Retro-game-homages are as popular as ever, but too many fail to capture the magic of their inspirations. To call Guacamelee! anything other than an homage is downright uninformed. However, it's surprising just how well it manages to both cite its source material and use those inspirations to form a game with a fresh and distinct identity. Those in the know will quickly recognize hints of Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and even Portal, but these references never quite dominate the unlikely setting of a dimensionally disturbed re-creation of rural Mexico. They've inspired parts of the world, and to a larger extent, the gameplay, but Guacamelee stands tall thanks to its brilliant art style, witty writing, and a steady pace, of which the biggest flaw is that the fun comes to an end sooner than any game of this caliber should.
Your adventure starts simply enough. As Juan Aquacave, a humble agave farmer and tequila distiller, your rise to luchadore-dom is fueled by the kidnapping of an old acquaintance turned recent love interest, the nameless daughter of El Presidente. The kidnapper from the Land of the Dead, Carlos Calaca, strikes during the Dia de los Muertos festival. Juan is ultimately banished to the Land of the Dead by Calaca; here, he meets the Guardian of the Mask, who bestows the legendary luchadore relic unto the humble farmer. Forthwith, Juan's resurrected into the Land of the Living as a superpowered luchadore and sets off after his kidnapped love. Apart from the luchadore-themed wrapping, the damsel-in-distress scenario is a tired trope, to be sure, but the trite conflict between hero and kidnapper is merely a catalyst. It gets the game rolling, but the real driving force is Juan's growth as a superhero.
His 2D crusade sees you ascending mountains, exploring caverns, and platforming among the tree-tops, but you'll spend a lot of time smacking enemies around and tossing them into blunt objects along the way. From these two types of attacks spring dozens of opportunities for tactical and offensive variety. Combo attacking and juggling enemies in midair are encouraged, and the right approach lets Juan take out a half-dozen enemies before touching the ground. His skill set evolves so rapidly that it's largely up to you to discover his hidden potential, but the game is good about teaching you the fundamentals of each maneuver by ramping up the challenges accordingly after each acquisition.
New moves and abilities are earned by discovering Choozo statues (blatant references to Metroid's Chozo statues) strewn about the world. They belong to a grumpy yet affable goat shepherd, Juan's eventual sage-like sensei, who imparts the knowledge of moves such as Olmec's Headbutt and the Goat Climb, the likes of which expand your ability to explore your environment and manhandle esqueletos. Combat truly shines once you learn to zip up a wall, dash to uppercut an oncoming enemy, and toss their body into encroaching reinforcements, a delight that rarely gets old. Whether it's the promise of new abilities, a laugh, or Juan's next rumble, there's always something in Guacamelee just around the corner that grabs your attention.
Though the progression of locales and challenges are paced well, accented by charming music and expressive colors, there are occasional dips when the action feels uninspired relative to the world around it. These moments are easy to spot: rather than introduce a new type of challenge, the game simply throws more enemies on the screen. Sometimes, it's the small number of enemy types in a given area that contribute to the sense of repetition. Thankfully, these moments are usually fleeting.
A few hours into your adventure, in a touch reminiscent of the action platformer Outland, Juan earns the ability to teleport between the lands of the living and the dead. The two worlds bring different moods and experiences to the table, defined by their respective soundtracks and color palettes, but certain enemies and objects are hidden between dimensions as well. The ability to alter your surroundings is an increasingly important component of combat, and it turns already difficult platforming sections into true tests of reflexes and intuition.
Though it demands precision, Guacamelee hardly punishes failure. In fact, it practically encourages you to take chances by being so forgiving. When Juan plummets off a cliff or platform, he's magically whisked back to safety without penalty. If he happens to run out of health, he's revived at the last checkpoint, the frequently encountered shops that auto-save your game and refill Juan's health. Guacamelee's meager consequences keep the action moving at a steady clip, but considering the exacting nature of the game's design, you can't help but feel that there should be some penalty for sloppiness. No game should rely on punishment to determine the length of the experience, but in the case of Guacamelee, the lack of expendable lives or a game-over state contributes to the unfortunate brevity of Juan's tale.
Defeating the game once opens the hard difficulty setting, but the lure of collectibles may be reason enough to revisit earlier sections of the game. If it were only to fulfill obsessive-compulsive tendencies, backtracking may not seem particularly important, but by hinting at multiple endings, the underwhelming default conclusion justifiably compels your continued search. Your newfound abilities go a long way toward uncovering all of Guacamelee's secrets, but it takes a keen eye to find every last item hidden among the caves and treetops alike.
Local co-op is an option, but its good qualities don't meaningfully raise the overall experience. A second player can hop in as Tostada, the Guardian of the Mask, at any time. When characters are at opposing ends of the screen, the first to move into a new area takes priority, causing the other player to appear nearby on the new screen or pop in as a floating bubble, similar to the effect used in New Super Mario Bros Wii. The second player can choose to take on the bubble form in order to skip obstacles and catch up to the leader. Apart from stringing together impromptu tag-team combos, there's nothing in Guacamelee that truly benefits from the addition of another player. At the end of the day, it's a nice option to have, but that's about it.
All things considered, Guacamelee is one of the strongest games on the PlayStation Network, period. The responsive controls and a grin-inducing sense of humor make it near impossible to put down, and the expressive use of color will warm the hearts of even the most cynical among us. It's chock-full of pop-culture references, yet it doesn't feel patronizing when there's a nod to your favorite 8-bit game, thanks to the provided twist of the world's luchadore-obsessed culture. When Guacamelee isn’t trying to make you laugh, occasional moments of drama and intense action fill you with a sense of purpose and emphasize Juan's triumphant rise to superhero status. After hitting so many high-notes, Guacamelee's conclusion is a bittersweet farewell, but every adventure, even the best of them, eventually comes to an end.