice sense of satisfaction when you figure out the appropriate way to string together a double jump / upper-cut / cap-closing punch / ect to land you onto a ledge to get a reward.

It's probably also worth noting the mere fact that a couch co-op option exists if you want to play this with a friend. I'm not convinced the game's more complex platforming sections would make for an enjoyable experience; but it's worth pointing out that the option exists.

Oh, and the game is pretty blatant about wearing its inspirations on its sleeve. How blatant?
That's a Choozo Statue. Not to be confused with a Chozo Statue.
The Bad

The actual combat is where Guacamelee! sort of shits the bed. It gets the job done and it has its moments but that isn't exactly what I was hoping for out of a game starring a masked wrestler that features the word "Melee" right there in the title. While exploring the terrain is fun, having to stop to fight quickly starts to feel like a hassle. Pretty much you run up and punch things until you can grapple them (a triangle-button icon showing above the target's head flags them as vulnerable). Then you throw them. There is some fun to be had in throwing a dude into his friends; but you can get by fine just using specials or regular punches without putting much heart into any of it. It's all just kind of "meh" and that's never a good sign in a game.

There are a few core issues here. One, there's a huge lack of enemy variety. I understand that this is a fairly short game (there's nothing wrong with that for a $15 PSN game) but I've seriously played first generation GameBoy games with more enemy variety. That's disappointing no matter how you slice it. You know how in Super Metroid you'll enter a new region and there will be new things to fight? Yeah, Guacamelee might introduce one new bad guy in a new region. Heck, I can only think of one flying baddie in the whole game. Yaaawwn.

Boss fights also aren't very spectacular. Which is a shame because they have these totally sweet poster-like things before they begin. Check this out!
I just found out I can post animated GIFs. Ta-daah!
Another combat issue (and I bring this up right after showing the X'tabay banner for a reason) is that there are few to no recovery frames when you get hit by something in Guacamelee. That means that an enemy can hit you multiple times before you have a chance to actually respond and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it. One of X'tabay's attacks was frustrating enough in this regard that it earns special mention -- and that honestly should have been fixed in testing. It's not god-awful but it can quickly remove fun from the encounter.

Moving on to other game features that don't quite work; there's also a shop where you can buy different throws and stuff but I never once found them to actually matter. Some of them advertise themselves as great single-target damage or having a good blast radius for taking down multiple foes but...my experiments with these things never felt very fruitful. I could already accomplish all that stuff anyways by just grabbing a dude and throwing him at his buddies. What I'm saying is the shop felt like a lot of wasted potential.

Oh, and some of the supporting characters are pretty lame. Especially the goat man who pretty flatly states that he wants to plow your mom. That is to say the player character's mom. Not, you know, actually your mom.
(That's my job)

The Ugly
If I asked Zudz what his favorite optional thing to get in Symphony of the Night is he might answer with The Shield Rod. I'd answer the same question with Sword Familiar. In that (and Super Metroid) a huge part of the fun comes from the cool stuff you get for going above and beyond in your searching the game environment for the coolest swag you can find. You don't NEED the Spazer Beam or Spring Ball to beat Super Metroid, you know? But they're fun to have. And that's a big part of the fun.

Guacamelee! doesn't reward you as well for your dedicated exploration, and that's a shame. Time and time again I'd find my way somewhere cool and the reward would be an extended health bar or more of the gauge that powers my special moves. Those are okay; but they don't change the way the game is played like the Screw Attack or the thing that changes Alucard's mist form into a damaging gas. The Metroid and Castlevania games were really good at enticing you to explore because you knew that those games were packed full of fun toys just waiting to be discovered. Come on, Guacamelee! You can do better!

The Verdict

Guacamelee! offers an unlockable "Hard Mode" once you beat it the first time. I'm not excited by that but I feel like I should be. I've played Super Metroid through getting only the bare minimum power-ups. I've played Symphony of the Night using only my punching to fight off Dracula's forces. These are, in a way, self-imposed Hard Modes. So Guacamelee giving me the option straight up should be cool, right?

Playing through a Metroidvania style game again is always kind of odd because the exploration is over and done with. Barring a sudden case of amnesia, you can only really explore a game's world once and then that aspect of the game is behind you. With that part of the game lost, what brings you back to Planet Zebes? What makes you storm through all Dracula's minions again? Is it the promise of loot and toys? Is it the fighting? Is it the simple joy of uncovering the whole map?

What Guacamelee! boils down to is this; do you play these games to explore or because you want to collect cool stuff and fight things with that stuff?

Guacamelee! is in no way a bad game; but it lacks some of the polish that those titles that coined the Metroidvania term had. My final answer would be that if you want a game world to explore and stomp around in, you could do a whole lot worse than Guacamelee! But if you want meaningful combat and lots of goodies, you won't find much of that here.
It's worth noting that I played this for a while and had trouble putting it down. Then I ignored it until days later, when I was driving somewhere and randomly got the itch for more Guacamelee! Draw your own conclusions from that.

(I'm still sorry for brushing the guys from Drinkbox off the way I did. And consider this my formal apology in the event that anyone from there ever somehow reads what I wrote).

23/04/2013 9:46am

The shield rod is easily the most overpowered thing in that game, which is pretty much why I love it. The sword familiar is pretty sweet too. Especially once you can wield it like a weapon.I can also thnk of a couple knives that don't require you to stop moving to swing, and I deeply love those.

I'm interested in Guacamelee, but unless it hits Steam it's probably not going to happen.

23/04/2013 12:18pm

Oh, yeah. The running blender sword. I love that they brought that back for Harmony of Despair.

29/08/2013 11:02am

Consider your day made.


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    Content by PuppetShowJustice (or PSJ), a man with strong opinions about things.

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