As I write this, I have gamer thumbs. Painful red patches are threatening to blister due to self-abuse with game controller. Gamer thumb is an increasingly rare condition since the end of the 1990s fighting game boom, replaced by shooter-induced index finger issues. I’m also recovering from a wisdom tooth extraction, but I like this game so much that I wanted to get this review done. If what follows seems floaty, blame the painkillers.
In the mid 1980s -- the early days of gamer thumb -- video games were hard. The idea of a console in your living room was new, and video games appeared more regularly in cabinets in gross-smelling arcades. The best games cost $50 back when movies cost $3.50, so these games were built to spend hours and hours replaying, and some levels were so tough that you needed to enlist the help of a friend.
Drink Box Studios’ latest offering, Guacamelee, is a game specifically for the Nintendo kids of the 1980s, especially Nintendo kids who attempted games like Battletoads. … Okay, it’s not as hard as Battletoads.
But it’s hard in a way that we’re not used to anymore. This makes Guacamelee halfway to crazy, a welcome risk-taker in a industry stuck in safe mode. It’s a calculated rebellion against the bloated excess of standard triple-A game titles that’s preventing so many games from really saying anything but “buy me!”
Guacamelee is hip, smart, honest, and refreshing, even if it almost made me gamer rage in a few places. I loved it, even when I hated it. The mash-up of classic video game homages, modern meme easter eggs, and Star Wars references actually had me cheering in delight, and I’m a grumpy hipster who doesn’t like anything.
Guacamelee is the story of a down-and-out agave farmer named Juan who dreams of becoming a luchador. After attempting to rescue El Presidente’s daughter from a burning building, Juan is killed by Calaca, an undead Charro (Mexican horseman) who’s basically a Latino Lich*. Aided by the goat version of Yoda, Juan and a female luchador named Tostada must battle their way through skeleton enemies in both the land of the living and the dead. Sub-bosses include Calaca’s mistreated girlfriend, an alcoholic with a flaming head named “Flame Face”, and a Jaguar guy. Also, there are chickens.
This indie title is one of the most well-tuned combo-based games I’ve ever played. I’m hardly an expert, but I felt in control even when I was getting my ass royally kicked. There were a few little timing things with the double jump at first, but eventually it began to feel natural and I liked the ability to string special moves together as an alternative to all-or-nothing multi-button combos.
Furthermore, the way the second player is integrated for the single screen co-op experience is fantastic. When a character dies, they become a bubble that can be controlled while the remaining living player progresses, allowing the less-experienced player to bypass the difficult jumps. Another slick element is that tutorials are very short. Instead, the game trains you as you go by making you use various moves at regular intervals. None of the special moves are difficult to master. Instead, it’s knowing when to use them that creates the challenge. Guacamelee will make you think, but it remains a very intuitive experience.
One of the coolest design elements is the mechanic that allows you to phase between the land of the living and the land of the dead, changing the environments and enemies as you do. It’s a particularly clever bit of game design work, and delivers a series of ingenious on-the-fly platforming puzzles.
The difficulty curve is also, with only one exception, the smoothest I’ve ever experienced. There are no lazy moments where you’re beating up waves of enemies just because that’s what you do in this type of game. Every room has a clear strategy to it, and it frequently integrates platforming and combat in a pretty damned seamless way. For instance, you use your uppercut and dash moves not only to dispatch enemies, but to reach ledges that are otherwise just out of reach. Drink Box Studios totally delivers on their boasts of blurring the boundaries between combat controls and platforming.
It’s annoying to be forced to learn a skill for a single level or boss fight, only for it to be useless for large portions of the later game. I didn’t realize how common that is until I played Guacamelee. Every skill you gain is one you will use frequently, for many different reasons.
The various maps also have some cool 2D designs, and the platforming is a hybrid of Mario, Mega Man, and Metroid, with enough updated slickness that it feels like an homage instead of a rip off. That being said, there are screens that are direct references to classic games, most commonly Mario, as well as a series of platforming puzzles that are nods to Portal. What makes this work instead of seeming like a shameless copycat is that Guacamelee delivers in its original level builds, and is insanely funny as well.
It’s an 80s nostalgia kick in structure and pop culture references, with princesses in other castles, overconfidence being a weakness (as well as faith in friends) and even a Space Invader stamped onto a level as decoration. But there are also easter egg tips-of-the-hat to Grumpy Cat, Strong Bad, Me Gusta, the Venture Brothers, and a strong Genndy Tartakovsky influence in the art.
However, the charm of the game doesn’t just come from references. There’s a slacker, hipster quality to the writing that refuses to talk down to the player. The optional quests are clever and entertaining, and the game makes fun out of the Legend of Zelda tradition of breaking people’s stuff for loot. The menu of moves in Metroidvania games is well known now, so Guacamelee gives them its own spin, calling a wall jump a “goat jump”, and the dash move a “Dashing Derpderp”. Why? Why not? You don’t ask questions like that of a game that contains a goat that turns into an old guy with a thing for your mom.
The Luchador theme itself adds to the frolicking fun. Mexico’s version of professional wrestling does make its stars into superheroes of sorts, and because Guacamelee takes place in that world, all the dumb stuff actually makes sense in a way the player can revel in. And luchadors are just cool. If you don’t understand why, don’t play this game.
Another reason to skip this otherwise great title is if you have a philosophical issue with always-on games. Guacamelee uses a cloud save system as part of the cross-play Vita feature, so you do need a net connection. It’s not intrusive, but it is there, so fair warning. In this case, though, it shouldn’t matter, because you need a net connection to download the game in the first place.
There’s also absolutely no voice acting in the game, which is artistically consistent with the product of 80s, but that doesn’t matter to some. There are also no hard saves, but the checkpoints are frequently placed enough that I didn’t find this at all problematic. It works for this type of game.
There’s also one intermittent issue where the next event in the game doesn’t trigger, and you have to quit and load your last save. But those properly-placed checkpoints make this little more than a nuisance. All in all, the design shines: it’s surprisingly slick looking, deftly designed, and a great deal of fun for experienced gamers.
On the whole, Guacamelee! accomplishes what it sets out to do remarkably well. It reminded me of the artistry required to make a limited set of 2D tools into memorable experiences, and even the fights I needed help with were a nostalgia trip. The brilliance lies in the fact that it doesn’t completely eschew modernity, and the result is another great title from Drink Box that fills a TV screen as well as the Vita handheld.
*Note: A lich is an undead king or wizard. I’m clarifying this, because my husband didn’t know. People should know this stuff.