There was a time when platformers were a dime a dozen. Everybody wanted to cash in on that sweet, sweet Mario cash. The movement gave birth to hits (Castlevania, Metroid, Sonic, Vectorman) and misses (Aero the Acrobat, Awesome Possum, Bible Adventures, Bubsy, Flicky, Gex). The eventual mass migration to all things 3-D was tough to get right and damaged or nearly destroyed some of these franchises, but every once in a while, we'd still get that rare 2-D action platformer nod from yesteryear that completely nailed it (I'm looking at you, Symphony of the Night).
Guacamelee! is one of those little games that gets just about everything right, capitalizing on what made the games of yore so successful, memorable, and timelessly playable. At the same time, it injects modern production values to sharp visuals and vibrant audio, a bold Mexican-themed art style, and a good dose of silliness for good measure. You play Juan, a lovelorn young man who dreams of glory and becoming a respected luchador someday. As fate would have it, the sinister undead Calaca shows up in Juan's hometown, kidnaps El Presidente's daughter with whom Juan is head-over-heels infatuated, and lays waste to everything in sight. Inspired to save his sweetie, Juan dons a magical mask and sets out on a quest to save the girl, and learn proper brawling and grappling techniques along the way.
The game starts out a little slow, but it lets the player get a feel for things before throwing them into the thick of combat. Juan's move set is limited early on, but ramps up to include several grappling, throwing, and power techniques to unleash on baddies. There is a training dummy named Poncho on whom Juan can practice his moves. This feels a lot like the training mode in games like Tekken, where increasingly long combo strings are shown on the screen, and your goal is to complete the combo as shown. These often include juggles, stacking power moves, throws, and other moves that, if done correctly, make you look like you really know what you're doing in a fight. When actually in the thick of it with enemies that fight back, sometimes it's a different story.
The game throws a multitude of enemies at you, each with different attacks and defenses, strengths and weaknesses. These are not one-on-one fights, either. Most of the time, you're getting ganged up on, channeling a great Streets of Rage or Castle Crashers vibe, but it's rarely more than Juan can handle. I found myself button-mashing a bit early on, just trying to wrap my head around which moves worked well in which sequences, and sometimes just trying to survive. There are a few areas where you run a gauntlet of room after room of increasingly difficult combinations of enemies. This is not only a great place to train, but it also nets you cash to spend on more costumes, moves, and upgrades, which also have their own strengths and weaknesses. One outfit deals massive damage but also takes massive damage, another regenerates health while decreasing stamina regeneration rate, things like that. Before I knew it, I was stringing together combos and juggles and blowing through rooms that I had died in repeatedly in the past.
For being a wrestler at heart, this isn't Smackdown in terms of technicality. You spend most of your fighting time bashing heads and throwing enemies around the screen and into each other. Juan's special moves often confer a movement bonus of some sort. His uppercut, when used at the peak of a jump, allows him to jump just a little bit higher. The dash punch flattens the opposition in front of him and extends the horizontal distance of a jump by about 15-20%, allowing Juan to reach previously inaccessible areas. Each special move also corresponds to a specific color, which allows the breaking of blocks of that color and granting access to new areas. Later enemies show up with colored shields around them, making them invincible to all damage except the move tied to that color. Once the shield is down, though, it's open season to smash faces. On top of this are the ability to polymorph into a chicken to access tight spaces and move with increased agility, and the power to shift dimensions at will between the land of the living and the realm of the dead. This latter action can change the landscape and open up new areas in addition to revealing hidden enemies that can strike you across dimensions, though you cannot return the favor. Shifting planes lets you deliver to them a well-deserved punch to the dome.
The entire game allows for drop-in, drop-out local cooperative play. One wonders if online play could have been an option in this age of broadband, but it wasn't included for whatever reason. The second player jumps in as Juanita, Juan's female counterpart who fights more like a kickboxer than a top-heavy grappler. Her moves are all performed with the same actions; the differences are largely cosmetic. While the game is playable in the technical sense with a keyboard, you'd do well to pick up a controller for this. It maps perfectly to the 360 controller, with matching in-game prompts for the button assignments.
Included in the Gold Edition are The Devil's Playground DLC, more costumes, and a custom skin creator. The Devil's Playground is a new area loaded with specific navigation, combat, or time challenges. Each is metered in gold, silver, and bronze medals, and some can be pretty difficult and unforgiving, requiring precision control of your avatar. Still, if the game grabs you like it did me, you'll keep jumping back into the fray to get in just one more try before going to bed.
The only very minor frustration I had with the game was that some moves require their animation to finish before you can counter or dodge, which left me open to attack because my character was still animating previous input, or happened to be facing the wrong direction at that particular second or was a millimeter too far away to connect with the blow. I ain't even mad, though. After bolting on a few power-ups for health and stamina, plus the health-regenerating chicken suit, it largely stopped being an issue except with the toughest of enemies or bosses. There were boss fights and some platforming sections that drove me kind of nuts, but they were nothing that a little pattern recognition and practice couldn't remedy. Also, if you die during a boss fight, it restarts at a checkpoint mid-fight, so you don't have to start the whole thing over every time. There were some side-quests that took some time to resolve because I had no idea where to go or with whom to chat to complete them, but it's not like it's necessary to trek far off to another land to meet the goals. However, there are some early ones that cannot be completed until a specific power has been learned much later in the game. That's not really clear, though, so general exploration is recommended at all times, as the quest you picked up in the first five minutes of playing may not have a solution until the eighth hour of gameplay.
Being a 2-D game, camera issues are virtually nonexistent. A few times, I missed the ability to scroll the view up or down when looking up or crouching, but there's a super-forgiving system in place where falling to your death immediately returns you to where you were last standing before the fall, a la the Prince of Persia reboot from 2008. I imagine this also mitigates problems in co-op of one player getting stranded behind the other or falling and slowing down progress for the other player.
The game makes clear jabs at Castle Crashers, Internet memes (Pedobear becomes Pedrobear, "Me Gusta" billboards), and Disney movies ("Wreck-It Ralph" becomes "Bust-It Bill"). All of the characters are so stereotyped and hyperbolic that you have to laugh at them.
It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but the amount of care and polish that went into this title is readily apparent. Guacamelee! is one of the best platformers I've ever played, and it's very well balanced between exploration, backtracking, combat, and story. The art direction and aesthetics are spot-on. Co-op brawlers don't get much better than this.
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