While “Super Mario” continues to thrive with mainstream audiences, most 2-D side scrollers have fallen out of the spotlight. “Guacamelee,” an action platformer released for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita, makes countless allusions to the past glory of the genre, but the game does not coast on nostalgia alone. Instead, it employs a charming art style and addicting gameplay to deliver a nostalgic yet thoroughly modern adventure.
Though many stories begin in media res, “Guacamelee” starts at the end. Juan, a lowly agave farmer, leads a normal life in his rural home — until a sombrero-wearing skeleton, Carlos Calaca, runs off with the woman of Juan’s dreams and kills the farmer as he attempts to thwart Calaca. This setback is only the beginning of Juan’s journey. Thrown into the spirit world, Juan dons a wrestling mask and returns to the land of the living as a luchador eager to reunite with his love.
“Guacamelee’s” absurd setup merely hints at what players will come across during Juan’s journey. Carlos Calaca’s lackeys impede Juan every step of the way as he explores deserts, thriving pueblos and more. From a pistol-wielding man whose head is eternally engulfed in flames to a scorned lover, the cast of characters delights with their amusing dialogue and distinct personalities.
The bright palette complements these colorful personalities with gorgeous locales. Warmer colors dominate the real world and cooler hues comprise the land of the dead. There’s a purely aesthetic incentive to exploring the world, and “Guacamelee” creates a wonderful loop of pushing you one area further to see what developer Drinkbox Studios has built.
Players explore this exciting world using the staples of the genre with a twist that offers a refreshing side-scroller experience. Juan amasses new wrestler-related abilities that allow him to destroy certain colored obstacles and unlock new areas to explore. Collectibles hidden in every nook and cranny unlock more health and power, and Juan is even fortunate enough to be able to change form into a chicken.
While certainly inspired by classic side-scrolling franchises, the skills and combat so perfectly suit Juan that Drinkbox’s attention to detail is apparent at every step of the way. And Juan’s ability to use portals to shift between the two planes allow for smart design choices in enemy encounters and environmental puzzles. However, occasional difficulty spikes, particularly around boss battles, impede the gameplay experience.
Much of what makes “Guacamelee” succeed is evident in its portmanteau title. The Mexican iconography and the engaging combat and exploration work in conjunction to craft an addicting, if sadly short, experience. From the title to every new locale and ability, “Guacamelee” has pure fun in mind, and when the final product is so well made, it’s difficult to stay out of the wrestling ring.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, April 11 print edition. Jonathon Dornbush is editor-in-chief. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.