Friday, May 26, 2017

More Than a 'Metroidvania': Guacamelee!

Death, taxes, and ‘Metroidvanias’ — those are the only certainties in life. It seems like every week, an indie developer releases a new game in the genre. That is not a complaint, because the Metroidvania is my absolute favorite type of game. Even a lackluster review on one will still quantify some further investigation on my part. The quality of these games can vary from brilliant to dreadful, but every now and then, we get one that does something wholly original and makes everyone else have to step up their game. Enter Guacamelee!
I intend to make this a running series of articles, but I knew going in that Guacamelee! was the one I had to start with. I think we all have those games that are so special to us that we wind up playing them at least once a year. For me, those games are Super Mario World and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but now, I can add Guacamelee! to that list, especially since it made such a masterful transition to the PlayStation Vita, which in my opinion is the best way to play the game.
But what makes Guacamelee! stand out from the other great Metroidvania games in recent years like Axiom VergeShadow ComplexAliens: Infestation, and Ori and the Blind Forest? To understand Guacamelee!, we have to understand its source material: lucha libre. Given my love of video games and who I was in a previous life, I think I am a pretty good candidate to explain this to you.

The basic plot of Guacamelee! goes like this: You control Juan, an agave farmer in love with El Presidente’s daughter. When an undead charro named Carlos Calaca attacks the small village, he kills Juan and leaves with El Presidente’s daughter, intending to use her in a sacrifice so that he can rule the worlds of both the dead and the living. Juan finds himself in the land of the dead, where a luchador named Tostada (stealing that name for my next gimmick) bestows upon him a mysterious mask, endowing him with SUPER LUCHA POWER!
Is it a silly premise? Sure it is, but what is significant is where the game takes place: Mexico. Mexico is where lucha libre wrestling originated and is still the primary type of wrestling you will find there. In the United States, professional wrestling is treated differently than it is everywhere else in the world. Here, it is entertainment. Monday Night Raw is treated no differently than any other television show you watch on a weekly basis. In Canada, professional wrestling is a tradition and wrestlers are respected as legitimate athletes. In Japan, it is treated as a sport on the same level as sumo wrestling or baseball. But in Mexico, lucha libre is practically a religion.

A great deal of lucha libre wrestlers (“luchadores”) wear masks, which hold a special significance, and matches where the loser must relinquish his mask, while common, are always treated as a very big deal. One of the greatest luchadores of all time, Rey Mysterio Jr., once lost his mask in a throwaway match in WCW, and the outrage among the Mexican community was immense. Luckily for Mysterio, it did not hinder his future WWE success.
In their native land, luchadores are looked upon as more than just wrestlers: they are superheroes. Perhaps the two most popular luchadores of all time are El Santo and Blue Demon. Both men were buried in their trademark masks, and between the two of them, there is only one occurrence of their faces being seen in public. One short year after retirement, El Santo appeared on the Mexican television show Contrapunto, where he lifted up his mask just enough to show his face, effectively saying goodbye to his fans. He died only a week after the program aired. Santo’s identity was even hidden from the other wrestlers. When traveling, he would take different flights from the normal wrestling crew so they wouldn’t see his face when he removed his mask to make his way through customs.
Their popularity went beyond the wrestling mat. Santo appeared in over 50 films, many of which saw him in the lead role and were usually named “Santo versus…” and had him facing off against some supernatural entity. There was also an El Santo comic book series that ran for 35 years, ending in 1987. The only person in American history that we could possibly compare to El Santo would be Elvis Presley, but I think even that comparison fails to capture just how huge Santo was.
Now that you have gotten that history lesson, it should be easier to understand why Guacamelee! is more than just a simple metroidvania game. It is authentic. It may be a bit stereotypical, but it is not insulting to Mexican culture or heritage, and it does right by the lucha libre community by incorporating legitimate wrestling moves and portraying its protagonist as a larger than life persona who always fights for a noble cause.
One may argue that while luchadores were portrayed as superheroes, and took their characters very seriously, they did not do anything in the real world on the same level as saving the President’s daughter the way Juan does in Guacamelee!. That is where you’d be wrong. In 2006, Jack Black starred in his magnum opus, Nacho Libre. It is the story of a cook at a Mexican monastery orphanage who becomes a luchador to help raise money to provide better food for the children he looks after.
What many do not realize is that Nacho Libre is actually based on a luchador named Sergio Gutierrez Benitez, who wrestled under the persona of Fray Tormenta (“Friar Storm”). Benitez is a former drug addict turned priest who was in dire need of money to take care of the children in the orphanage he ran. By day, he was Friar Benitez, by night, he was Fray Tormenta. He has long since retired, but is still a priest at the monastery, and actually passed on the Fray Tormenta name to a boy from the orphanage who became a luchador. While I have a tremendous amount of respect for John Cena and all the charity work he does, he is no Fray Tormenta.
When you combine the authenticity of the character with the excellent game design from Drinkbox Studios, you get perhaps the best metroidvania game since Symphony of the Night. Because Super Metroid really solidified the genre and is heralded as one of the best games ever, many of the better metroidvania games have similar sci-fi settings, like the aforementioned Axiom Verge.
Drinkbox had an idea that was completely out of left field with a setting that was atypical from the genre standard, and condensed it down to one of the most solid 5-6 hour experiences you may ever have in gaming. The feedback from your controller makes every uppercut, body slam, and suplex feel like they have real weight to them, and the controls themselves are responsive to the point that you never feel like the game is being unfair in its difficulty.
Speaking of the difficulty, Guacamelee! does what I feel more games should do. You have a main story that offers a decent challenge, one that may result in a death every so often but you know you are capable of defeating with a little more focus. The platforming sections can be a bit tricky, but much like games like Super Meat Boy, can be conquered with a little trial and error. Secret areas and challenge rooms are a different story. These can be downright cruel, but do not offer you anything required to finish the game unless you are a completionist.
Drinkbox Studios also threw in many references to meme culture, and the video games that inspired them in the creation of Guacamelee!. Some of them are so subtle that they can easily be missed. It is a big love letter to the games that old farts like me grew up playing, and they are there for no other reason than to bring a smile to your face.
I could not possibly recommend Guacamelee! any more than I already have. You do not need to be a fan of lucha libre in order to appreciate it, but perhaps reading this will help you to appreciate the game just a little bit more the next time (or the first time) you sit down to play it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Ed Boon's Best Game is Within Another Game

NetherRealm Studios, along with their fearless leader Ed Boon, have emerged as one of the premier fighting game developers with the long-running, ultra-popular Mortal Kombat series, as well as the recently released sequel to Injustice: Gods Among Us, pitting various DC Comics superheroes/villains against one another. Boon is one of the original creators of Mortal Kombat and has an established track record of producing solid games.
While I have never been a fighting game connoisseur, I have always had a special place in my heart for the Mortal Kombat series. I have many fond memories of playing the first two games on Sega Genesis, spending quality time with my brother and our friends trying everything we could to execute every single fatality and beat the game with every character. Over time though, I fell out of love with the fighting genre. It was one of those “it’s not you, it’s me” kind of partings. My departure began in 2008 with Street Fighter IV, and then the reboot of Mortal Kombat in 2011 was my own personal nail in the coffin. To me, fighting games just are not the same unless I am in a room full of friends binging on Pepsi and Pizza Hut.
The last fighting game that really sucked me in was Mortal Kombat: Deception in 2004, the follow-up to the first fully 3D Mortal Kombat game, MK: Deadly Alliance. I have probably put more time into Deception than every other Mortal Kombat game combined, without even the slightest hyperbole.

Mortal Kombat Konquest

However, the reason for this fascination was not because of the fighting mechanics. Neither was it the iconic characters, the inclusion of “Chess Kombat,” or even the Puzzle Fighter rip-off “Puzzle Kombat.” Despite the fighting being decent, that was not what kept me going. The thing that really sucked me in was “Konquest.” Konquest mode was established in MK: Deadly Alliance, though at the time it was nothing more than a series of challenges for each character to help you learn their combos and special moves. Mortal Kombat: Deception took the idea of Konquest and expanded it to the umpteenth degree.
One of the new characters added to Deception was a warrior named Shujinko. If you just jumped right into the fighting portion of the game, you would see that Shujinko is a man well advanced in age. Konquest mode on the other hand uses Shujinko as its main character, and chronicles his life from a young boy all the way up to the beginning of the Deception story in an action RPG/fighting hybrid, completely separated from the arcade portion of the game.
Shortly after his training with Bo’ Rai Cho, Shujinko encounters an otherworldly being known as Damashi, who convinces Shujinko to help him acquire six powerful items, collectively known as the “Kamidogu.” When Shujinko finally collects the sixth piece (46 years into his search), Damishi reveals himself to be none other than Onaga, the Dragon King, who manipulated Shujinko into finding the Kamidogu for him for his own malevolent purposes.

I wanted to get the story out of the way, because all things considered, story in a Mortal Kombat game is typically secondary to the actual gameplay. Shujinko is not a the most well-designed character; when Onaga reveals himself, you start to wonder why Shujinko never asked any questions and just went along with everything “Damashi” told him.
It is a weak plot, but it is also mostly there just because it needs to be. The story takes place across six different realms, each of which contains a piece of the Kamidogu. You start off in Earthrealm, and over the course of the game you travel to Netherrealm, Chaosrealm, Outworld, Orderrealm, and Edenia. Each realm has various missions and challenges, though most missions amount to nothing more than fetch quests. The challenges are typically normal fights with some sort of stipulation added. For instance, one challenge requires you to defeat Scorpion while Shujinko is bleeding, causing your health meter to be constantly depleting over the course of the fight. Other challenges include not being able to use the weapon stance, the inability to use projectiles, etc.

Mortal Kombat Cutscene Images

Unlike Konquest mode from Deadly Alliance, the updated version provided a legitimate reason to play through it. Treasure chests are scattered throughout the various realms, which contain either coins (or rather, Koins, since this is Mortal Kombat) or keys that unlock items in the crypt (or rather, the Krypt, since…well, you know). The Krypt is where you unlock new items, such as hidden characters, alternate outfits, concept art, behind-the-scenes videos, and more. Koins can be accumulated through the other modes that the game offers, but Konquest is the only place to obtain keys to certain coffins in the Krypt.
A lot of the treasure chests are in plain sight, but if you want to unlock everything in the game, it would not be a bad idea to have a guide next to you. Some chests only appear at certain times, days, or places. The most ridiculous of these are the chests to acquire series hero and primary protagonist Liu Kang, as well as his alternate outfit. Liu can only be acquired after returning to Konquest mode once again after completing it, at which point his treasure chest still only appears on Thursdays behind a tent in Edenia. His alternate outfit is even more specific, requiring you to be at coordinate H-5 of Edenia on the first day of any given month between 12:00pm and 1:00pm. Trust me, you want the alternate Liu Kang, because the “normal” Liu is a zombie. You heard right: Zombie Liu Kang is the default Liu Kang in this game. This stems from the developer’s idea to kill one of the series most beloved characters in a cutscene at the beginning of Deadly Alliance.

Luckily the game gives you the option to meditate, causing time to speed up significantly, so if you happen to miss the time frame for a certain item, you can get back to it quickly. No missions are time sensitive, meaning you will not miss out on anything should you decide to meditate for a substantial period of time, which was a good design decision considering how tedious obtaining chests can be. Despite the story not being exceptionally strong, it is still annoying to miss out on items or missions due to a time restriction in any game, which has been a prevalent mechanic in many RPGs over the years.
There were also some weird design choices in Konquest. Over the course of the adventure, Shujinko encounters certain characters who provide a tutorial. When the tutorial starts, Shujinko transforms into that character. It was done as a way to teach you the combos and special moves of the other characters in the game, though that could have been accomplished with the simple addition of a practice mode. Or conversely, you could just learn the characters the old-fashioned way: by playing the game.
Another weird design choice was locking Shujinko’s special moves in the Krypt. In order to use Shujinko’s special attacks in the arcade and versus modes, you have to find the keys in Konquest. If Deception were made today, this would almost undoubtedly have a microtransaction option attached to it.

Mortal Kombat in the PlayStation Store

The Konquest mode really hyped me up prior to release, as we were told that it would feature every Mortal Kombat character up to that point. The 37 different colors of ninjas, the really bad characters that only made it into one game like Nitara and Movado, and even Stryker was there. I hate Stryker. Everyone hates Stryker. But I was really excited to see his dumb face in the Orderrealm.
Mortal Kombat: Deception‘s Konquest mode does not do anything great, but it does everything well enough to be a solid time-waster. In 2004, there were better fighting games, better RPGs, better stories, better voice acting, practically everything Konquest did was done better by somebody else. That being said, for me it was the perfect mishmash of all things Mortal Kombat, and what resulted was one of the best things Ed Boon has ever put his name on.
Unless you count Noob Saibot.