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! 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! 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.”
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!