They call it "Metroidvania" for a reason; Nearly two decades after their release, Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are still the definitive examples of the line of 2D adventure platformers their respective franchises founded. Guacamelee! is very much an ode to Metroid, and while it boasts a better understanding of the source material than most games in the genre, a homage is all it tries to be. It could have been much more.
The game's narrative is traditionally simple. Juan, an agave farmer from the strong and silent school of videogame protagonists, is spurred to action after his childhood friend/love interest (who is literally called "el presidente's daughter") is kidnapped by Calaca, a sharply-dressed skeleton intent on the usual undead shenanigans; Evil rituals, world domination, insane laughter, et al. After a brief brush with death, Juan finds himself in possession of a magical luchador mask that gives him mystical lucha libre wrestler powers. He then sets off to suplex his way through deserts, jungles, temples and an army of evil skeletons to retrieve his bogarted love and thwart Calaca's vaguely-outlined plan for ruling both the worlds of the living and the dead.
If this all sounds a bit like Videogame: The Game, that's because that's exactly what it is. Guacamelee's! unique focus on Mexican culture and myth makes for an interesting backdrop, but the game's themes and art direction play second fiddle to the meme and gaming references that litter its script and design. The references are fun and affectionate - like the "Mexican-style" billboards for other indie games dotted around the game's larger city - but when they start cropping up in the narrative they begin to undermine the game's identity. After some heavy foreshadowing, one of the boss battles ends with a mechanic ripped straight from Mario Bros. It's funny, largely because of its incongruity, but it's also an example game going for a cheap "Hey, I get that reference!" gag when it could be establishing its own world and its own jokes.
Guacamelee! is gorgeous, with a brightly-colored, angular art style that runs the gamut from modern Mexican art to the imagery of the Sergio Leone western to the complex, totemic designs of the Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs. Likewise, a number of the game's antagonists are pulled directly from Mexican myth, albeit with a humorous twist.
Guacamelee! borrows heavily from its forbearers when it comes to structure. All of the traditional Metroidvania upgrades make an appearance; the double jump, the wall jump, the shrink-to-get-through-tiny-tunnels skill. All are well-executed, and transforming into a chicken is actually more fun than Metroid's famous morph ball. More interesting, however, are the skills that serve a purpose both in combat and out of it. The rooster punch, a flaming upper cut that uses slowly regenerating blocks of stamina, is good for cracking heads and destroying red blocks, but it's also a useful mobility tool, often giving Juan just enough lift to grasp an out of reach ledge. Juan's roll ability grants him temporary invincibility, complete with a Street Fighter III-esque flash and pause when it deflects damage. It's certainly handy during combat, but Juan can also use the moment of invincibility to roll through hazards while platforming.