Review: Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition

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I was not real pleased with the original Guacamelee, I’ll tell you that right now. What started off as a comical romp through a technicolor fantasy Mexico turned to acute frustration about halfway in. Too many aspects of the game left a bitter taste, like the complex fights and the punishing platforming and the secrets that weren’t even clear on if they were obtainable or not. It was enough to ruin the game for me, and almost enough for me to ignore this edition of it. Thank goodness it didn’t though, because the Super Turbo Championship Edition addresses my complaints so cleverly and so completely that it has rocketed up to one of my favorite platformers on Steam.

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Juan is but a poor agave farmer on the outskirts of tiny Pueblucho, a town made notable by the sudden appearance of the skeletal Calaca. Señor Skelebones makes off with el Presidente’s daughter for a diabolical ritual, and Juan is felled trying to save his old flame. Luckily for him the worlds of the living and the dead are crossing at weird angles, granting him the divine power of the luchadores and another shot at life. On the trail of Calaca, Juan will discover a world of colorful landscapes and zany characters including Tostada the ghost luchadora, Uay Chivo the goat master, Flame Face the disgraced gunslinger, and even the devil himself. Oh, and there might also be a few hundred skeletons to beat up and items to find, too.

Guacamelee is a metroidvania in the modern mold of Outland and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, one with wide-open levels and very obvious gating. As you progress through the game you’ll earn new moves like headbutts and uppercuts that  can destroy certain colors of blocks, allowing you to revisit previous areas and crack open their delicious secrets. Powers aren’t just limited to combat moves either, because you’ll score some obvious ones like double-jumping and wall-running and less obvious ones like turning into a chicken. Guacamelee also has the novel power to flip between two worlds (remember, the original Guacamelee dated from when this was still novel) and give you access to different platforms to scale and different enemies to suplex.

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That last power is a pretty good example of what you’ll face in your spirited romp. When you first gain it you’ll use it to phase walls out of your way or make platforms up to new areas appear. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with it you’ll have to flip dimensions mid-jump to cross some hazards. And by the end of the game you’ll be using it in conjunction with your mobility powers to run up one wall, phase through it, run up a second wall, phase through spikes, launch off the top and phase through six more pillars in your way. The movement and controls in Guacamelee are incredibly smooth and responsive, but they need to be to keep up with the borderline-absurd challenges you’ll have to overcome with them.

You’ll be facing just as much resistance on the combat side of the game as well. Guacamelee is designed as a brawler, complete with combination attacks, grabs, launchers, air combos, and specials to mix into the, well, melee. Once you get the hang of it you can body slam a skeleton, boot him into his pals, falcon punch them into a flying uppercut and headbutt them into oblivion. You won’t need to do that, thankfully, but the controls make it easy enough to string attacks together into delicious smoothies of pain. What you will need to do is break colored shields with the corresponding powers, or wear down shields with repeated attacks, or shift dimensions to attack shadow enemies, or pound down exploding foes before they blow up the screen. Despite all of your neat moves the battles will still find ways to limit your options and kill you if you slip up at an inopportune time.

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These two points, the complex combat and punishing platforming, were what put me off the original Guacamelee. Apparently the developers heard that from a lot of people, so they set about fixing it in this version. They smartly toned down a bunch of the platforming so that, while still difficult, it’s not quite as maddening as it was before. The combat, though, they fixed in an absolutely brilliant way. Rather than change the encounters or challenges, they added a new system called INTENSO over the whole thing. When your INTENSO meter is full enough you can transform, making your attacks stronger, faster, and able to punch through shields no matter the color. Plus you can upgrade INTENSO to last longer and regenerate health, and you can turn it on and off at will as long as you’re above the minimum. It’s an entirely optional system that’s a ton of fun to use, and lets you blow clean through any battle that’s giving you trouble.

I mentioned upgrades, and there are more than enough to keep even the most jaded metroidvaniahead busy here. You’ve got the common extensions to your health, stamina, and INTENSO meters, found in pieces in chests or from doing hilarious sidequests for residents. Then there are chests containing the game’s two currencies, coins for buying basic upgrades to your moves and silver for buying costumes with dramatic passive effects. If you are particularly daring you can also seek out the five gateways to Chac Mool, a secret realm that hides the key to the game’s good ending (which you will probably want, it’s very sweet). This will require overcoming five very different challenges that will push your mastery of the game to its limits, though. They’re clever in their designs and I enjoyed conquering them for the most part, but they are the kind of obstacles that can have you pulling hair.

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Guacamelee isn’t for the faint of heart, even with the upgrades of the Super Turbo Championship Edition. It’s not mean-spirited like Ori or foreboding like Hollow Knight but it expects you to master its mechanics to a level that most games don’t. It does it with a smile, though, between the hilarious dialog and the zany characters and the cartoonish battles. The bright, bold, papered art style is absolutely perfect for the game, and the upbeat soundtrack will keep your blood pumping as you pound skeletons. I might not have appreciated it before but I adore it now, and I would put Guacamelee near the top of any platformer list just on fun factor alone.

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