Death, taxes, and ‘Metroidvanias’ — those are the only certainties in life. It seems like every week, an indie developer releases a new game in the genre. That is not a complaint, because the Metroidvania is my absolute favorite type of game. Even a lackluster review on one will still quantify some further investigation on my part. The quality of these games can vary from brilliant to dreadful, but every now and then, we get one that does something wholly original and makes everyone else have to step up their game. Enter Guacamelee!
I intend to make this a running series of articles, but I knew going in that Guacamelee! was the one I had to start with. I think we all have those games that are so special to us that we wind up playing them at least once a year. For me, those games are Super Mario World and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but now, I can add Guacamelee! to that list, especially since it made such a masterful transition to the PlayStation Vita, which in my opinion is the best way to play the game.
But what makes Guacamelee! stand out from the other great Metroidvania games in recent years like Axiom Verge, Shadow Complex, Aliens: Infestation, and Ori and the Blind Forest? To understand Guacamelee!, we have to understand its source material: lucha libre. Given my love of video games and who I was in a previous life, I think I am a pretty good candidate to explain this to you.
The basic plot of Guacamelee! goes like this: You control Juan, an agave farmer in love with El Presidente’s daughter. When an undead charro named Carlos Calaca attacks the small village, he kills Juan and leaves with El Presidente’s daughter, intending to use her in a sacrifice so that he can rule the worlds of both the dead and the living. Juan finds himself in the land of the dead, where a luchador named Tostada (stealing that name for my next gimmick) bestows upon him a mysterious mask, endowing him with SUPER LUCHA POWER!
Is it a silly premise? Sure it is, but what is significant is where the game takes place: Mexico. Mexico is where lucha libre wrestling originated and is still the primary type of wrestling you will find there. In the United States, professional wrestling is treated differently than it is everywhere else in the world. Here, it is entertainment. Monday Night Raw is treated no differently than any other television show you watch on a weekly basis. In Canada, professional wrestling is a tradition and wrestlers are respected as legitimate athletes. In Japan, it is treated as a sport on the same level as sumo wrestling or baseball. But in Mexico, lucha libre is practically a religion.
A great deal of lucha libre wrestlers (“luchadores”) wear masks, which hold a special significance, and matches where the loser must relinquish his mask, while common, are always treated as a very big deal. One of the greatest luchadores of all time, Rey Mysterio Jr., once lost his mask in a throwaway match in WCW, and the outrage among the Mexican community was immense. Luckily for Mysterio, it did not hinder his future WWE success.
In their native land, luchadores are looked upon as more than just wrestlers: they are superheroes. Perhaps the two most popular luchadores of all time are El Santo and Blue Demon. Both men were buried in their trademark masks, and between the two of them, there is only one occurrence of their faces being seen in public. One short year after retirement, El Santo appeared on the Mexican television show Contrapunto, where he lifted up his mask just enough to show his face, effectively saying goodbye to his fans. He died only a week after the program aired. Santo’s identity was even hidden from the other wrestlers. When traveling, he would take different flights from the normal wrestling crew so they wouldn’t see his face when he removed his mask to make his way through customs.
Their popularity went beyond the wrestling mat. Santo appeared in over 50 films, many of which saw him in the lead role and were usually named “Santo versus…” and had him facing off against some supernatural entity. There was also an El Santo comic book series that ran for 35 years, ending in 1987. The only person in American history that we could possibly compare to El Santo would be Elvis Presley, but I think even that comparison fails to capture just how huge Santo was.
Now that you have gotten that history lesson, it should be easier to understand why Guacamelee! is more than just a simple metroidvania game. It is authentic. It may be a bit stereotypical, but it is not insulting to Mexican culture or heritage, and it does right by the lucha libre community by incorporating legitimate wrestling moves and portraying its protagonist as a larger than life persona who always fights for a noble cause.
One may argue that while luchadores were portrayed as superheroes, and took their characters very seriously, they did not do anything in the real world on the same level as saving the President’s daughter the way Juan does in Guacamelee!. That is where you’d be wrong. In 2006, Jack Black starred in his magnum opus, Nacho Libre. It is the story of a cook at a Mexican monastery orphanage who becomes a luchador to help raise money to provide better food for the children he looks after.
What many do not realize is that Nacho Libre is actually based on a luchador named Sergio Gutierrez Benitez, who wrestled under the persona of Fray Tormenta (“Friar Storm”). Benitez is a former drug addict turned priest who was in dire need of money to take care of the children in the orphanage he ran. By day, he was Friar Benitez, by night, he was Fray Tormenta. He has long since retired, but is still a priest at the monastery, and actually passed on the Fray Tormenta name to a boy from the orphanage who became a luchador. While I have a tremendous amount of respect for John Cena and all the charity work he does, he is no Fray Tormenta.
When you combine the authenticity of the character with the excellent game design from Drinkbox Studios, you get perhaps the best metroidvania game since Symphony of the Night. Because Super Metroid really solidified the genre and is heralded as one of the best games ever, many of the better metroidvania games have similar sci-fi settings, like the aforementioned Axiom Verge.
Drinkbox had an idea that was completely out of left field with a setting that was atypical from the genre standard, and condensed it down to one of the most solid 5-6 hour experiences you may ever have in gaming. The feedback from your controller makes every uppercut, body slam, and suplex feel like they have real weight to them, and the controls themselves are responsive to the point that you never feel like the game is being unfair in its difficulty.
Speaking of the difficulty, Guacamelee! does what I feel more games should do. You have a main story that offers a decent challenge, one that may result in a death every so often but you know you are capable of defeating with a little more focus. The platforming sections can be a bit tricky, but much like games like Super Meat Boy, can be conquered with a little trial and error. Secret areas and challenge rooms are a different story. These can be downright cruel, but do not offer you anything required to finish the game unless you are a completionist.
Drinkbox Studios also threw in many references to meme culture, and the video games that inspired them in the creation of Guacamelee!. Some of them are so subtle that they can easily be missed. It is a big love letter to the games that old farts like me grew up playing, and they are there for no other reason than to bring a smile to your face.
I could not possibly recommend Guacamelee! any more than I already have. You do not need to be a fan of lucha libre in order to appreciate it, but perhaps reading this will help you to appreciate the game just a little bit more the next time (or the first time) you sit down to play it.