There aren't many bare walls in the sleepy village of Pueblucho. Prime advertising space is dominated by posters for luchadore matches - the angry Mega Hombre versus the cocky La Mascara; the match-up of the century, Bachelor Frog and Business Cat. Even the local church has a stained glass window dedicated to the valour and might of El Linko, saviour of Hyrule (however that translates into Spanish).
The numerous references in Guacamelee have the appearance of jokes. "How droll, the ‘Me Gusta’ face is advertising pears." "What laughs, they have made the Mario Bros. into bulky brawlers." "That is indeed the player character from Journey lying dead in the snow." But they're not jokes - there's no set-up, no punchline. They're just things you recognise, be they characters from a Behemoth game or a years-old owl meme – with wrestling masks on top.
This is frustrating, because developer Drinkbox Studios tries really hard to make us laugh, but the end result is a tangle of sight gags and dialogue, and the sole, thin joke is “do you recognise this piece of pop culture?”
That said, while Drinkbox Studios may not be displaying a particularly developed sense of humour in this work, it makes up for it in the ways the studio tinkers with the old-school mechanics and weathered narrative structure that form the fundamentals of this Mesoamerican adventure.
Guacamelee settles a little too comfortably into its hoary damsel-in-distress narrative - El Presidente's daughter is kidnapped by skeletal charro Carlos Calaca, and agave farmer-turned-superhuman luchadore Juan must trek across a colourful and hostile landscape to save her. The landscape, however, is populated by a cast of flamboyant characters whose energy and personality - wonderfully evoked in small animated flourishes - injects some much needed vitality into this otherwise tired plotline. From the cheery mania of otherworldly bandito Flame Face to the dithery, well-meaning Fray Ayayay, everyone Juan encounters brings some fun to this world.
A quieter strength is found in the game's mash-up of the classic Metroidvania format with a deceptively simple combat system. Juan only starts with a punch and a grapple in his repertoire, but moves and abilities are added with each Choozo statue smashed (yes that's a reference to Metroid), from simple uppercuts and slams to the ability to shift between the Lands of the Living and the Dead. The game's difficulty escalates in step with the acquisition of each new skill, so that by the final couple of levels it's not uncommon to be navigating complex platforming sequences that require the perfect execution of lengthy combos while flipping dimensions with split-second precision.
To Drinkbox's credit, this never feels unfair. The controls are fluid and respond well to sudden changes (even if they are a little clumsy when double-jumping between walls), and the learning curve is never too steep. The pacing and level design is such that there is a good amount of time and opportunity to get used to each skill before the next one becomes available. By the time Juan faces down Calaca in an absolutely infernal final boss battle, pattern recognition is key, and it’s apparent that every failure lies with the player, not the game.
The game's greatest asset, though, is its art design. Guacamelee's aesthetic combines to great effect the sharp angles of Mesoamerican visual tradition, the strong geometry and high-contrast tones of Jorge Gonzalez Camarena's mural work, and the candy colours and stereotypical imagery of Día de Muertos - a melange of Mexican art and culture that's more cartoonish than representative. Combined with animations and character models that draw as much from Disney as they do from the aforementioned influences, Guacamelee is a visually arresting piece of work, full of vividly-coloured backdrops and vibrant reimaginings of Mexican cultural artefacts. Simply put, it's drop-dead gorgeous.
So Guacamelee is ultimately a well-constructed Metroidvania with oodles of character and art design to die for. It looks great, it plays well, and while by no means a landmark, it's an accomplished little thing. But it's weird how much an in-game billboard of Insanity Wolf can pull us out of a game, remind us that it's not just there to be fun and pretty. No. It wants to be funny, too. And it's really, really bad at that.