Review

Guacamelee!

Mask And Ye Shall Receive

Guacamelee! celebrates the delight of disguise.

By Steve Heisler • April 10, 2013

According to the lore of lucha libre—Mexican wrestling matches with traditions dating back to Aztec times—the colorful ceremonial masks worn by fighters aren’t just for aesthetics. They offer entirely new personalities. Outside the ring, a wrestlers might have been born a meek agave farmer like Juan, the hero of the frantic platformer Guacamelee!. But while they wear their masks, the wresters are suplex prodigies with the strength of a hundred men. The mask offers a hell of a show plus the possibility to become someone worthy of celebration—a ticket out of the agave farm.

It can be a one-way ticket, though. The appeal of lucha libre is so strong that many wrestlers wear these masks in public, giving them carte blanche to bring their showmanship to everyday life. Why make soup as Juan when you can make soup as a Mexican god who flexes calf muscles on the reg? Soon there’s little separation between the heightened reality of lucha libre and a wrestler’s daily routine. Many wrestlers are only unmasked on their death bed. The man becomes a vessel for the mask.

Guacamelee!

Guacamelee! embraces the mystique of the mask, spinning a fairy tale centered on the costume’s seismic power. The mask’s first act in this game is to raise Juan from the dead after his village is ransacked by a ghoul in mariachi garb. During the raid, the president’s daughter is kidnapped—she happens to be the love of Juan’s life—and Juan is murdered. This is all mere prologue. Juan wanders the land of the dead until he discovers a lucha libre mask, the keepsake of the town. Juan puts it on and he’s immediately resurrected. The Luchador lives.

As the Luchador, Juan can soar to untold heights. His attacks have a fearsome verticality—he piledrives skeletons with such ferocity that they often disintegrate before they reach the ground. The vanquished foes leave behind coins, which you can use to buy even more slam attacks, or perhaps little boxes of stamina. Performance enhancing substances? Sure, but at this point, does it matter?

Whether the setting is a desert bunker or a saloon where the local gunslinger (who happens to be a sentient campfire) slings back whiskey, Juan does not sneak around. There is only one way to get from point A to B in Guacamelee!, and it is to RUN PROUDLY, head held high, mask glistening in the sun. Juan is clearly cock of the walk, and not just because he can turn himself into a rooster.

Guacamelee!

Guacamelee! keeps itself humble by honoring its ancestors. There are bone-throwing skeletons waiting on high ledges, which you knock off from below like in Super Mario Bros. Or, when the enemies disappear completely, Juan faces chambers full of disappearing walls and precariously placed spikes, which recall Mega Man in their demand for perfection.

But this is a game that knowingly invites the Metroid comparison: Juan can sneak through tiny cracks by turning into the aforementioned rooster, much like outer-space bounty hunter Samus Aran could roll into a ball. He also gains powers by punching statues—bird-faced statues, no less, like the Metroid relics of old. Still, there are differences. The first time Juan punches out a statue, for instance, a goat appears and lambasts him for destroying a perfectly good piece of art. (Metroid featured no goats, a glaring omission in retrospect.) The goat transforms into a man named Chivo, a mentor of sorts who bestows a new ability onto Juan begrudgingly before going back to goat. One time, Chivo so fed up at Juan’s presumptuous attitude toward his statues that he offers nothing. “No Power!” flashes on the screen, flipping the Metroid script. Guacamelee! ensures that Juan will never be an Icarus. Although he can fly. It’s called the “Goat Jump.”

Guacamelee!

Juan’s turn as the Luchador lends him strength and confidence, but he can never go back to being just Juan. This man goes on a journey with this mask. It is his lifeline when he needed it most. The reality of Juan and the myth of the Luchador become one, and he lives out the rest of his days obscuring his face.

We don’t need to go far to find our own mask. We pick up controllers and fire up our PlayStations and the like. Games, like lucha libre, offer escape from the mundane, a chance to play the hero and wow onlookers with your prowess. Guacamelee! draws the parallel purposely—there’s a reason that the game plays with the conventions of staples like Mega Man and Metroid. It’s all about the allure of the mask, the understanding that since personalities are byproducts of our environment, it might be fun to try a different one on. Maybe one where you perfect your piledriver and pound giant armadillos into dust. Guacamelee! wants you to take pride in the disguise. It celebrates games as masks and exalts the joy of fantasy. Long live the Luchador!

Guacamelee!
Developer: Drinkbox Studios
Publisher: Drinkbox Studios
Platform: PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita
Reviewed on: PlayStation 3
Price: $15
Rating: T

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  • PaganPoet

    I bought this game on a whim yesterday having been utterly charmed by the trailer. I’ve played only about an hour so far, but I am loving it. It doesn’t surprise me, though, because I always love these kind of games (I was well obsessed with Outland as well when that came out).

    My favorite thing about it is its sense of humor. To anyone who speaks even a little bit of Spanish, there are tons of in-jokes and pop culture and video game references to be found. My favorite so far is “El Gato Gruñón Cat Food,” I literally had to pause the game so I could compose myself.

    btw, Steve, just to be a heckler over minute details, but Carlos Calaca is not wearing a matador uniform, but he is in mariachi/Mexican dance garb.

    • SteveHeisler

      You are correct! Sorry about that. I’ll fix.

      • PaganPoet

        To be fair, they’re actually pretty similar looking. Heh, in fact, this last Halloween when I needed a last minute costume, I used a friend’s bolero jacket from a previous matador costume he used for a Dia de los Muertos costume

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          Bear in mind, the game in today’s other big feature features a “Native American” whose outfit consists of snappy slacks, a fedora,  a leather vest, and no shirt. It might have thrown the Gameological Society’s whole “wardrobe barometer” out of whack.

      • Jackbert

        Steve, I have two questions I’d love for you (or anyone else who has played this) to answer. How long is the game? Does the game have replay value?

        • SamPlays

          You can find those answers (and a rating for replay value) on other sites. Move along now!

        • PaganPoet

          It seems to be pretty short going by the leaderboards; I would guess between 8-10 hours for a first time player, since the top player in the “Speed Run” leaderboard seems to clock in at about 3:40. Replay value is probably pretty low unless some sort of new mode opens up once you beat the game. There is a multiplayer co-op mode which I haven’t tried out yet, so I’m wondering if it significantly changes the experience.

          BUT it is really cheap and well worth the price, IMO. You could spend $15 easily just going to the movies by yourself.

        • SteveHeisler

          What they said. Also there are tons of hidden things to find, so there’s definitely a pursuit of perfection thing going for it.

        • Jackbert

          @SamPlays:disqus : But other sites don’t give me Steve’s florid prose.

          @PaganPoet:disqus : I go to a second-run movie theater. Depending on the time I go, bus fare is $1.75 and a ticket is $2.00, or bus fare is $2.25 and a ticket is $2.50. So I don’t spend any more than $4.75 going to the movies by myself. Oh-ho!

          @SteveHeisler:disqus : All right, thanks.

  • RidleyFGJ

    Two hours in, and this is already a strong GOTY contender for me, alongside Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. It hits, like, every pleasure zone for me: vibrant, colorful graphics, Metroidvania design, fantastic sense of humor, and luchadors.

  • Enkidum

    Woah this looks really cool. Saw it yesterday when I turned on my system and just the art style looked odd enough to catch my eye. Glad to hear it plays really well, may have to pick it up.

    Shit, my PS3 is going to bankrupt me this year. I’m not a member of PSN+ or whatever it’s called, but it looks like a crazy good deal right now, and the discounts you get on all the other games I want to hurl my money at are nuts. Like getting Borderlands I and II for 20 bucks right now (is there any value to playing through I before II?). Ugh, farewell to the contents of my wallet.

    • Jackbert

      Get PS+. Really. It sounds like you get a lot of games on the PlayStation Store, and the discounts you’ll get will recoup the subscription price. The free games are pretty good as well – the blockbuster games are too often old and mediocre, but the PSN games offered are very good, and less well-known.

      • Enkidum

        Oh god I just got it last night and downloaded all the free games and bought Borderlands I and II and Psychonauts and my life is over…

    • Spacemonkey Mafia

      I hadn’t given this much thought myself, but this review and the comments all conspire to make me crazy eager to check it out. Also, I recommend Ps+. Having both a PS3 and a Vita it offers a lot of awesome content.

    • EmperorNortonI

       Borderlands I and II are different.  They are both a ton of fun.  I can’t say if I’d recommend either for single player, though. 

      • Enkidum

        Well, I tend to play through single player stuff pretty quick, and the advantage of PS3 is that online multiplayer is free. It’s co-op multiplayer usually, right? In which case it might not even be really annoying to be owned by 10-year-olds.

  • aklab

    Man, I haven’t a Playstation since the PS1, but this, Ni No Kuni, Journey, and a bunch of other exclusives are really tempting me… 

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      I have an ongoing “Someday, PS3, someday…” list, which this game is definitely going on.

  • George_Liquor

    I really admire the dedication Luchadores have for their sport. The best among them maintained the mythos of their character from inception to retirement, and even to the grave. Over his 40 year long wrestling career, 50+ feature films and countless TV appearances, El Santo never once unmasked.

    • ChicaneryTheYounger

      But… El Santo did unmask just before he died.

      • George_Liquor

        Shh! Don’t ruin it for me!

  • Xtracurlyfries

    Anyone have a Vita and play this on said Vita? I’m thinking of getting one and need some encouragement (Sony employees not eligible).

    • PaganPoet

      I have a Vita, and though I’ve only played this on PS3 so far, your purchase comes with both a PS3 and a Vita version.

      Other good reasons for a Vita: Persona 4 Golden, Lumines Electric Symphony, Gravity Rush, Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention, Ys: Foliage in Celceta, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, and most of the PSP library (if they’re available on PSN that is).

      I impulse bought one a year ago pretty much so I could play Persona 4 Golden. Admittedly, the library at this point is a little disappointing, but it seems like every Sony console lately has rough growing pains. Even as disappointing as the PSP seemed to be for its first few years, now it seems to have plenty of great games to justify a purchase. 

      • Sleverin

         The games from the PSN seem insane though.  Their library keeps tempting me to waste large amounts of money on so many games.  Gravity Rush’s art design alone is insane, followed by releases like this, Persona 2, Suikoden, etc.  The Vita is looking more and more viable as my next console.

    • Raging Bear

      I do, and do. I suppose the graphics are, as you might expect, slightly less super hi-res on the Vita, but it’s otherwise identical and controls great. I’m increasingly a fan of cross-buy/cross-save games.

  • SamPlays

    @SteveHeisler:disqus You missed a spot! All those references to Metroid and not one mention of those wonderful, portable Castlevania titles that also championed the non-linear side-scrolling action-adventure platformer-RPG genre. It’s a highly specific genre with a lot of hyphens but Castlevania had a big role in making the format popular.

    • Enkidum

      I figured he must have said “Metroidvania” but it looks like he didn’t. Still, that’s the standard term, innit?

      • SamPlays

        Yeah, “Metroidvania” or “Castleroid” refer to this type of game. I think one of the main criteria is that the environments/rooms are contiguous – one flows into the next and there’s no “break” in gameplay. It’s like one sprawling environment fashioned after a maze. Based on Steve’s recap, this seems to apply here. To be honest, I’m not sure if there are many other franchises or one-off games that fit the bill. I’m sure there’s someone here who can fill in that gap.

        • PaganPoet

          I think part of the genre also relies on the fact that there are areas and rooms which are inaccessible when you first come across them until you come across a new power up or tool. This extends the genre even to Zelda games or the Arkham games and so on which I think is fair. Super Metroid may be a 2D platformer and Arkham Asylum may be a 3D action game, but they share enough in common that I’m comfortable in calling them similar.

        • SamPlays

          @PaganPoet:disqus All of these games share a common  theme of exploration with varying amounts of action tossed into the mix. By these same loose criteria, Jak and Daxter could also be an example – it certainly has contiguous environments. But the Metroidvania games, for me, are 2D side-scrollers at heart – Batman, Jak, GTA and their ilk don’t quite fit the bill. The Zelda games don’t fit as neatly either because: 
          1) They aren’t side-scrollers (except Zelda 2).
          2) The maps typically consist of two or more layers where you’re either above ground or below (or in a dungeon/castle).The concept of Metroidvania’s maps became clear when I played a PSN demo of Symphony of the Night. The entire map was on display in full miniature, animated detail – it looked massive (it reminded me of a fractal) and you could see all of the different paths and side-paths to the end. It was like the camera had zoomed out to show all of the rooms at once. It was really cool to see the game like this and I think it might have been possible to play from this perspective, too. An example:http://fcfantasy.cn/maps/ps/castlevania_symphony_of_the_night_50percent_map.jpg

        • zerocrates

          Shadow Complex.

  • DrZaloski

    Oh PS3. Why do you make me not buying you so hard?