Currently free to Xbox Gold or PlayStation Plus owners, Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition , is a side-scrolling metroidvania title brought to us by Canadian developer, Drinkbox Studios.
The brightly coloured Mexican lore-inspired title popped up on my dashboard without warning and needing a break from blasting Nazis in the face (Wolfenstein) it seemed like the perfect distraction and did I mention that it’s currently free to download?
You take control of Juan Aguacate, a small-time farmer living on the outskirts of a dusty and quiet village, your adventure begins when the local priest sends word that he needs your help in preparing for Dia los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities. While clearing the church of one too many empty wine casks, Juan encounters a long lost love, El Presidente’s Daughter (seriously, she’s unnamed and only ever referred to under that title) and he promises to help her bring some more chairs from the family mansion as soon as he’s finished in the church. However as fate would have it, their plans to reunite are interrupted when an evil charro named Carlos Calacca appears from the Land of the Dead and kidnaps the young woman as part of an unholy ritual. When Juan is struck down trying to save his lost love, he finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead and there he meets an ally, Tostada, Guardian of the Mask, who bestows the power of an ancient Luchador mask on him, granting him power and the ability to set out on a quest to stop Calacca and free his love.
As mentioned above the game is heavily based on the metroidvania principle; explore, learn new skill and re-explore old areas. Juan can beat the living daylights out Calaccas minions with basic combos and grapples but along the way can acquire new signature moves, the ‘Dashing Derp Derp’, ‘Frog Smash’ and many more all of which can be used to bring even more hurt to the bad guys but also help you traverse areas. The gameplay is simple and you won’t find yourself struggling to get to grips with it but that doesn’t mean this is an easy game. Between the onslaught of skeletal soldiers who increase with difficulty, adapting to your new abilities the further you progress in your journey to complex trick jumps and puzzles, you will find yourself clenching the controller tightly on more than one occasion.
The game also features side quests, these are entirely voluntary and usually involve finding a missing item or person somewhere on the map and come with decent rewards, gold coins, chunks of heart or stamina blocks. Your time as Juan can be customised, spending Silver coins earned by defeating waves of enemies will unlock alternative costumes for your wrestler each of which have different traits – life steal, stronger grapples, extra gold earned etc. You can also play co-op mode (I didn’t try it) and enlist Tostada to help or if you want you can unlock her skin and play as her during the game although the NPCs don’t recognise her and you’ll still be referred to as Juan.
Guacamelee! exudes charm in every scene, it’s kitschy colours, mariachi music, camp villains and tongue-in-cheek humour all add up to a wonderfully creative game and a joyful experience. Some may say that the game is borderline offensive, dancing a delicate line between being cheeky and stereotyping an entire culture (and it could be very different had Drinkbox decided to make a game based on Irish lore) but taking lore and myth from a culture and turning it into a game (even if it’s meant to be humorous) isn’t easy but the developers manage to pull it off – villains are based off angry Gods and demons from Mexico. The game does fall into some pitfalls, particularly in the treatment of female characters, Tostada is fuzzy background noise, X’Tabay is a scorned sex demon and El Presidente’s Daughter is an unnamed damsel in distress incapable of defending herself.
While gender and cultural politics are important when considering a game and must be handled delicately in developing and publishing a title, Guacamelee! isn’t by any means the product of racist misogynistic team, it is for the most part a challenging and enjoyable game jam-packed with plenty of easter eggs to keep you searching and smiling when you finally spot them.
It is a colourful and fun journey, refreshingly based on a culture that doesn’t get represented nearly enough in terms of characters or story and it’s definitely worth a play!
Editor-in-Chief, part-time super villain and hoarder of cats. If you can’t find me writing, I’m probably in the kitchen!