If there was ever any proof needed that video games are undergoing a quiet revolution, Gaucamelee! is it. Here's a gorgeous and exciting little platforming game from a tiny Toronto-based indie developer (Drinkbox Studios) that is just as fun – if not more so – than many mega-budget blockbusters. It economically packs its enjoyment into a few hours and, more importantly for the home consumer, it costs just a few dollars. It's a game completely free of the bloated trappings that weigh down many a decent idea.
Guacamelee! is a Mexican-themed, 2D side-scrolling actioner of the "Metrovania" persuasion in that it borrows its basic structure from classic Metroid and Castlevania games. The star of the show is an agave farmer, Juan, who turns into a luchador (a Mexican wrestler) superhero with the ability to jump between the realm of the living and dead. Along the way, just as in the classics, he unlocks new powers and abilities that let him access previously unavailable sections of his 2D world.
Juan is set against Carlos Calaca, an evil skeleton who, we learn, made a pact with the Devil in exchange for his dreams of glory being fulfilled. The deal backfired on the Devil and now Calaca has a veritable army of henchman doing his bidding, which Juan must pile-drive and suplex out of existence.
Despite the Dark Lord's involvement, the story and Juan's world are light and comedic. A goat-cum-sensei shows up every once in a while to teach the luchador new moves, for example, while the game itself has something of a chicken fixation – the little critters are everywhere. Indeed, one of Juan's powers has him turn into a chicken so that he can move through small tunnels.
The platforming is nicely done, with Juan needing to use a blend of uppercut punches, death-from-above splashes and headbutts to break different coloured blocks in order to access new areas. About halfway through the short, five-hour-or-so game, the action gets more devious when Juan gains the ability to instantaneously switch between the world of the living and the dead.
With one button push, the background shifts from bright and lively to gloomy and decaying. The active elements change too – some platforms exist only in the realm of the dead, while others only in the land of the living. Jumping between them is often a matter of timing, where you have to quickly switch between realms in mid-jump. It can get really challenging, but the developers have wisely kept the platforming at a notch just below frustrating.
Some enemies also exist on only one of these two planes, though they can hurt Juan regardless of which they're on. He can only retaliate, however, by shifting, which makes it tricky when there are multiple foes in separate realms on screen at the same time.
The bad guys also sometimes have different coloured force fields, which correspond to the same environmental obstacles Juan faces. Red-coloured force fields, for example, can only be broken with an uppercut, much like red-coloured blocks. Put it all together and the result is a deeper combat system than you might expect from such a simple-looking game.
"Simple" isn't meant as an insult in this context. Guacamelee! has a distinctive cartoonish style to it – it's a clear evolution from Drinkbox's previous Tales of a Blob series, but its almost-surrealistic look reminded me of Rayman Origins, Ubisoft's latest entry in that side-scrolling platform series. Yet, with its Mexican-inspired comedic plot and aesthetic, Guacemelee! also reminded me of Nacho Libre, one of my favourite movies, where Jack Black plays a bumbling monk-turned-luchador.
Some of the dialogue in the game even unnecessarily pluralizes words, just like in the movie, for humorous effect. There are altars scattered throughout Juan's world, for example, where he can buy ability upgrades. When he stops by, he's asked, "You want stuffs? We got stuffs." I couldn't help but hear Black's silly luchador saying it every time.
If there's a knock against Guacamelee!, it's that I had to fill in my own voices: There's no voice-track, the dialogue is all text. It's an understandable technical decision the developers made – voice work would obviously have made the game a much bigger file to download – but it's too bad anyway. Or, as Nacho would say, anyways.
The game also suffers somewhat from a map that's a little tricky to interpret. A handy and easy-to-digest navigational tool is a necessity in a game that asks players to backtrack, and Guacamelee!'s functional-yet-sparse offering could have been better.
But those are small gripes against the larger whole. Not only does it cost only $15, a single download gets you the game for both the PlayStation 3 and the Vita. And you can cross-play, meaning you can save your game on one and pick it up on the other. uacamelee! also offers the option to play co-operatively with two players on-screen at the same time.
It looks and plays very smoothly on both platforms, although I preferred the PS3 version because the controls were simpler and not as distracting from the action. Turning into a chicken on the PS3, for example, is done pressing a shoulder button on the controller. On the Vita, you have to swipe down on the touch-screen, which can be problematic at those points where you need exact timing.
All told, it's a game that stuffs a lot of action, entertainment and value into one low-priced package. And it's just about the right length too, with no ridiculously long cut scenes full of unnecessary exposition.
With any luck, big game makers are watching games like this and learning that sometimes, in many ways, less is more.