Welcome to Maximum Metroidvania! In this new series of articles, I’ll be taking a close look at various games that fall under the “Metroidvania” umbrella and giving you the 411 on how they hold up.
Unfortunately for fans, there is currently a drought of Metroid and Castlevania games. Fans are petitioning for the cancellation of the only upcoming Metroid series game, which by the looks of it will not fit into the actual genre at all. Even worse, the Castlevania series has been relegated to a skeevy Pachinko machine, with its spiritual successor still a few years away. This means that fans of the genre’s flagship titles are forced to look elsewhere to get their fix.
That’s where Maximum Metroidvania comes in! I’m here to tell the people which games will satisfy their thirst for action platforming and exploration and which ones will leave a bad taste in their mouths. I’m doing all the trial and error so that the players don’t have to.
Today’s game, Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition, provides a unique flavor of gameplay and exploration that is sure to go down smooth like a fresh glass of horchata. The game is very much an affectionate tribute to Mexican culture and history akin to The Book of Life, with an attention to detail and accuracy that strengthens the character of the world it takes place in. The various villains all have interesting backstories and motivations to go with their unique designs, making them stand out as interesting characters. The game has a two endings, an element that pops up all too often in Castlevania games. While I’m not usually into Super Hetero Endings, this game’s Good Ending managed to come off as sweet and touching in a genuine way.
The plot’s pretty basic, with underdog agave farmer-turned-luchador hero Juan Aguacate teaming up with mysterious lady luchador Tostada to rescue El Presidente’s Daughter from the skeletal clutches of undead charro Carlos Calaca. While the damsel-in-distress kidnapping plot is certainly stereotypical and played out, it’s soon revealed that they must not only save Juan’s childhood love, but both the land of the dead and the living as well.
I must admit, I’m not normally one for Beat ‘Em Up games, but Guacamelee’s combat system is a solid and fun way to beat up enemies. Guacamelee nails its controls perfectly, letting the player pummel skeletons with precision and ease. I never felt like the controls were working against me or making things harder, and combined with a decent variety of interesting enemies you get some fun fighting. This is enhanced by the combat mechanic called “El Intenso” which gives you a chargeable energy meter you can spend to power up your attacks until the energy runs out. It’s a huge help against tougher enemies and some of the more difficult boss battles.
I find it amazing how well Guacamelee blends its Brawler combat with the Metroidvania exploration and platforming aspects. One problem with Beat ‘Em Up games is the tedious and repetitive nature of their stages. Like salt, Beat ‘Em Up gameplay is best when sprinkled in measured amounts as a flavor enhancer instead of the main ingredient. The game succeeds at this, using the brawler combat system to add a layer of complexity to the base Metroidvania gameplay. This brings out the deeper potential of an otherwise basic Metroidvania game.
While Guacamelee’s unique visual style and use of dialogue are a far cry from the alien loneliness of Metroid, the game actually skews closer to its spacey source material than one might think. Many of the games power-ups are direct mirrors of abilities found in Metroid games. The Morphball-esque Pollo Power transformation and droppable egg bombs are the most obvious parallels, but the Goat Fly move is also more than a little reminiscent of the Shinespark move in function. The game doesn’t try to hide these similarities, giving you new abilities every time you destroy a “Choozo” statue. This nod to Metroid’s own power-giving Chozo Statues is accompanied by many other video game references in both the dialogue and the environment.
What really makes this game’s exploration stand out from others is the ability to travel between two parallel worlds. In this case, the player must travel between the land of the living and the dead. This sort of gameplay has been seen in Metroid and Castlevania games before, but here I found it to be much more reminiscent of how the mechanic has been used in the Legend of Zelda series. The gimmick is visually interesting and used in creative ways for some puzzles and combat, but it never quite evolves to the complexity seen in the Zelda series. It’s still integral to both the gameplay and the plot though, and I’ll take ‘simple and solid’ over ‘complicated and poorly executed’ any of the week.
The other gameplay feature that separates Guacamelee from the pack is its optional Co-op mode. While co-op has been a central tenet of Beat ‘Em Ups since the release of Double Dragon, it’s almost unheard of in the largely solo-oriented Metroidvania genre. While the Co-Op isn’t exactly anything to write home about, it functions fine and the option sets the game apart from its many single player-only peers.
If you do opt to stick with single player however, you still won’t feel alone while playing it. The game’s world is filled with a diverse cast of NPCs that you can talk with. Ranging from dead little girls to giant chickens, these characters have a variety of sidequests to offer you on your journey. They give weight to the threat of world destruction, making the worlds they populate more colorful and lively as a result.
While the game’s writing and dialogue can be a huge strength at times, it can also be a weakness. While the dialogue is important in helping the game stand out from its often isolated counterparts, it’s also full of forced memes and brodude banter. Even your moveset is not free from this, as I learned when I unlocked the “Dashing Derpderp” move. You get new techniques from Goat Hermit, whose dialogue all centers on bad humor and wanting to date your mom. This adds nothing to the game other than endless eyerolls.
While the writing in Guacamelee has its ups and downs and the memes are forced, they don’t detract from the overall experience. Seeing some screenshots of the game’s more egregious memes turned me off of it at first, but I’m glad I moved past my initial biases and gave the game a go. The fun experience is more than worth a few meme-induced moans and groans. It may not look like Metroid or Castlevania, but beneath its luchador mask beats the twin hearts of a Chozo warrior and a Belmont vampire slayer. It’s the perfect fusion of two completely different genres into one coherent concept, grabbing you in a full nelson and not letting go until the end credits finish rolling. If you’ve been holding out on this one for whatever reason, do yourself a favor and pick it up on the platform of your choice.