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EGM Review: Guacamelee!



The right stuffs

Guacamelee! is an unabashed homage to Super Metroid. It’s a love song—an upbeat mariachi tribute to Nintendo’s beloved action-platformer series. And while I realize I’m not the first person to make that comparison—nor will I be the last, as there’s no finer way to describe Guacamelee!—Drinkbox Studios has managed to perfectly capture the essence of a good Metroidvania experience, improve upon it, and make it pop with slang-soaked dialogue and a quirky aesthetic.

The game is peppered with the very best spices of the genre it honors, but at no point does any of it feel derivative—no more so than any other 2D action-platformer that emphasizes exploration and has torn a page from the same playbook. All the expected tropes are intact and present, right down to luchador hero Juan’s morph ball equivalent, which sees him transforming into a chicken to scamper through tight spaces. But Guacamelee! is so much more than some shameless ripoff. The developers at Drinkbox Studios have built an altar in worship of Aran.

This is partly due to the game’s open affection toward—and acknowledgment of—its origins. How does Juan obtain his powers? From Choozo Statues—bird-like stone structures seated upon the ground, holding an orb like a precious egg. It’s not uninspired; it’s a nod. Guacamelee! pokes fun at its roots, has fun doing so, and invites players to join in on the fun. Playing Drinkbox’s “Ode to Metroid” is like having a nostalgia-laden conversation about the genre while knocking back cervezas.  And the buzz feels all too good.

Of course, Guacamelee! carves out a name for itself in plenty of original ways, the most obvious of which are its visuals—a vibrant, crisp Saturday-morning cartoon art style blended with a Mexican-inspired aesthetic that evokes faint memories of Cartoon Network’s ¡Mucha Lucha! and Nickelodeon’s El Tigre. Character designs possess just as much personality as the dialogue those characters deliver—an important aspect of the lucha libre lifestyle, insofar as my understanding of the emphasis on their masks and personas goes.

But the original, noteworthy aspects of Guacamelee! are more than just skin-deep. Drinkbox delivers impressively complex combat the likes of which Samus could only dream of. Ditching long-range attacks in favor of melee, Guacamelee! boasts combo-based combat that’s surprisingly deep. Depending on how well they master Juan’s moves in Guacamelee!, players could imaginably leave enemies forever air-juggled and never take a scratch. And while in most instances, brawling bad guys requires only the most basic understanding of Guacamelee!’s combat, the platforming—especially in the later stages—demands quick thinking and fast reflexes, sometimes to the point of frustration, and particularly when you start stringing together all the different powers to traverse the map both horizontally and vertically. But it’s always challenging in a welcome, old-school way that left me with a sense of accomplishment whenever I finally solved a particularly tough puzzle.

As for the rest of the genre hallmarks, they’re all in place. Plenty of exploration, plenty of upgrades, plenty of enemy variants, plenty of platforming variety—not to mention a welcome deviation from the typical experience similar titles tend to deliver courtesy of side-missions doled out by townsfolk.

Honestly, the only thing I can fault Guacamelee! for is the narrative, and I don’t want to. These are games so wholly defined by their fun factor, by the gameplay and the world you explore that narrative is an understandable afterthought. Everything about Guacamelee!’s story is pretty cut-and-dry. Your childhood friend/crush is in peril, captured by the evil charro skeleton Carlos Calaca. As Juan, you dash to the rescue, fighting Calaca’s minions on your way to stop him. Like I said: pretty standard stuff. But despite this, the writing in Guacamelee! is often quite sharp. Because Guacamelee! never takes itself too seriously, it often throws around mainstream colloquialisms funny in and of themselves, but also because of the bizarre context in which these terms are uttered. “What up man-bro? You want the stuffs? Cause I gots the stuffs!” exclaims the mystical skull that serves as storefront and save point. “Hey, dood, use [L] or [Right Analog Stick] to roll through spikes. It’s awesome-sauce,” advises a giant rooster.

So whatever. Guacamelee! isn’t the Don Quixote of videogames. I don’t point out this storytelling shortcoming because it’s an issue. I point it out because it’s the only thing that Guacamelee! doesn’t execute exceptionally well; I never expected it to, though. Drinkbox’s Mexican-themed Metroidvania is still super-charming, not to mention super-fun. And that’s all I ever asked from it.

Developer: Drinkbox Studios • Publisher: Drinkbox Studios • ESRB: E10+ • Release Date: 04.09.2013
Guacamelee! feels welcomingly familiar but still manages to bring something new to the table through excellent combat and a whole lot of charm.
The Good Guacamelee! is a tasty burrito jam-packed with all the ingredients required to make a great Metroidvania title.
The Bad Occasional puzzles that are so frustrating you’ll need to take a short break. But only a short one.
The Ugly Juan’s mustache? But you never see the thing, really. He wears a luchador’s mask most of the game.
Guacamelee! is available on PS3 and PS Vita. Primary version reviewed was for PS Vita.