Guacamelee! is, from top to bottom, a pastiche. A truly postmodern game, it is in love with the kind of cultural shorthands that have long since replaced first-hand interpretations of real people, places and even game design principles. Nothing in it seems like it comes from a place of total originality. Instead, the various elements of Guacamelee! come from both archetypal videogames and depictions of the game’s Mexican setting.
Why, then, does it somehow feel like its own worthwhile creation?
The game’s developer, DrinkBox Studios, obviously came to the project with real love and appreciation for the material it wanted to tackle. Videogame inspirations ranging from Metroid and Castlevania (or “Metroidvania” if you want to be like that) to Super Meat Boy and Super Mario Bros. colour the game as much as the team’s apparent affection for kitschy Day of the Dead and lucha libre wrestling aesthetics. Guacamelee! is unafraid of wearing its inspirations on its sleeve, even going so far as to incorporate videogame inspirations into its in-game parodies (a dragon-like boss is eventually defeated by jumping on an axe that sends it plummeting into lava; the next character mentions to the player that their princess isn’t in that particular castle) and peppering its backdrops with posters and stoneworks featuring visual references to Link, Mega Man, Donkey Kong, characters from Final Fantasy, Castle Crashers, Minecraft and more.
Bring this together with a propensity for Internet humour pulled from the likes of Reddit and 4Chan and Guacamelee! seems like a recipe for disaster. Borrowed jokes, visual nods to beloved games and a design less influenced than dictated by existing titles make DrinkBox’s creation sound like something cloying and unoriginal. Yet the game opens with a paradoxically humble swagger, jumping through its brief set-up and tutorial objectives with incredible confidence. By the time the player has grasped the first set of mechanics (new moves are always being unlocked) it becomes apparent that Guacamelee! is more than the sum of its parts.
The Day of the Dead imagery and luchador player character are the first elements to fall neatly into place. While garish wrestling masks, skeletal calaca imagery and poncho-sporting enemies are by no means a new invention, the game uses every bit of Mexican culture and folklore it takes as pieces of its own distinct identity. Much like how LucasArts’ Grim Fandango borrowed from familiar sources in crafting its celebrated noir story, Guacamelee! dips into cultural symbolism as a way to breathe new life into the well-trod hero’s journey it wishes to provide. That it combines these references with Internet memes (repurposed as Mexican-tinged graffiti) may not have made me laugh, but the universality of Grumpy Cat helps to offset a brand of culturally stereotypical humour that could very easily have tipped into offensive caricature while also serving to further the game’s unique identity.
In a few instances, Guacamelee! even manages to graduate from homage to originality in unexpected places. The seemingly utilitarian mechanic of instantly switching from “dead” to “living” worlds starts off as a play on the kind of light/dark gameplay affinities that have been used countless times before. Some enemies cannot be damaged unless the player jumps through a portal to change the environment and, later, this ability is turned into a power-up that allows for on-demand switch overs. The game immediately tasks the player with exploring previously visited areas where the new power is capable of changing the landscape from a vibrant, sunny Mexican village to a deserted purple-skied underworld. The most impressive uses of this ability see the player blur the lines between life and death in fascinating ways. In one instance the hero completes a sidequest where a skeletal child from the land of the dead asks for the comfort of her luchador wrestler doll. Switching to the land of the living reveals her mother, in the same spot, mentioning that she had kept the doll as a a keepsake for her dead daughter. Retrieving the object comforts the ghostly girl. Another scene shows a “living world” graveyard strewn with mementos to the departed such as garlands and food. The same scene, when switched, lets the player talk to a calaca skeleton who says that death isn’t so bad because the living have left behind the stuff he needs to throw a feast. These may seem like small things, but, through such a simple mechanic, Guacamelee! ends up highlighting the background of the Day of the Dead celebrations in a novel way.
These successes make finishing the game a little puzzling. The journey is very enjoyable, but so evocative of other works that the entire enterprise has something of a hollow aftertaste. Guacamelee!‘s ending ultimately leaves behind the lingering question of just what we want when we ask for originality. Nobody, but the emotionally stunted and terminally boring, wants their entertainment to provide a retread of something they’ve already experienced and, really, at its core that’s exactly what Guacamelee! is.
If the game wasn’t as fun or as confident about its own identity it probably would have fallen flat on its face. But it doesn’t. Guacamelee! takes every one of its myriad influences and, instead of simply putting them on display, constantly proves why we should continue to enjoy what is already so familiar. Nintendo may not be able to channel its past successes into original work anymore, but that company’s trademark iterations on nostalgic design have been picked up by others who are better suited to the work. DrinkBox is a studio that is smart enough to take real care with the delicacy of constant reference, injecting its own sense of self into every aspect of what is, when everything else has been stripped away, a videogame we’ve all already played so many times before.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for videogame site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.