Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Review - Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition (Xbox 360)

¡Ay caramba!

As many of you who read this site will know, the so-called Metroidvania sub-genre is one of my favourite types of game. 2D platformers are my passion and have always appealed to me a million times more than even the best 3D offerings (Mario 64 I'm looking at you). So any new game laying claim to the Metroidvania tag is always going to be a cause of much excitement. It was this excitement that got me playing the original version of Guacamelee! on the PS3 last year. It was a beautiful homage to classic SNES game Super Metroid (even containing many unsubtle nods to its source of inspiration) that added a welcome sense of humour to proceedings. Unfortunately, I was never able to beat the game and frustration led me away and, I'm embarrassed to say, I completely forgot about it. Well, I can now right that wrong as Guacamelee! is back in a new and improved 'Super Turbo Championship Edition' (Capcom would be proud of that title!) which adds new content and mechanics and irons out many of the issues of the original version.

Guacamelee! tells the tale of a Mexican farmer and failed wrestler named Juan and the beautiful daughter of El Presidente whom he loves. When she is kidnapped by the evil undead Carlos Calaca, he immediately runs to her aid, only to be struck down and killed instantly. Thankfully our hero awakens in the dead realm and finds a magical luchador mask that grants him mad fighting skillz that will help him in the fight to save his beloved. This simple videogame cliche is all you need to know before you set off on a huge non-linear path through a 2D world inspired by Mexican folklore. It is a breath of fresh air in a genre usually consisting of alien filled space stations, gothic castles brimming with werewolves and mutants, or sickening anime worlds containing goggle-eyed girls in bunny outfits.

The gorgeous cartoon visuals are a treat for the eyes and really bring the world to life, the backgrounds are varied and full of detail and the characters are well drawn and animated. In short, Guacamelee! is one of the best looking 2D games I've seen - seriously, just take a gander at these screenshots and tell me you don't agree! Likewise, the audio is outstanding, with truly splendid Spanish music that will bring a goofy grin to your face and stick in your head for days. The only downside is a complete lack of voiceover artists for the dialogue, but it doesn't detract from the experience (but it would have been nice all the same).

As a Metroidvania game, you probably know what to expect, right? A large 2D world filled with different areas all connected by various doors or portals? Check. Abilities that must be obtained in order for you to reach a new area, usually hidden in hard to reach places or obtained by defeating a boss? Check? It even uses the standard powerups seen a thousand times before; double jumping, wall jumping and crushing through breakable walls or floors. This lack of originality matters not one iota, however, as it pulls it off with such skill, confidence and self-mocking, that the familiarity is part of the joke. The level design is superb and the difficulty curve is set just right, with this new version adding several new areas to explore and doing away with some of the insanely annoying parts of the non-STCE edition (thank you!), providing a far more enjoyable experience than the rather short and frustrating original. 

There is a heavy focus on combat in Guacamelee! with Juan's undead alter-ego able to pull off a flurry of blows, propelling enemies into the air for further pummeling, or grabbing hold of them and administering a punishing suplex or piledriver. There are a lot of moves to content with, most of which are earned during the course of your adventure, and are necessary to navigate tricky platforming sections. You will soon find yourself double jumping, then performing mid air dash moves and uppercuts in order to traverse pits and spikes. It seems like a tall order, but the moves are introduced and explained at a natural pace and are a breeze to pull off. Indeed, spectators will think you have the skills of a gaming god as they witness you bounce from wall to wall, jumping and dashing through the air, narrowly missing buzzsaws and rising lava. It gets pretty hairy later on in the game, but by this stage you should be able to cope with the air acrobatics required to pass each screen.

Your moves can be upgraded at the many check / save points throughout the world using the coinage collected by killing enemies. Costumes can also be purchased using special silver coins, which range from the amusing to the downright ridiculous (chicken suit anyone?), and which grant boosts to your power or health (sometimes at the expense of other other attributes). And, naturally, this wouldn't be a proper Metroidvania without a plethora of hidden collectibles littering the vast 2D landscape. These come in the form of breakable chests, either containing large sums of cash, or pieces of heart of skull fragments - three of which make a whole one and grant an increase to your health bar (the heart) or stamina (the skull).

As if all these moves weren't enough to content with, there is also the small matter of switching between the dead and living worlds. Originally only allowed via portals, STCE soon grants the player the power to flick between them with the tap of a button. Switching between these two dimensions not only changes the background and music of an area but also the layout. Some platforms and walls can only be seen in one of the realms, requiring a switch in order to land on the otherwise transparent surface in question. This leads not only to new avenues of exploration but also to even trickier sections of Super Meat Boy-esque platforming schenanigans. Now you not only have to use your combat moves, but also must switch realms on the fly in order to create platforms or remove hazards as you leap through the air. This is where those of lesser skills will find life really tough, but it never gets overwhelmingly difficult, it will just require some practice. 

The two areas new to this edition are fantastic, with the canal section being a personal favourite, but the volcano towards the end of the game is also surprisingly enjoyable (I have an inbuilt dislike for lava based levels in platform games). The layouts of certain sections have been tweaked and the bosses have also been switched around and improved - that awful Juguar boss encounter is no longer the hair pulling fuck-fest it once was - with the newly added skeleton trio boss providing an exciting extra challenge to overcome. Another welcome addition is the excellent INTENSO mode (capitals mandatory) that can be triggered once a meter is filled by defeating enemies. This sends Juan into a temporary fiery rage, capable of dishing out serious punishment and is extremely satisfying to unleash upon the hordes. There are several other additions that are best discovered for yourself - needless to say, fans of Super Metroid will find themselves chucking at the acquisition of a new ability for Juan's small chicken form. 

Where Guacamelee! really stands out and wins your heart is in its playful sense of humour. Nothing is taken seriously here, yet it still manages to immerse you in its world, something many 'comedy' games fail to do. From the undead villagers bemoaning their plight (complete with short and silly side quests), the large chickens that pretend that they are nothing out of the ordinary, the flame headed assassin with a drinking problem, the amusing costumes you can purchase, to the goat who transforms into a man each time to gain a new ability (by smashing a Super Metroid-esque statue no less), Guacamelee! is extremely light hearted and fun, keeping a smile on your face even when the game is testing your patience with pixel perfect jumping sections filled with spikes and bottomless pits. Sure, the game can be annoying at times, but the red mist generally stays out of the picture thanks to regular save points and, more importantly, the feeling of empowerment and satisfaction you get when pulling off a slick combo of moves in the air in order to reach the next platform.

Sure, there are a few issues which dampened my enjoyment of the game. Firstly there are bugs. Annoying, almost game breaking bugs. One such glitch results in you not being granted one of the games essential abilities. Thankfully the solution to this is on Drinkbox's website, but it breaks the flow of the game and requires lengthy backtracking. Other bugs are so severe they require a complete restart, something unacceptable in a game you have paid £12 for and spent several hours playing. It's a shame these bugs weren't eliminated before release, but my encounters with them only bugged me (excuse the pun), rather than wrecked the experience. If I were to be really picky I would mention the fact that a lot of the game is spent simply moving onto a screen, whereby the walls close and you have to battle a number of spawning enemies before you are allowed to continue. Plus, it will frustrate you unless your platform skills are at the top of their game! Be warned. But this grumbling need not put you off purchasing Guacamelee! as it's so good it can survive these minor blips.

Basically, if you enjoy 2D platform games and especially those featuring the exploration and progression elements found in Metroidvania titles, then you simply must play Guacamelee! While all versions of the game are worthy of your time, this new STCE is the definitive version and by far the most enjoyable, so if you own an Xbox 360 or Xbox One then go grab this great game as soon as possible, even if you own the original version on PC, PS3 or Vita. You won't regret it! Now if you will excuse me, I am off to start a new game in the newly unlocked 'Hard mode'. ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!

Title : Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition
Developer : Drinkbox
Year : 2014
System : Xbox 360
Also on : Xbox One, PS4
(non-STCE version on Vita, PS3, PC)
Price : £11.99
Genre : 2D Platformer, Metroidvania

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