Celeste is a remarkable feat. It takes a genre populated by abusive, borderline malicious games and makes it friendly and tender and heartfelt, all while maintaining the characteristics that make the masocore so addicting. More than that, it refines those things and makes a tremendous show in the mastery of them.
Following in the immensely successful and well-defined footsteps of Super Meat Boy and Spelunky, Celeste is another pixel art, side-scrolling platformer that demands not only precision and dexterity to beat its worlds but also blood. You’ll die dozens of times not just in a single level but on a single screen, snapping back to your last solid footing each time you touch a spike or fall into lava or get crushed by a moving block. By the time the credits roll, your deaths will be in the thousands.
Moving against the strident expansion of mechanics of this genre, it gives you a paltry offering of moves: run, jump, wall climb, and air dash. There are no weapons, no upgrades, no pickups. It is SMB levels of barebones, right down to the bandage-like floating strawberries.
Which grants all the greater credit to the level design. It continually makes the game feel fresh and invigorating, not just more challenging. Yes, it’ll ask you to do more and more difficult things, but each step along the way to the top of the mountain is bolstered by the steps behind it, not just stuffed perfunctorily into the sides. It conjures flavors of Braid at times, meshing singular experiences with a broader understanding of the world they live in.
One great example is the hotel area. Up until that stretch of challenges, you’ll often find yourself haphazardly bouncing between walls as you either bide time or simply miss a different ledge. Jazz scatting your way across the stage, basically. But in the hotel, surfaces that you touch become poisonous, making that sort of “strategy” either impossible or much, much, much more difficult.
It forces you to become a studious player, not only changing your methodology of approaching the locale but also affecting how you think about the game as a whole. Even when it is no longer a threat, your Lego Movie Master Builder vision is still trim and trained to a precision and foresight that seems to defy words. All you see is the path.
And it works because the game controls exactly as you want it to. It feels as if it gives up nothing between your fingers and the screen. The build of momentum, the crisp zip of the air dash, the pop of the launch into the air. In a genre defined by the necessity of this precision, Celeste nails it.
It’s a genre that also, unfortunately, is defined by its lack of heart. Games like Cloudberry Kingdom and There is no Pause Button are defined by their challenge, which is fine given their nascent placement along the timeline. (We were all just figuring it out back then.) But Celeste manages to fuel your ascent with a sweet and insightful story.
Madeline, the girl you’re playing as, is attempting to climb this mountain named Celeste. And with each milestone surmounted, the game takes a deep, introspective look into the character and the characters around her. It dives right into the well of depression and the grip of anxiety and the idea of a dual identity. It’s not just a story that lies atop the gameplay but one that is inextricably interwoven with it.
It contains the sort of subtle tenderness and care that developer Matt Thorson found in his previous game TowerFall. Celeste has one of the best secrets tucked away in its wings that is both absurd and incredible and just thinking about it is making me smile. This is a game that comes from a place of love and respect for itself, the player, and the legacy of those that came before it.
It also doesn’t hurt that it has some of the best music and sound design of recent memory. Celeste sounds great, looks fantastic, handles even better, and tells a story that kicks the masocore genre right in the face with its soulfulness. In fact, that just might be the best summary of the game possible. A beautiful, heartfelt kick to the face. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
+ Constantly changing itself to be fresh and new
+ Handles among the best platformers out there
+ Weaves an affecting story while beating you with its gameplay
+ Thoroughly, inescapably charming
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Celeste
Release: January 25, 2018
Developer: Matt Makes Games
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, macOS, Linux