Immediately upon finishing Guacamelee, I turned my Vita off and packed it away with all the other game systems I rarely use. It wasn’t that I’d hated the game, or been embarrassed by how much time I’d wasted on it; in fact, I was ready to dive back in as soon as the credits stopped rolling! No, the truth of the matter is, I’d been so overwhelmingly impressed with the game – a game I knew next to nothing about only a few days before it launched – that I wasn’t sure my initial feelings would hold up once I sat down to write about it. So, for a week, I thought long and hard about the game, and tried to determine objectively whether it was really as good as it seemed.
More than a week later, I’m still thinking about Guacamelee. About its enigmatic opening moments. About Chivo, the sassy man-goat-wizard that threatened to go out with my mom every time I committed one of gaming’s oldest, most accepted sins (smashing stuff!). About the citizens of Pueblucho and Santa Luchita, who reminded me of my funny in-laws, and about the game’s rural guitar medleys and upbeat trumpet anthems that transformed into dusty funeral dirges whenever I swapped dimensions between the world of the living and the world of the dead. But mostly, I haven’t stopped thinking about the experience of playing Guacamelee, which is such a dead ringer for my all-time favorite game, Super Metroid, that I relished every single moment it allowed me to indulge what I’m now convinced is my most long-repressed fantasy: pursuing supernatural justice as an undead luchador. Thanks, DrinkBox!
As I’ve mentioned at least a few times this week, I’m of the opinion that Super Metroid is the greatest game ever made. And that’s not because I’m a Nintendo fanboy, nor because I’m blind to the many advances in game design that have developed over the past two decades. No, what makes Super Metroid so great is that it was the first game to strike a perfect balance between prescribed narrative and open exploration. In doing so, it paved the way for three generations of games that gave players the tools to tell their own stories. Grand Theft Auto III, Skyrim, Minecraft – none of these would exist without Super Metroid. It was both the pinnacle of 2D game design, and the precursor to everything that has come since.
Guacamelee takes everything great about Super Metroid, updates it with current production values, then sucks out all of the dreadful pretention to Hollywood that has come to define modern game design. The result is a superb, open-ended adventure wrapped in a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek celebration of gaming for gaming’s sake. On the surface, this means the game is crammed with little references to developer DrinkBox Studios’ many influences – references like Metroid’s Chozo statues, and Zelda’s chickens, and Minecraft’s pickaxes. On a deeper level, DrinkBox isn’t afraid to poke fun at players and the games they grew up loving, because it’s a love the developer clearly shares. Yes, there’s a silly narrative about a guy with a mustache rescuing a princess from an evil so-and-so with nefarious plans for something or other, and a fun cast of supporting characters to propel it all forward, but the entirety of the game’s delightful presentation would amount to nothing if the underlying gameplay wasn’t up to snuff. Luckily, DrinkBox knows how to make a good game. And with Guacamelee, they’ve made not only the best game available for PS3 or Vita, but quite possibly the best game ever released on a PlayStation platform.
As farmer-turned-luchador Juan Aguacate, players are dropped into a vast, interconnected set of forests, caverns, mountains, and ruined temples, free to wander in search of hidden power-ups and enemies to wallop with the game’s highly versatile combo system. As you tread new ground, the map automatically fills in to reflect the places you’ve been, while still-dark areas tease tantalizing secrets you’ve yet to uncover. Exploration is tied organically to the abilities you discover as you maneuver the game’s various environments; for instance, you won’t be able to break through red blocks until you’ve unlocked the Rooster Uppercut. Some abilities and upgrades can be purchased with coins earned by defeating the various undead pistoleros, giant skeletons, midget demons and flying chupacabras you’ll encounter on your travels, but many others are tied to specific story beats or side quests, meaning you’ll have to be fully engaged with the game’s narrative and quirky cast of characters if you want to unlock Juan’s full potential.
While it’s totally worth taking the time to see everything Guacamelee has to offer, some of Juan’s abilities are optional, and if you’re clever enough to figure out how to get by without them (and willing to ignore most of what gives the game its color), you can access parts of the map much earlier than the narrative dictates. This so-called “sequence-breaking,” where players exploit weaknesses in a game’s programming to bypass huge chunks of gameplay, is the foundation upon which the speedrunning subculture of gaming was born, and though games aren’t typically programmed with speedrunners in mind, many modern developers will deliberately leave such exploits in a game’s final code as a way to extend replay value. The presence of an online leaderboard that tracks completion time and item collection percentage is pretty strong evidence Guacamelee caters to speedrunners, but for those hardcore players who aren’t convinced, there’s also this:
There’s so much more to say about this game, but I’ve carried on quite enough already. Maybe the game flew under your radar because of an exceptionally strong first quarter of releases for 2013; maybe you forgot about it with all the hubbub surrounding the PlayStation 4. And maybe, like me, you had no idea the game even existed until recently. None of that matters. If you love video games, you simply cannot ignore Guacamelee. It just might be the best game you’ll ever play.