Guacamelee! is a side-scrolling action game that incorporates equal parts of platforming and exploration into its gameplay. By progressing through the levels, collecting money, and defeating enemies, the player unlocks new abilities that allow the protagonist to fight using new combat moves and also access areas that have been previously blocked off. Because movement is not restricted to any one direction, an automapping feature helps players keep track of their exploration progress. Such is Guacamelee, along with every other game out there that has been categorized under “Metroidvania”.
Describing Guacamelee as just a Metroidvania game would be harsh and unfair, though, because it deserves to be known for more the admittedly engrossing gameplay of its namesake. Maybe Guacamelee does more than one thing so well that, well, it has ended up dividing our attention -- or perhaps managed to captivate it in a back-and-forth way like we were spectators in a tennis match. It doesn’t help that the three elements I’ve singled out as exceptional -- gameplay, presentation, and platform -- are quite disparate.
Gameplay is easy. If you ever played Super Metroid, or Cave Story, or Symphony of the Night, or any of the many Castlevania games that riffed on the same formula after that, you know that the Metroidvania formula works. The genre (sub-genre?) in itself is a combination of several base gameplay elements, and it all comes together beautifully: the freedom to explore, a tightly maneuverable character, an RPG-like power progression, and some very tricky and satisfying situations to play through.
There’s a Light World/Dark World dynamic at play in Guacamelee, and while it makes for some very challenging platforming puzzles that require you to switch back and forth multiple times to reach your goal, it’s not as interesting as some earlier takes on the concept: Soul Reaver’s spirit world, for example. That said, it’s still an integral part of the gameplay, and a part that I enjoy greatly.
The presentation, though, might get buried under all the heaps of deserving praise that the gameplay might get.
Guacamelee is a Mexican-themed game. Everything about it exudes Mexican: the locations, the characters, the environments, and the music. It’s all beautiful. Latin vocals sometimes accompany the rhythmic and festive soundtrack, and most of the characters in the game are recognizable (but well-written!) Mexican tropes: the sombrero-wearing musicians, the weary-looking farmers, the beautiful women, and of course, the masked luchadores. It's all very rich and recognizable, and if anything, I wish the game had included some Mexican-related things that I didn't know about. It's fun to soak in the atmosphere, but it's also great a learn a thing or two while playing.
And then Guacamelee throws us a curveball, because Guacamelee is also a storybook-themed game. The art style, with its bursts of lively color, reflects Mexico nicely. The flat shapes and the flowing lines and the almost-paper-cutout quality also look just like the artwork in the fairy tale books we all had as children. It’s such a joy to see more than one game this year that features such distinct and characterful 2D art direction.
Running through Guacamelee’s world is a surreal experience. Your snappily animated masked protagonist dashes through bizarre storybook versions of towns and forests and caves and temples, all thick with Mexican flair. The camera zooms in and out depending on the location, lending the two-dimensional gameplay a sense of depth and scale. The game doesn’t skip a beat when combat occurs, its baddies just as smoothly animated and gorgeously illustrated. It’s the type of game that looks ten times better in motion.
Let’s not mince words, though: if you can, play it on the Vita. The game looks great on the OLED screen, of course, but once again, the selling point here is the convenience. Much like, say, a picture book that you might keep on your table and flip through for a few minutes everytime you’re bored, Guacamelee is highly enjoyable in short, action-packed bursts. It’s an action game that’s heavy on theme but light on plot, and anywhere is a good stopping point -- unless, of course, you’ve been locked inside a room with killer skeletons spawning on you in waves!
The Vita version also offers a few more conveniences, like touch-and-drag functionality for the automap. It’s not a huge deal, but it does feel intuitive.
Guacamelee is a great Metroidvania game. It’s also a game with an amazing and unique style. It’s also a highly enjoyable portable game. Give this one a shot!