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Life in the land of the dead: Why Guacamelee is my favorite game of 2013

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To the vast majority of gamers, Drinkbox Studio’s Guacamelee has been spun as a “Metroidvania” brawler platforming game set in a fictional version of Mexico. If I was to explain it to somebody who hasn’t played Castlevania, Metroid nor any of the Donkey Kong Country games, I’d tell them it’s a video game about a luchador who loved living, even after he died.

I beat the game twice on Playstation 3 over the summer, but my interest in contributing to its Steam Workshop encouraged me to re-buy it on PC. As soon as I started playing it again, memories of the past few summers came flooding back, of lively music, spending time outside and bowl after bowl of homemade guacamole. But this time around, I’ve found myself paying special attention to the dialogue of every non-playable character.

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The lives and personalities of the world’s denizens in Guacamelee are not only well explained, utilizing only a few lines to deliver any of them, but it turns out that they’re mostly bittersweet stories of life lost. However, there’s also something heartwarming about them. Besides for how colorful and animated they are, what’s consistent between every character’s story — including Juan’s and even the main antagonist’s past life — is a human desire to lead fulfilling lives.

Juan’s entire story isn’t very long, but his arc from humble farmer, to empowered undead luchador, to a lost soul who misses his childhood sweetheart is enough to consider him as a tragic hero. Calaca, Juan’s enemy, sought to be the greatest bull fighter in history, and each villain working for him shows some form of regret or self-consciousness, rather than false pride, upon defeat. In other corners of the world, the sole purpose of many houses’ interiors is to show where a person once lived, the artifacts they left behind and the people who miss them.

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Sure, at its core Guacamelee is undoubtedly a game about wrestling rogue skeleton warriors into oblivion, but you can’t walk more than a couple minutes without stumbling across an interesting character or, in the case of the gameplay, something positive to celebrate. Every locked room ends with a giant glowing piñata to break open, showering you with health and gold coins. Half-way through each dungeon is an old man disguised as a goat, imbuing you with the powers of various animals. Every villager in every town, whether they’re in the land of the living or the dead, has something to say about their mood, the world or their perception of you. A few even helped me build the world’s largest enchilada. The afterlife doesn’t get much better than that.

With the Playstation 4 and Xbox One right around the corner, just as another year in high-definition gaming comes to a close, I’m left thinking what most gamers are right now: what will you remember this generation for? For me, it generally ends on a happy note: a broader creative landscape where smaller development teams are no longer a thing of the past, making games as or more compelling than the biggest blockbusters these consoles were built to support.

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I got into this generation right away with the Nintendo Wii on launch day, but didn’t realize what I had been missing until acquiring a PS3 earlier last year. Still, Guacamelee sits near the top of my playlist in these past two years as a colorful celebration of life, which means a lot to me in an era of video games that was dominated by muted color palettes and first person shooters. I’ll remember it for being a funny, brave and bittersweet gameplay experience that hasn’t lost its charm by the third time around.

For a game that mostly takes place in death itself, and for it to be so challenging at times yet still make me feel upbeat all the while — that’s why Guacamelee is my favorite game this year.


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