Kicking it old…ish school
It’s not often that a game sets itself in a small Mexican town circa 1850. It’s also not often that a game is a tight, focused experience with a solid sense of humor to boot, yet that’s exactly what you’ll get with Guacamelee!. This game is a quality platformer from beginning to end with only minor stumbles. And a nasty difficulty. Did I mention that?
The story begins with the humble agave farmer, Juan who is helping his village prepare for a festival. Juan’s love, the daughter of El Presidente, is kidnapped by the evil skeleton Carlos Calaca who then murders Juan and flees the scene. A now dead Juan is gifted a luchador mask that returns him to the land of the living where he fights Calaca’s minions. It’s basically the story of Mario with an undead super powered Mexican wrestler. Guacamelee! doesn’t put much focus on its story, but the characters are so lovingly crafted with character and nostalgia that you won’t care. From the transforming goat mentor who complains about Juan destroying his statues to the chicken that teaches the player combos, each character is infused with a dry, absurd humor that makes interacting with them a joy. Guacamelee! still manages to balance out the humor with enough seriousness to prevent the whole production from falling into slapstick. The environment is given the same treatment. Background posters and level design call back to the classics of yore or make clever (or not so clever) jokes. They are drawn with a unique, South American style that stands out from the pixelated pack of most indie rogue-like games. The whole of the game is filled with a sense of fun that makes it a joy to behold as the player looks for new delights at every turn.
Underneath the veneer of silliness is a serious action side-scroller in the vein of Metroid. Juan, joined by the optional second player Tostada, must maneuver his way across increasingly difficult puzzles using a variety of moves imparted on him by his goat mentor. Early puzzles are as simple as double jumping across a chasm, but quickly ramp up to rushing, wall sliding, dimension traveling, and upper cut boosting all in the same run. While some of the harder puzzles are optional, it’s impossible to deny that Guacamelee! is one hard game. Frustration is inevitable as the player figures out what must be done, only to replay the same section for 20 minutes trying to execute it perfectly. In one particularly annoying puzzle, the player must wall jump between platforms that they must summon by alternating between dimensions midair. If they’re too late on the button pressing, then the game dumps them back at the beginning of the puzzle. The controls are usually up to this kind of devilish task, but sometimes aren’t precise enough to handle the high demands of the challenge. Fortunately, the death penalty is minor as Juan quickly restarts just before the problem area with minimal fuss.
In fact, that’s the only real complaint I have about Guacamelee! (other than the length. It clocks it at about 4-6 hours). This is why reviewing a game like Guacamelee! is odd for me. On one hand, it’s an incredible clever and fun romp through a luchador filled world with plenty of puzzles and interesting environments. On the other, it’s hard and frustrating in a way that certain aficionados of the genre really enjoy. If you like this sort of game, then you owe it to yourself to check Guacamelee! out. For everyone else, your mileage may vary.