The first thing you’ll notice about Guacamelee! is just how damned funny everything is.
Set in a Spanglish version of Mexico, we are privy to the life of one Juan Aguacate, an agave farmer. As he visits El Presidente’s Daughter (yeah, that’s her name), his town is suddenly besieged by Calaca, an “Evil Charro Skeleton.” He defeats Juan, kidnaps the Daughter, and whisks her away into the Mexican Land of the Dead in order to unite both his world and our world. Juan is left for dead, and all seems hopeless — until he finds a legendary Luchador mask, granting him the powers he needs to take Calaca down once and for all.
Underneath this hilarious and brilliantly stylized exterior lies a beast of a game, one that will test your mettle more than most other games of its ilk. In order to finally confront Calaca and take him down, you’ll have to navigate each of the several different areas — forests, towns, mountains, and the like — by running, jumping, and using your newly found powers in rapid sequence to make it to the next objective. True to Metroidvania form, you’ll notice barriers along the way that will only open when you finally have the right power available to you, encouraging you to go back through previously conquered areas to find additional health power-ups or other secrets.
Along the way you’ll also be able to switch dimensions, hopping back and forth between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead. Each world is an exact copy of itself, save for some hidden doors and glowing platforms that appear in one world, and not in the other. The transformation occurs at the press of a button, and it’s a really cool effect to not only see the world change before your eyes, but also hear the music warp and distort to match the world you’re in.
I keep referencing Super Meat Boy because that’s the one game I kept thinking back on as I pushed through the harder sections of the game — and Guacamelee! gets difficult. Many of the levels’ later sections (and most of the areas that lead to its hidden secrets) require absolutely perfect timing and precision, tasking you with perfectly chaining long strings of Juan’s moves together to navigate a winding path lined with buzz saws. One wrong move in these sections means starting all the way at the beginning. Later boss fights not only require an absolute memorization of all moves learned to that point, but they also need lightning quick reflexes and pattern recognition in order to move past them. One boss killed me at least a few dozen times before I finally got the hang of it and was able to defeat him and continue on my quest.
Its difficulty is probably one of the best parts about Guacamelee! Much like Super Meat Boy, the sheer challenge of everything never feels cheap — the controls are fluid, the jumping is precise, and all enemies have clear tells that can be easily responded to, as long as you have the ability to react to everything on screen. Each failure is an opportunity to learn, to get better, and to finally get your fingers to perform some serious Judo to make it through each level. Counterbalancing the challenge are some incredibly fair checkpoints and abundant shop placement — which not only let you buy new moves, but also refill your health — meaning each death or misstep never sets you back more than a screen or two.
The Vita Connection
With a single purchase, you’ll get both the PS3 and Vita versions of the game. Guacamelee! translates perfectly to the handheld, with nothing lost in the way of visuals or controls. Plus, transferring saves to or from the Cloud is easy — just go to the options menu and hit the appropriate button. Once again, Sony is proving that the Vita can have a place within the gaming ecosystem, and they should be commended for continuing to support this feature.
Guacamelee! wins on so many fronts that any glitch in the system is trivial compared to the overall package. Drinkbox has crafted a brilliantly unique world on top of a platformer that combines the best of the classics, along with a few of its own ideas — things like two player local co-op is a feature I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a Metroidvania game, and I challenge more developers to try to include it. Guacamelee! is so sure of itself, and has got so much style to spare, that you can’t help but fall in love while trying to master its every complexity. If you’re a fan of video games, you’d be doing yourself a disservice not picking this up immediately.