I’ll be honest, when I saw the first screens for Celeste, I rolled my eyes. Another retro 2D pixel platformer? Don’t get me wrong, I adore the genre but there’s only so many times I’m able to go back to that well before it all starts to feel kind of the same. To say my expectations were low when the game’s logo popped up on screen is a pretty big understatement. But something happened that changed everything in a matter of minutes. Celeste managed to make me a believer during its opening tutorial while describing its simple three-button control scheme. Madeline, the main character, wasn’t just able to run, jump, or even dash; she could also climb. Being able to grab and hold onto ledges and walls, albeit for a short amount of time, was enough to suck me back into the world of hardcore 2D platformers. 20 hours later, I made another discovery: Celeste isn’t just a damn good indie 2D platformer, it’s also one of the best, challenging, and rewarding games of 2018.
Celeste is a textbook example of doing so much with so little. The gameplay mechanics don’t exactly evolve but the ingenious level design and ever-changing obstacles force you to use your limited move set in new and inventive ways. Celeste is full of surprises like this but possibly its most surprising trick is how invested I became in Madeline’s personal journey to climb the challenging Celeste Mountain. Without going too far into spoiler territory, I discovered that Celeste tells a story about depression and overcoming those personal struggles. It certainly caught me off guard, in a good way, and some of the main story beats are just as memorable as any death-defying platforming section.
Despite how brutally difficult Celeste Mountain can be, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the world’s diverse levels, charming characters, and relatable dialogue. Celeste isn’t exactly eye-catching at first glance, but look closely and you’ll find plenty of small details that ooze personality. From the gibberish voice acting to its near-perfect controls, all the way to the super secret PICO-8 Game Jam original, Celeste is a game that gets better the more you put into it, no matter how high your death counter may get at the end of each level.
Celeste doesn’t beat around the bush much. You’ll die a lot and it wants you to get used to it, real fast. As mentioned above, controlling Madeline isn’t the hard part. Using only three buttons, Celeste has you jumping, climbing, and dashing to get through a multitude of increasingly difficult platforming sections. That may sound rather simple on paper, but there’s a lot more to it that isn’t explained from the get-go. For example, you’ll discover quickly that Madeline can jump and dash only once in mid-air. She can climb too, but that only lasts for a few seconds. Finding a path from one side of the screen to the next isn’t always clear but usually, after a few failed attempts, the feeling of satisfaction and triumph from completing such a task is tough to ignore. In fact, it isn’t uncommon to reach a seemingly impossible set of jumps and wonder how in the world you will get past it. Countless times I doubted my ability, but thanks to the game’s quick respawn, dying in Celeste just became part of the learning process. Yes, Celeste is a real ass kicker of a game, but like anything that requires hard work, the payoff is totally worth it.
Just when I thought I saw everything the game had to offer, it threw me for a loop by adding new environmental actions that made me think up new strategies. Each of the eight chapters would bring something new to the table whether that was a new colour palette, music, or mechanic that shook things up. For example, the first level features platforms that move along a track and will launch you further than a standard jump would. Another chapter blows strong winds at random intervals, making your jumps harder to gauge. Other times you’ll encounter various crystals that, when collected, recharge your dash in mid-air immediately without having to land on the ground. This is where Celeste really begins to shine. Utilizing all of your abilities in conjunction with recharge crystals means Madeline should be able to travel great distances without having to touch the ground. While these areas may require lots of retries, Celeste’s forgiving checkpoint system means it’s hardly a nuisance.
It’s really quite remarkable how much mileage the dev team was able to churn out from Madeline’s dash ability. Celeste has a very Nintendo-esque quality about it in which it allows players to feel like they’ve mastered an ability only to have that belief broken down in new and unexpected ways. It takes a lot of restraint to pull that off, and because of that, Celeste feels extremely focused, tight, and elegant all at the same time.
A Mountainous Amount of Side Content
The music in Celeste is also worth talking about thanks, in large part, to its wonderful implementation. It starts quite subtle at first but as you progress further along the chapter — and higher up the mountain — the music changes form and adapts at every screen. It perfectly accompanies each new challenge and it never becomes too in-your-face or distracting. It also smartly slows down and quiets during important story elements and character interactions. Apart from its intense puzzle platforming, the music in Celeste is an excellent reason to go back and replay each of the chapters over again.
Speaking of replaying chapters, Celeste is ripe with secret paths. While there is typically one main path to follow, there are numerous invisible walls, alternate paths, and destructible objects scattered around the world of Celeste. Training one’s eye to find them will uncover even more platforming challenges or will usually lead to the game’s central collectable, the strawberry. Finding and collecting strawberries isn’t a requirement to finish the game aside from bragging rights. I didn’t get them all during my first run-through, but I can admit that the majority of my deaths came from trying to nab them. Simply touching them isn’t enough to collect them either. You’ll have to grab it and then safely bring it back without falling to your doom.
In addition to strawberries, players can find B-Side cassette tapes hidden in every chapter. These will unlock an alternate, harder version of the same chapter that will truly test the hardcore platforming masochists out there. For a rather simple looking platformer, Celeste has a surprising amount of meat on its bones. Even after completing the story, Celeste begs you to come back and take a stab at all of its secondary content. In short, there’s a lot here to keep fans busy for a long, long time.
Celeste is 2D puzzle-platforming at its most hardcore but its also sweet and charming at the same time. Sure, it’ll kick your ass repeatedly without much remorse but the impeccably smooth three-button controls and ingenious level design is what differentiates Celeste from the rest of the pack. It tells a surprisingly deep and emotional story featuring a relatable main character and it all blends uniquely together to make one of the finest gaming experience of the year. Celeste might not look it but, just like the mountain Madeline is so determined to conquer, it towers above the rest quite easily.
*** Nintendo Switch code provided by the publisher ***
- Incredible level design
- Fun and challenging platforming
- Amazing music
- Surprisingly deep and emotional story
- Lots of end-game content
- Strawberries don’t unlock anything