metroidvania [meh-troyd-veyn-yuh] - adjective - term thought to describe efficient game design principles pioneered in Super Metroid (1994) and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997). i.e., a series of connected levels unified by an intuitive map and open to progressive exploration as game mechanics develop and players increase in proficiency.
Metroidvania in 2013 demands a calling higher than its origin. Honored principles should be employed as a foundation rather than a definition and a function beyond nostalgic appreciation. The folks at DrinkBox Studios accept this belief and oblige it by offering a luchadore mask, a talking goat, tombstone piledrivers, and a dedicated button to turn into a chicken. Their contributions are manifested by way of Mexican folklore in the form of Guacamelee!, a title both celebratory of and accurate to the contents therein.
Juan Aguacate is humble farmer desperate for a call to adventure. When El Presidente's daughter is abducted by evil skeleton Carlos Calaca, Juan abandons his agave farm, dons the mask of a powerful luchadore, and sets off to rescue her. From here Guacamelee could have gone one of two ways. It could either be the serious, fine-dining Mexican restaurant with carefully prepared food and respected but safe cuisine. Or it's that place down the street where the mariachi band is playing curiously offensive melodies and you're not sure if the salsa is made from aggressively seasoned tomato paste and/or the chef's blood. With a name like Guacamelee one can expect DrinkBox opted for the later when it came to the theme and mission of their game.
Never doubt Guacamelee's commitment to wild insanity. Epilepsy inducing title cards celebrate any battle of significance or introduction of a new mechanic. Characters Juan encounters range from a casually immortal anthropomorphic jaguar to a man with fire for a head named Flame Face to Uay Chivo, the lord of all man goats. DrinkBox's fascination with chickens extends beyond a one-off joke straight to escaping a giant maze as a chicken and then looking at the map to reveal the maze was shaped like a giant chicken. Even close-ups of Juan's luchadore-masked face are hilarious because of how psychotically serious it appears in the ridiculous world he inhabits.
Guacamelee even demonstrates a proper understanding of referential humor. Retro City Rampage seemed content to reference a game or internet meme at face value, nudging its elbows in the ribs of the player and begging for shared acknowledgement. Guacamelee does this as well, but flavors each and every instance with context exclusive to its wild setting. The Casa Crashers banner and some hilarious artistic interpretations of meme faces are some of the better examples..Few (if any) games have embraced Mexican folklore as a pervasive theme, and Guacamelee applies maximum effort to exploiting and celebrating its weird world.
Guacamelee's mechanics walk a careful line between what it emulates and what it originates. The map is standard metroidvania, a collection of connected levels. You don't gain access to new areas by acquiring new weapons, but rather by adding new moves to Juan's suite of luchadorian tactics. As the title would indicate, Guacamelee's primary means of both combat and exploration revolve around brawling, which not only links two otherwise divergent ideas but also stands out as a relatively unique and focused means of player interaction.
The Rooster Uppercut, for example, functions not only as red-flamed standard dragon punch, but also a way to break through red-colored ceilings overhead. Likewise, the Dashing Derpderp is a blue horizontal attack that can also bust up blue-colored walls in obscure places. Each of Guacamelee’s levels feature a handful of marginally out of sight areas with colored obstacles designed to draw Juan back in later in the game. With a proper warp system and map designed to inform rather than embellish, going back is a breeze and, most importantly, the reward inside is usually worth the time it took to get there.
Guacamelee's combat can feel disorganized and stunted early on, but builds into accomplished brawler as it continues to move forward. One button combos and lifts compliment Juan's expanding set of basic and special moves, and figuring out the best combination to ruin each particular enemy is a necessary skill. The primary goal is to beat up an opponent enough to enable a throw. Enemies can then be thrown a full 360 degrees in the direction of your choice, though the smartest maneuver is almost always right into another enemy. Guacamelee doesn't shy away from packing the screen with aggressive assholes, and it's both satisfying and humorous to watch Juan hurl one guy into ten more and smack them all against the edge of the screen.
Despite a proclivity for melee combat, Guacamelee strives to develop variation in Juan's opposition. Certain enemies dash and dance around Juan while others throw bones as projectiles. Monster cacti toss out grenades and odd subterranean flower things require a Frog Slam (read: ground pound) for Juan to pop them out of the earth and attack them. Giant, screen filling skeletons compliment standard issue huge mallet skeletons for some of the larger enemies, but the most challenging segments are reserved for exploders. I have no idea what they're actually called, but they'll pop up with a timer and if Juan can't destroy them before said timer reaches zero, they take a good chunk out of his life bar. Wrangling those guys while dealing with normal enemies is one of Guacamelee's more intense challenges, so it's with a sigh of relief that they're only used sparingly.
As it stands Guacamelee's brand of exploration and combat is serviceable if not slightly special, but another layer is present for further variation; switching between the World of the Living and the World of the Dead with the push of a button. It's a familiar trope, but in fits perfectly into Guacamelee's framework. Each World plays a significant role in the plot, but mostly it's an excuse to intensify Guacamelee's combat and platforming. Certain enemies can only be damaged in one of the two Worlds, and shifting back and forth between Living and Dead - while battling both types simultaneously - provides an interesting, strategy-minded wrinkle in combat.
Switching between both worlds also has a profound effect on exploration. The usual tricks, jumping between platforms only visible in their respective dimensions, seeing a wall in one dimension and a path in another, and other one-offs are expected, but no less challenging. Particularly maddening was an optional area, Tree Tops, where I had to shoot Juan horizontally in between vertical platforms. The task of launching and switching dimensions before wall jumping and sliding down another column eight times in succession was incredibly difficult, and eventually served as one of Guacamelee’s more wide-eyed, euphoric payoffs.
Guacamelee’s difficulty is actually one of its greater assets. The game has no trouble powering Juan up, I had enough money for all of the upgrades well before it rolled credits, but skill by way of pattern recognition and reflex is absolutely essential. Bosses and a handful of smaller enemies feature colored shields broken only by one of Juan's special moves, and recognizes their tells, dodging appropriately, and nailing the time to strike and break their shield is Guacamelee’s signature combat challenge. I must have fought the last two bosses twenty times each, and trying to match my reflexes to the patterns felt like trying to say a whole sentence at one time. I knew what I needed to do but hadn't developed the muscle memory to react appropriately. Guacamelee doesn't much care if it repeatedly kicks your ass, which I can appreciate in a time when games are all too happy to soften it up for patience-challenged players.
Guacamelee’s 2D art direction is modest but effective. Juan animates with surprisingly fluidity (no doubt aided by a rock-solid 60fps) and engaging in combat doesn't look the least bit disjointed or weirdly out of place. Guacamelee’s art splits time between classic Western film tropes and spooky nightmarish folklore, but always manages a certain charm unique to its setting. DrinkBox really went for it when it came to dividing Guacamelee's aesthetic between the Living and Dead Worlds. Shifting to Dead World, for example, knocks tempo down a few notches (in some cases replacing the music entirely) and enables a softer, slightly more somber direction. Other tiny touches, like snow flakes rising in the Dead World and a couple clever quest-related tricks, signal an attention to detail.
It's worth mentioning that Guacamelee supports Sony's cross-play and cross-buy initiatives. One $15 purchase provides a Guacamelee download for both Vita and PlayStation 3, and your save can be uploaded and downloaded to the cloud. It worked perfectly, and while I played through the game completely on the Vita I sort of wish I had done so on the PS3. The art seemed to pop better, and god knows having a Dual Shock with proper shoulder buttons might have made some of the more challenging platforming segments feel less cumbersome. The PS3 also has the option for local cooperative play, which I wasn’t able to take advantage of.