Once upon a time, 2D platformers were the most dominant genre on the video game market, with nearly every publisher trying to ride on the coattails of Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog with their own “me too” knockoffs. It was a genre as prevalent then as first-person shooters are today. But with the increasing popularity of indie games as well as the digital efforts from second- and third-party studios, 2D gaming has steadily been making a return to form, albeit in a more experimental variety than what was seen in the past. How long can developers continue to experiment with the second dimension before unique adventures like Super Meat Boy and Limbo begin to grow tiresome?
Whenever the modern 2D gaming well dries up, it won’t happen anytime soon if Guacamelee! is any indication. Developed by Drinkbox Studios (makers of the entertaining Tales from Space games on PSN and Vita), Guacamelee! is a more traditional 2D platformer than the recent repertoire of unique variations, but is by no means less noteworthy. In fact, to call the game the most flattering love letter of the classic 2D genre would be perfectly appropriate.
The story centers around Juan, a Mexican farmer asked to assist his local church in preparing for the Day of the Dead festival. While reuniting with El Presidente’s Daughter, his childhood sweetheart-turned-woman of his dreams, an evil skeleton named Carlos Caraca wreaks terror on the village, kidnapping El Presidente’s Daughter and sending Juan to the underworld. There, he finds a mysterious mask that bestows upon him the powers of a Luchador. Using his newfound strength, the assistance of some oddball allies and the additional powers of conveniently-placed statues, Juan embarks on a journey to rescue his beloved from the evil Charro Caraca and his henchmen, and perhaps solve a few side-quests and procure hidden treasure chests along the way.
As you may have guessed, Guacamelee! is a Metroidvania game, a 2D genre that continues to exist even when both Metroid and Castlevania have ceased to make games of a similar fashion. While navigating across the linked areas, you’ll come across several spots blocked off by color-coded walls and unreachable platforms. Sure enough, you’ll begin unlocking new powers that will slowly break down these impassable obstacles, which also serve as new butt-kicking abilities to unleash against the undead foes standing in your way. In addition to these special abilities, Juan also possesses a decent array of combos to pummel opponents with, as well as additional grappling and throwing maneuvers accessible once enemies have been softened enough to display a triangle prompt above their heads.
On the surface, it all sounds like standard stuff, but what sets Guacamelee! apart is the way it handles the single most important component of any 2D game: control. Every aspect of the game, from the way Juan runs, jumps, dodges and hits, feels flawless in both design and execution. Rather than force players to cycle through different powers or equipment, every single maneuver can be performed on the fly. This is crucial in order to navigate through the fast-paced platforming as well as the quick-moving enemies, or sometimes both at once. The concept of using special attacks in order to gain an extra level of altitude has most in common with Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series. Sequences where players must roll through vines, jump once, uppercut again to gain an additional jump to reach a high platform, and use a headbutt to break through a wall are just some of many examples of combination-based puzzles to solve in each area. But the ease with which players can perform such feats leads to some of the fastest and freshest gameplay felt on any platform.
The combat lacks only somewhat in comparison, but is just as serviceable and fun. Enemies can be taken out on the ground, launched into the air or serve as airborne missiles by being tossed into other hapless foes. While most enemies will put up a decent fight, none are particularly too troublesome – at least until they bring some of the mechanics seen during the platforming segments. Tougher foes will be wearing color-coded shields, requiring players to use the appropriate attack (whether it be an uppercut, headbutt, dash punch or so on) in order to break the enemies’ barriers. Some attack from another dimension, able to do damage but unable to be hurt themselves until players jump to the nearest portal to switch between the worlds of the living and the dead. (An ability later on will allow for instant switching at the press of a button and further opens up new areas as well as trickier platforming segments.)
As aesthetics go, Guacamelee! looks and sounds as good as it plays. The game’s art style takes an appealing cartoon aesthetic and also blends with a heavily-Mexican flavor. While the abundance of tequila, sombreros and piñatas may seem dangerously stereotypical, it’s all handled in good fun instead of feeling like a mocking parody and overall give the world a unique visual style that pays respect to the culture as well as having fun with it. The game is also littered with obvious nods to classic games (particularly those from Nintendo), as well as images born from the internet; yet the Mexican motif puts a clever spin on all those clichéd references, particularly with the Lucha Libre posters surrounding the villages.
The game isn’t lacking in its own brand of humor, either. Though the dialogue is told exclusively through text, all of the story characters (both good and evil) are well-written in their own right, keeping the simplistic story from feeling too formulaic while further paying service to the cultural motif that carries the entire setting. Though the characters may be silent, the soundtrack is another matter entirely. Featuring a wonderful variety of tracks combining mariachi music with 2D platforming as well as other acoustic treats, the soundtrack in Guacamelee! is truly great stuff and will no doubt be reproduced by the talented amateur musicians seen on YouTube.
Though the game is a bit on the short side if played through without deviating off the beaten path, there are also a decent amount of side-quests and hidden passageways to discover, in addition to an unlockable difficulty mode, an optional arena and other secrets to unearth. Even better, purchasing the game on PSN will also provide a download for the Vita version, with both games allowing for cross-saving. Using the in-game cloud option, players can upload their current save on one system, continue playing it on the other, and vice versa. For all the previous attempts with Transfarring and cross-platform apps, Drinkbox has made the process incredibly easy and quick, setting the standard for future titles.
The Vita version is also identical to its PS3 counterpart in every way, save for the mapping of one specific ability to a touch command due to the Vita’s lack of four shoulder buttons. Sadly, there is no way to re-map the controls; that ability could have been better served for the left shoulder button (which is for performing the dodge move, additionally mapped to the right analog stick). The Vita can also serve as a remote play device for the second player, who can join in at any time during the game. While the lack of online play is slightly regretful, the two-player cooperative mode is more of a novelty, as the game is better suited for singular play.
These are minor quibbles in light of the terrific experience that is Guacamelee!. Few games have felt as smooth to control and fun to play through as Drinkbox Studios’ latest and greatest hit, and if the upward climb from Tales from Space to this title is any indication, the company’s next efforts should be something to look forward to with baited breath. Until then, enjoy what may be one of the last digitally-released PSN games, as well as one of the greatest.