Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition
* A quick note: I have never played the original release of Guacamelee!, which came out last year. I’m going into this review of this new version completely fresh, and reviewing it in kind. This review does not acknowledge the new content added to this iteration, I simply played this version and shared my thoughts as a first timer with the Guacamelee! experience. For more reviews of the Super Turbo Championship Edition in particular, head here *
Can we just take a moment to appreciate and give proper recognition to the “Metroidvania” formula? It’s been twenty-eight years this month since the original Metroid laid the foundation for this style of platforming adventure, and seventeen since Symphony of the Night took the blueprint and blew it up into something magical. It’s a testament to the inherent joys of this time-tested design that here in 2014, developers are still using it as a canvas upon which to paint their own works. The number of great titles that have employed the simple but hardy style over the years is impressive, and that subject is probably worthy of a piece all on it’s own. Right now though, I’m looking at the latest title to harness the timeless Metroidvania magic: Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition.
Guacamelee! is the second effort from indie developer DrinkBox Studios, a Toronto based team comprised of just ten people. The game has players take control of Juan, an agave farmer who is killed when an evil skeleton attacks his village and kidnaps the daughter of El Presidente. Fortunately Juan is magically resurrected as a luchador, tasked with defeating the skeleton and saving El Presidente’s daughter. It’s a pretty straightforward tale that provides adequate framework for a great title. And great it is. Guacamelee! takes the well-worn Metroidvania formula and uses it to showcase fun beat ’em up gameplay and an awesome art style.
It’s the art direction that grabs you right from the get-go. Kudos to DrinkBox for picking an aesthetic that’s totally fresh and very pleasing. The game is simply beautiful, featuring a radiant, hand drawn art style full of bold colors and hard, angular geometry. I’m no art expert, so I’m not sure what, if any, term there is to describe the particular style on display here. It feels a little bit like if Mark Of the Ninja was more colorful and set in Mexico instead of the Orient. All I know is that the vibrant, catoonish look works perfectly. It’s not only gorgeous, but it works so well within the game world.
Guacamelee! is a masterclass in theming. The game is so thoroughly “Mexican” that is seemed weird to be playing it in English. It’s steeped in Mexican folklore and imagery – did I mention you’re playing as a luchador? – and the graphics are a perfect fit for the setting and theme. The music also deserves a quick mention for really tying the whole package together. The mariachi horns, acoustic guitar, and percussion serve to further immerse you in the world. DrinkBox absolutely nailed what they were going for in terms of visual design and aethestics.
More good news: the game is really fun to play! Juan controls perfectly, whether you’re navigating environmental obstacles or engaging in combat. These two elements make up the core of the Guacamelee! experience. Exploring the expansive world is a joy. The platforming is tight and responsive, and the world is well designed to encourage – and often require – thoughtful use of Juan’s abilities in order to progress. Some environmental puzzles – especially the numerous optional areas – are downright devious, and had me scratching my head trying to solve them. Of course being a Metroidvania game, the world is open from the start. There are no “levels” in the traditional sense, and your ability to explore is only limited by what moves Juan has obtained. The new abilities – which range from classics like the double jump and wall run, to weirder fare, like turning into a chicken – are doled out at a rapid pace. Each one is not only essential to progressing through the core storyline, but they also grant access to various secrets. That classic joy of getting a new move and immediately remembering a place or two you can now access is still alive and well in Guacamelee!.
The move set on the whole is impressive for a smaller game like this, and the variety helps keep things constantly fresh as you’re exploring. The game will expect you to diagnose all kinds of environmental obstacles and come up with the right moves – often performed in very rapid succession – in order to progress. I really enjoyed solving these puzzles, they’re very satisfying. Another layer gets thrown into the mix with the inclusion of a light/dark world dynamic. Eventually you’ll be able to switch between the two worlds at the press of a button. This leads to even more complexity with the game’s puzzles and areas, and as a result they become even better.
The myriad abilities Juan acquires aren’t just for platforming though. Further continuing the theming, many of them are wrestling moves, like the suplex, headbutt, and body-slam. While these are used to destroy obstacles in the world, they’re of course employed to dispatch the legions of enemies that stand between Juan and his goal. The combat in Guacamelee! is very fun. It’s smooth, flexible, and quick, allowing you to pull of strings off combos however you see fit. Initially it’s built around a series of punches, but of course it’s not long before you’re uppercutting enemies into the air only to body-slam them back down, and flying off the walls like a rocket. There’s a solid number of enemy types that help keep things fresh. Certain kinds require specific moves to defeat, forcing players to vary their tactics and utilize all of the move set to survive. Throwing enemies into one another, juggling them in the air with uppercuts, and stringing together combos is all super fun.
The only serious drawback with Guacamelee! is its length. I finished the game with 82% completion and it took almost exactly thirteen hours. I really took my time exploring the world and pursuing optional objectives, and those who focus solely on the main story will probably finish in less than half the time I took. The side content is pretty nice though. There are seventeen challenge rooms to take on, ranging from easy to infuriating, and they provided a strong distraction from the main quest. There are even bronze, silver, and gold medals handed out, giving the player even more to strive for. NPCs will also have some optional quests for you to complete, though they’re all fairly short. I wish the game did a better job of tracking these side jobs. After being given one, it’s basically up to the player to remember it, as there’s no list and no marking on the map.
Outside of that, there’s just the classic Metroidvania style secrets to pursue. There are hidden areas filled with money – used to buy upgrades – extra health, stamina blocks – used to execute special moves – and other bonus trinkets. These final parts of the map represent the final 18% I have left, as I completed all the the challenge rooms and NPC quests. Though I look forward to jumping back in and uncovering the rest of the map now that I’m done and possess all the moves, it likely won’t add all that much to my playtime. The fact remains that this is a fairly short game even if the optional stuff pads it out pretty well.
The brevity doesn’t just hurt Guacamelee! from a value standpoint though. As it turns out, the actual Metroidvania formula gets diminished a bit when it’s condensed into a shorter experience. Genre classics like Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night are brilliant in part because they’re longer, which allows the pace of the progression to be more deliberate and patient. Guacamelee! is so short that the new abilities get rolled out super quickly. They’re all utilized well, but the pace at which I received them diminished the gratification I felt upon obtaining each one. In turn, each ability doesn’t get as much time to shine, as it’s not long at all before you’re unlocking another one. Perhaps less patient gamers will dig this rapid paced take on the Metroidvania experience, but I personally prefer the formula a bit more drawn out.
While certainly an issue, Guacamelee!’s length doesn’t hurt the game too much. While it lasts, it’s pretty much a perfect spin on a tried and true design. The overall package is remarkable, from the brilliant visuals, to the music, to the combat and even the very humorous writing. This is a game that acknowledges the greats that have come before it – seriously, the game is full of great references, check out this list – while adding its own particular flair. Though not as obvious and title-specific, it feels similar to the recently released Shovel Knight in the way it borrows older ideas to build something new and fun. At $15 I feel comfortable recommending it to anyone who enjoys the genre, because short or not, I’m confident the sheer quality of the game will satisfy.
*reviewed on a Wii U*