Luchadores are criminally absent from video game culture. You can have your clunky knights, your space marines, and your assassins — real heroes wear decorative masks and fight in spandex. Fortunately, developer DrinkBox Studios was thinking the same thing.
Releasing this spring exclusively for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita (no final pricing yet), Guacamelee! — an absurdly awesome name — is the unexpected child that pops out nine months after a 2D brawler and a platformer lock eyes and make sweet, sweet love in the back of an Impala. In reality, DrinkBox spent two years creating its fantastical take on the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday where people celebrate the lives of their deceased friends and family. But for the humble agave farmer Juan, this day isn’t filled with candies or parades.
An army of skeletons has attacked his town, and their leader — the evil Carlos Calaca — kidnapped El Presidente’s daughter. Juan takes it upon himself to save her, transforming into a luchadore; if you’re playing next to a friend in the drop-in/drop-out cooperative multiplayer mode (only available in the PS3 version), Juan’s wrestling partner Tostada joins him in the fray.
If the premise sounds familiar to a certain plumber’s quest to save a princess, that’s because it’s intentional: Guacamelee! is fully aware of the shoulders it stands on. You’ll find playful references and jokes that explicitly point to Super Mario — as well as the Metroid games, given the similarities both series’ share with their sprawling, interconnected worlds — during Juan and Tostada’s kooky adventure.
Somehow, Guacamelee! feels refreshingly original in spite of the games it liberally borrows from. I was only able to play a 15 minute demo (and shown another 10 minute sequence controlled by the developers), but the challenging fights and exploration left me wanting more.
Building on the player’s skills
Combat comes in four basic categories: punching, stamina-draining special attacks (measured by the number of yellow squares next to your health), throwing, and dodging. For the first minute or so of playing co-op with DrinkBox co-founder Graham Smith, it felt like a by-the-numbers fighting system that I’ve seen in many beat-em-up games before. But Guacamelee! quickly peels back its layers of depth once you get into your first battle.
Besides jumping away, dodging (where Juan and Tostada rolls to the side with the push of the right analog stick) is your best defensive move since you can pass through weaker enemy attacks without getting harmed. And throwing is great for crowd control: Once your foes are on the brink of death, you can grab and toss them against other enemies in any direction.
Your special moves, which you gradually unlock by playing through the story, can also help you with some of the tricky platforming areas. If you pull off an uppercut while jumping in the air, you’re essentially performing a double-jump to get to hard-to-reach areas. After you get a real double-jump maneuver, the uppercut turns it into a triple jump. Others, like the headbutt, are more direct: It can break any of the giant yellow rocks that block off passageways.
This also holds true for your supernatural powers. With the tap of a button, you’ll transform into a rooster that can fit in narrow corridors. And by traveling through fixed portals, Guacamelee! switches from depicting the world of the living to the world of the dead (and vice-versa). Later on, you can trigger this on your own. In the dead world, certain blocked paths in the living world magically become available and previously transparent platforms will solidify. Some types of enemies only exist in the dead world, and while they can still hurt you no matter which world you’re in, you can’t kill them until you make the switch.
Keeping these various strategies into account is especially important in later parts of the game. Smith jumped a few hours ahead to show me the kind of quick-thinking and multitasking you’ll have to do. In one memorable battle, he fought off two dead-world-only creatures, a handful of skeletons with shields that he had to smash with the right color-coded attack, and plants that shot damaging spikes from the ground. Combined with some skillful platforming levels, he said that this part of the game took him “three hours to practice” before he could pass it.
It seemed somewhat intimidating to watch. But designer Chris McQuinn assured me that “most people will get to Gram’s skill level, if not get better than Gram,” by this point in the game.
Drawing from Mexican culture
Guacamelee! is only the third game created by the Toronto-based studio, but it’s quite a departure from its previous pulpy science fiction world of Tales from Space: About a Blob and Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack. One of DrinkBox’s animators (who is from Mexico) pitched the idea of the story, characters, and levels to the rest of the team. The result is a gorgeous pastiche that draws from different sources of Mexican culture.
“From About a Blob to Mutant Blobs, Guacamelee! is like the next iteration of [our tools],” said Smith. “The engine that we’re using is our proprietary engine, and it’s getting better and better. I think it’s kind of coming through in the games.”
The sharp, angular aesthetic of the characters — I told Smith it kind of reminds me of Disney’s animated films, and he said others have mentioned that it looks like Samurai Jack — meshes well with Guacamelee’s bright colors and patterns. It almost seems like you’re playing inside of a pop-up book.
Many of the enemies represent DrinkBox’s interpretation of popular monsters and demons from Mexican folklore. The blood-sucking chupacabras look like miniature dinosaurs with wings, and small Mayan statues come to life as the fierce Luchas. During our co-op demo, we ran into a female villain whom the developers conjured up from old stories of a seductress who would lure men into a field at night and kill them.
“It’s nice to take what their story is and then turn them into what we think we want them to be,” said McQuinn.
If you’re interested in trying out the same demo I played, DrinkBox will show it to attendees at next week’s Penny Arcade Expo in Boston.