Keeping Score: Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition

This is Keeping Score, a series about games and their soundtracks. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Guacamelee! is a game that immediately appealed. It is a platformer of the type that has unfortunately been labeled “metroidvania“, referencing the Metroid and Castlevania series of games. I have tried to find a name for this sub-genre that is not dependent on knowledge of other games, opting for “exploration platformer” in the past, but that moniker that does not capture some very specific connotations that come with “metroidvania”: a freely explorable world in which players gradually find new abilities that can circumvent barriers that previously blocked off access to other areas. You know, like those Metroid and Castlevania games. Sigh.

I generally enjoy these types of games, but Guacamelee! stands out from the crowd. For starters, it’s about luchadores. For those who do not know, luchadores are Mexican professional wrestlers, famous for their colorful masks and acrobatic wrestling moves. Juan, the protagonist of Guacamelee!, must master the mystical moves of the luchador in order to stop undead tyrant Calaca from merging the world of the living and the world of the dead, with dire consequences for both. I am on board for this. There might even be some mariachi trumpets.

I admit, I had some worries about cultural appropriation. Guacamelee! is made by Drinkbox Studios, a predominantly white team based in Toronto. Which is not particularly close to Mexico. Only later, while searching through links for this post, did I learn that the idea for the Mexican theme came from the animator on the team, who is Mexican, and who gradually convinced the rest of the team of the rich potential of the idea. In my ignorance, I feared I would find a game that naively reached for culture and folklore inspirations with no thought for their origins and traditions, and what they still mean to many people. Fortunately this is not the case. Guacamelee! revels in its theme, throwing folklore creatures, the souls of the dead, otherworldly spirits, and (of course) wrestling together with joyous abandon. Guacamelee! is often silly, full of characters who could easily have become caricatures played for cheap laughs, but it’s written with such heart that they never do. That’s not to say there aren’t problems with the writing — more on that later — but the developers’ genuine love for what they were making shines through.

It’s evident just from the post-release support that Guacamelee! received. As usual, I’m late to the party, arriving after the sequel is already out. A side effect of this is that there are a confusing array of editions of the original Guacamelee! available. After release the game received two DLC packs, which added new character costumes and a new area full of challenge stages. Then came the Gold edition, which bundled together the DLCs and added some more stuff. Finally came the Super Turbo Championship Edition, which is the version I played. This is apparently a much bigger rework of the game, adding several new areas and bosses, tweaking nearly every aspect of the controls and encounters, incorporating the DLC more naturally, and adding a new “Intenso” combat mode. That’s dedication.

Having never played the original versions, I’m not in a position to say how different the Super Turbo Championship Edition is. But it does feel fantastic to play. Controlling Juan always feels natural, from the simple running and jumping of the early moments, to the later parts when I was unleashing an arsenal of advanced luchador attacks. I used a gamepad, because the sheer number of buttons would be difficult to manage with a keyboard, but the control options are generous for those who prefer key-based inputs. As it is, every single button on the gamepad is utilized, although I remapped the button that brought up the main menu so I could have a button for screenshots (the Esc key on the keyboard was fine enough for menu needs, since it’s rarely needed in the thick of the action). Even the “stick buttons” are used, for the Intenso combat system that was added with the Super Turbo Championship edition, which meant I ran into similar problems with my third-party pad that I encountered when playing Floor Kids. As with that game, I used x360ce to get my pad recognized by the game, and to get the stick buttons to work in Guacamelee! I just remapped them to stick directions, since I used the directional pad (not the sticks) for movement. Fortunately the stick buttons are only ever used in tandem, so a single stick can still be used for movement if players prefer. Or, of course, players could simply use a modern gamepad that actually supports the functionality, instead of my ancient third-party model. Whatever you please.

I was curious, before I started playing, how luchador moves would work in a platformer game. Such games tend to feature strikes — punches and kicks — rather than grappling moves or body slams. Juan definitely throws some punches, but I was pleased to find the more theatrical wrestling moves present and correct. Stunned enemies can be grabbed and thrown at their brethren, or subjected to suplexes, piledrivers, or other huge slams. These moves do lots of damage and are great for groups since the slammed or thrown enemy can crash into others. They’re also a lot of fun to pull off, since they combine buttons and directional inputs in a logical manner so that I always felt in control. Often, fights had the flow of a professional wrestling match: trading some quick strikes before setting up a huge slam move, complete with a dramatic pause before execution. Fights also feature some concepts borrowed from fighting games, including sets of timed combos that let skilled players chain together long series of attacks without pause. These can be tricky to pull off, and fortunately aren’t required for success except in the toughest optional challenges in the game, but a basic feel for timing is crucial. Quick attacks are easy to use, but more powerful moves are slower and will leave Juan vulnerable if not timed properly.

It’s not all fighting, though. While Juan encounters many combat rooms, finding himself trapped in an enclosed space until he can fight off several waves of attackers, he also spends a lot of time just traveling around, tussling with the occasional weak enemy along the way. In true metroidvania fashion, Juan gains new abilities during his adventure, but these brilliantly double as both combat moves and movement upgrades. A powerful uppercut, executed while airborne, becomes a double jump. A downward slam or forward dash attack function similarly. Add in some color-coded blocks than can only be smashed by the appropriate move, and the trademark nonlinear exploration of the genre flows naturally from Juan’s increasing luchador prowess. There are a plethora of optional challenge areas to find that are based solely around platforming. Usually found in side rooms (occasionally with semi-secret entrances), these areas require imaginative use of Juan’s special attacks to navigate dangerous pits, spikes, or other hazards. At the end is usually a minor reward, in the form of an increase in maximum health or stamina, or some money with which to purchase minor upgrades or alternate costumes. Unlike Juan’s new moves, these rewards are much smaller and more incremental, and I felt that besting the challenge to collect them was the real reward.

One exception to this is the Intenso system, which was added for the Super Turbo Championship edition. It acts like a supercharged berserker mode, building up as Juan battles enemies and then activated to have him charge around with increased speed and much more powerful attacks. Early on, Juan’s Intenso meter is quite short, so if it’s activated Juan expends it all in a short burst. Collect enough Intenso upgrades, however, and it’s possible to build up the Intenso meter far beyond the threshold needed to turn it on. At that point, Juan can enter and exit Intenso mode strategically without fully depleting it, which significantly changes the feel of late combat encounters. Intenso mode is a great way to turn the tide of a battle that’s going poorly, since it also allows Juan to regenerate some health, or Juan might use it to simply clear huge crowds quickly. I did feel that Intenso favored punches more than grapple moves, but by the time I was using Intenso regularly I had a full suite of powerful attacks that felt great to chain together, and I didn’t mind that the slams and throws came a little less frequently.

For most of Guacamelee! it seemed that this would be the way of things: explore, find a new move, use it to break those blocks that have been cropping up recently and find some challenge areas with small rewards. I was pleased to learn that towards the end, new abilities have a much more profound effect on the game, which I will not spoil. But they add another, unexpected layer to an already enjoyable game, making the endgame especially enjoyable. Beyond the “standard” secrets mentioned above — which can be sussed out by checking the completion percentages for different areas on the map screen (no matter Juan’s current location), something it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize — there are some secrets that are much more, well, secret. The first hints about these are relatively easy to find, but locating them all is a stiffer challenge. As someone who enjoys searching for such things, I scoured the map before proceeding to the final encounter, and am proud to have found all but one on my own. I had to look up where to find the last, and then kicked myself when I realized it was somewhere I’d already looked, but missed something obvious.

What about players who don’t want to be bothered with lots of optional challenges, and just want to get on with the story? It’s hard to say. While each incremental upgrade to health or stamina feels minor, they do add up over time, and I may well have found later sections of the game more difficult if I hadn’t gone to collect each one on the way. Even with all the upgrades, the final confrontation was tough. Plus, there is an alternate ending to be found for players who track down all of the most secret secrets (since I did this already before finishing the game, I had to watch the “bad” ending sequence from a menu afterwards). These usually involve some extra-tough challenges, which will frustrate some players. I suspect those who are not completionists would still have a good time, as long as they enjoyed an occasional challenge room (many are not even hidden). But for players who love searching for such things, Guacamelee! will be a delight. The map screen provides enough clues to prevent aimless wandering, and the best concealed secrets leave just enough of a hint that meticulous players will be able to find them. One in particular stood out as a highlight, which involved a multi-step trail of clues, each just barely distinguishable. It was immensely satisfying to find.

Even if players are having trouble finding secrets, I doubt they’ll mind retreading through Guacamelee!’s beautiful locales. These are depicted in a colorful, painterly style, with each area given its own overarching theme and palette. Backgrounds are full of detail, but clearly distinguished from the clean, sharp lines of the foreground, so there’s never any doubt as to where platforms or walls are. During his adventure, Juan will travel between the world of the living and the world of the dead, eventually learning to transfer at will. As such, there are two versions of every area, looking drastically different yet recognizable all the same. The spookier world of the dead is a visual highlight, with landscapes full of otherworldly colors and fantastical vistas.

Characters are stylized, composed of regions of solid color without outlines, a choice reminiscent of Samurai Jack. Like that show, both major and incidental characters in Guacamelee! are lent heaps of personality from their appearance alone. Add in their excellent animations, and they are nearly bursting with it. Even simple things like Juan’s exaggerated running animation are perfect; every motion he makes is over the top, fit for the theatrics of a luchador. And these animations are functional as well, coupling with tight sound design to provide clear feedback even during the most hectic situations. Juan’s special attacks feature big windups before the strikes arrive with palpable force, shown with colorful energy swirling around Juan’s body and accompanied by his own triumphant shout. This not only looks great but communicates to the player the timing needed to use each move effectively, and the distinct visual for each attack means it’s easy to see what Juan is up to even when he’s buried beneath a pile of angry skeletons. I don’t know how much the visual and audio feedback were tweaked for the Super Turbo Championship Edition, but they feel perfectly tuned, and are a big reason why the controls feel so responsive.

The only real stumbles Guacamelee! makes are in its writing. It strikes a comedic tone, but the jokes miss the mark as often as not. One gag, delivered when Juan finds his first new ability, is only mildly amusing, and loses what little charm it had when it is repeated for every other new ability found. Other jokes have jarring popular culture references that don’t make any sense in the context of the game. The story itself also suffers from some unfortunate cliches. The damsel in distress, who also happens to be Juan’s childhood sweetheart, isn’t even given a name, referred to solely as El Presidente’s Daughter. While that could be seen as a meta-commentary on the trope, it doesn’t help that the passerby Juan encounters are constantly remarking on how attractive she is. One of the villains is also portrayed as a somewhat one-dimensional cliche, this time that of Calaca’s jilted lover. Granted, none of the characters are especially complex, but as the most prominent female characters in the game, it’s unfortunate these two were so obviously typecast. Although I admit I did like the theme that even Calaca’s cronies eventually turn against him.

But, as I mentioned at the beginning, Guacamelee!’s heart comes through despite the shortcomings in the writing department. Characters are endearing, and I grew fond of them and their obsession with luchadores. And there are certainly times when the humor works, which are wonderful. Overall, my complaints are minor compared to everything Guacamelee! does right. If you have any interest in the genre, Guacamelee! is easy to recommend. You can get it from Steam, or DRM-free from GOG or Humble (note that these all sell both the Gold Edition and Super Turbo Championship Edition; I can only speak for the latter). It’s also available for PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, and Nintendo Switch. Now get out there and suplex some skeletons.

The Score:

Reader, I will tell you now: there are mariachi trumpets. They are there from the very beginning, lending their bright blares to the theme that plays over the title screen. And they grace nearly every track on the 90 minute soundtrack that was included with my copy of the game (from a bundle, I think?). The soundtrack predates the Super Turbo Championship Edition, so it lacks two tracks from one of the new areas that are sold separately, but it’s still a generous offering of excellent music. It’s composed by Peter Chapman and Rom Di Prisco, who are credited separately for different tracks. Generally speaking, Rom Di Prisco wrote tunes for the various areas in the game, while Peter Chapman scored story scenes and other non-interactive sections, but there are exceptions in both directions. The music from both composers fits together so well that I would have assumed it was all done by the same person.

Before playing, I guessed that Guacamelee! would mix some traditional Mexican instruments with modern musical styles that are more often found in game soundtracks. For the most part, this guess was correct: the majority of musical tracks in Guacamelee! would technically be classified as electronica, with prominent synthesizers and programmed beats. They also feature the percussive strumming of a nylon string guitar with an occasional flamenco flourish, and the melodic touches of mariachi trumpets. This mixture works remarkably well, and the composers manage to elicit a distinct flavor for each area in the game while keeping the traditional Mexican touch. It’s great musical accompaniment to exploring and battling skeletons, and helps Guacamelee! stand out from its peers.

I was surprised, however, to find some music that’s more faithful to traditional mariachi. For story scenes and town areas especially, the soundtrack brings in the rest of the mariachi ensemble — violins and guitarron — for some more traditional music that’s appropriate for these communal areas full of friendly folk to chat with. It also meant that many tracks are actually great fits for my slowly growing playlist of cowboy music (or should I say charro or vaquero music?), which is always a plus. I also enjoyed the juxtaposition between the acoustic ensemble in the populated towns and the electronic beats that punctuate the more dangerous places in the game.

As mentioned above, every area in Guacamelee! exists in both the land of the living and the land of the dead, with Juan eventually able to transition between the two at will. The soundtrack reflects this with two versions of the musical track for each area. Music in the world of the dead is spookier, with many musical elements sounding muffled, like they are struggling to penetrate an otherworldly mist to reach your ears. Much of this is achieved through post-processing of the original world of the living tracks, adding airy reverb and adjusting the mix, such that the tracks map onto each other and there’s no interruption when Juan switches between worlds. A simple concept, perhaps, but it does wonders for the world of the dead areas, which already have distinct, strange colors and art to make them feel alien. The high-pitched trumpets and violins cut through the sonic veil most clearly, lending the world of the dead music the feel of a dub remix without the emphatic bass. Remarkably, both versions of each track stand up to listens on their own, which is a testament to the quality of the music in general.

Overall, it’s an excellent soundtrack. If you can’t find the soundtrack bundled with the game, it’s available digitally here, with the extra tracks from the Super Turbo Championship Edition sold separately here.

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