Nostalgia is all the rage in gaming these days. In the midst of massive, multi-million dollar shooters and sports games dominating the industry, the smaller indie market has blossomed. It’s in this route that downloadable titles have resurrected an entire dimension and genre from beyond the 8-bit grave.
Side-scrollers were the lifeblood of the industry, but when the third dimension became prevalent in the PlayStation era, the 2D side -scroller all but faded into our Tanooki suit-colored glasses of nostalgia. Our favorite 2D side-scrolling heroes like Mario, Rayman, and Simon Belmont went 3D and rarely, if ever, looked back. It seemed like we’d never experience that perilous feeling of timing a jump perfectly like only the 2D side-scroller can deliver.
But this recent generation has seen the 2D side-scroller rise from the ashes of its former glory into a new Golden Age lead by great titles such as Limbo, OutLand, Rayman Origins (my GOTY of 2011) and most recently, Drinkbox Studios’ PSN-exclusive title, Guacamelee!.
Guacamelee! is an action-adventure 2D side-scroller made by people who loved 2D side-scrollers and everything that came from that generation of gaming. It has massive levels and hidden areas to explore, a huge repertoire of moves to learn, and a beautifully detailed and unique environment that no other game can or will ever duplicate.
The plot is a simple rescue-the-princess ordeal, but the world created in Guacamelee! is so detailed and interesting that it’s completely forgivable. Drinkbox put a ton of work into the Mexican folk art style of Guacamelee! and it shows. Every environment is vibrant, colorful, and alive. Even the land of the dead (in which you frequently traverse in Guacamelee!) has its own charms and hauntingly adorable atmosphere. The cutout art style is crisp, and its combination with the incredibly smooth animation makes combat pop. Enemy skeletons shatter into bones when defeated. Juan, the down-on-his-luck luchador, glows with various-colored auras of special moves as he zips around the screen. Basically, the game is absolutely gorgeous. And the music is really catchy and fitting, too.
Juan rolls through the Mexican wild lands and across huge maps in true Super Metroid fashion. You can’t access certain areas until you have a certain power, and exploring dungeons grants you this power. Juan collects new moves by shattering none other than Chozo statues and listening to his goat-master lecture him. It’s weird, hilarious, and a wonderful reference to an ancient ancestor.
Speaking of references to the past, Guacamelee! is covered with them. Thankfully, it doesn’t slam you in the face with references or blatantly point them out and ride them like an unfunny comedian yelling at an un-laughing audience like some personality-less games do (Looking at you, Eat Lead). The references are Easter eggs mostly in the form of posters, dialogue, and visual cues to the past that definitely gave me a reason to explore every nook and crannie of Guacamelee! just to see the next one.
But unlike Samus in Super Metroid, Juan isn’t armed with a robotic suit with a laser cannon for a right arm. Juan only has his fists and a plethora of super-attacks ranging from enemy-flying headbutts to fiery uppercuts that also can get you to higher ledges. And when Juan gets really powerful, he’s able to jump on walls and achieve massive (and always satisfying to those who learn the deep combat system) combos that grant you tons of money that’s used to upgrade your health and stamina. Drinkbox’s well-designed gameplay mechanics teach you how to use each move and makes Juan incrementally stronger.
The dimension-shifting mechanic between the land of the living and the dead comes into play several times. Enemies who are pure white are unable to be attacked in the regular world, but shifting into the other dimension makes them vulnerable. Guacamelee! throws multiple enemies across multiple dimensions at you, requiring strategic thinking-on-the-fly and the need to give certain enemies priority over others. Certain platforms also exist solely within one of the two dimensions, and this takes jumping across them to the next level. Drinkbox’s wicked level designers made some very fun levels to run across, and timing wall-jumps with dimension-shifting is incredibly satisfying and fun.
Guacamelee! also achieves something else that gaming still hasn’t completely been successful at: humor. The banter exchanged between the characters (that aren’t Juan, who’s our classic mute lead) is witty, funny and believable. They have their own personality, want, and way-to-get-it. While the villain, Carlos Calaca, may be a typical Snidely Whiplash style baddie, his cohorts are hilarious – especially his very angry lady-friend who is incredibly jealous he kidnapped Juan’s beloved. And your goat-master’s one liners (specifically about hooking up with your mom) and annoyance at Juan’s obsession with breaking his Chozo statues are chuckle-worthy.
The only detriment to the game is that some set pieces are pretty uninspired. While most battles are tactical and require use of almost every special power in the game (especially later when jumping, wall-climbing, and more are absolutely necessary), there are some parts of the game that just throw a ton of enemies at you with no rhyme or reason. Also: some of the jumping gets really tough later. Like nearly Super Meat Boy tough, such as when you have to time your jumps and use the dimension-warp mechanic at the same time. It gets hard, but never tedious, and does the Rayman Origins thing of sticking you right back where you left off after you died so it doesn’t get frustrating. Guacamelee! never holds your hand, but it doesn’t let you use floaties, either.
And there’s an offline and online co-cop multiplayer mechanic ( I played it exclusively offline with my brother) that doesn’t add anything and feels more tacked-on than anything else. It adds a pink female luchador named Tostada who earns the same skills at the same time as Juan does. While it seems fun, the game doesn’t have anything that it does to cater to the multiplayer experience. Combat is messier with a second pair of fists, and the trickier platforming elements become even harder because both players must move and use the dimension-shifting abilities at the same time. If you thought Battletoads was a destroyer of families, multiplayer Guacamelee! will turn you to fratricide quicker than you can say “Goldeneye.” Guacamelee! is definitely a single-player experience.
Guacamelee! is $14.99 (cross-play compatible!) and comes with approximately six hours of play, depending on how thorough you are. I was about 75% explored when I beat it but hadn’t retreaded my steps and explored previously-unattainable areas. So there’s definitely some wiggle room in the complete length of the game.
In a world where games either seem too caught up in the past or too obsessed with separating themselves from it, Guacamelee! strikes the perfect balance between nostalgia and inventiveness and firmly plants its flag in the category of really fucking fun.
For more 2D gaming goodness, you should check out our X-List of the 15 Best 2D Games of the HD Generation.