When it comes to tight, difficult platformers, Super Meat Boy may be the most prominent example, but there are others just as worthy of the descriptor. One such game is Celeste, a full-fledged adventure from Matt Thorson (of Towerfall fame) and Noel Berry. You may be familiar with an earlier PICO-8 game of the same name, also by Thorson and Berry, and it is this version that serves as the foundation on which Celeste is built.
One common metaphor for facing life's obstacles is that of climbing a mountain. You start out at the bottom, looking up at the peak. As you begin climbing, the series of choices you make shapes the path you climb, whether good or bad. You may slip here and there, but with enough perseverance, you finally reach the peak. In this sense, everybody can relate to Celeste's main character, Madeline. Except, in Madeline's case, she's facing a literal mountain.
Celeste's story may at face value be just that—a story about mountain climbing. But just as the mountain metaphor works in real life, it also works in Celeste. The developers have craftily utilized this scenario as a tool to tell a story about overcoming obstacles and going on a journey to find yourself. This allows us, as the player, to project ourselves easily onto Madeline, whatever our problem may be. It's a very real, very human experience that gets expressed in a way the likes of which I haven't felt from a game in a very long time.
As far as the gameplay is concerned, Celeste feels very precise, as it's clearly designed to be. Throughout the game, you'll travel through over 600 screens filled with spikes, enemies, moving platforms, and much more. Each screen is in itself a small puzzle as you figure out how to effectively navigate the traps within, utilizing only a few moves throughout the entire game to do so. Much like with Super Meat Boy, you will die a lot. But each death is a learning opportunity. Making the most of these chances is essential not only to progress throughout the game, but it reinforces the main theme of overcoming your obstacles.
You can always stick to the main path, but if you're the adventurous sort, there are all kinds of secrets and collectibles. Each chapter has a number of strawberries you can pick up, though these are often placed along harder paths throughout the screens. To make these even harder to get, touching one doesn't automatically collect it. You have to get back to safety in order for the collection to register. For those who like harder levels, each chapter also contains a cassette which unlocks the "B-Side" chapter when you get it. The B-Side levels are much harder, to the point that it took me over an hour to complete just one set of them. I also found a few other secrets within, including my favorite—an in-game version of the original Celeste!
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the phenomenal aesthetic details that make up Celeste. The art style is a crisp throwback to the retro games of yore, perfectly updating the 8-bit style with a bit of color and flair. Outside of the actual gameplay, the menus are more modern, providing a slick juxtaposition with the retro style within the game proper.
As beautiful as Celeste looks, however, what really stands out to me is how it sounds. The soundtrack is top-notch throughout, blending orchestral melodies with pulsing chiptune mixes. My favorite tracks are those from the B-Side levels, specifically the song from Chapter 3. This soundtrack is certainly going towards the top of my collection so I have easy access to listen to it as much as I want.
Celeste perfectly embodies the mountain metaphor, both in story and gameplay. The difficulty of the levels seems daunting at first (except the B-Sides—those are still daunting), but as you learn and progress, you realize it wasn't as hard as you expected. There's a great satisfaction looking back on the challenging sections, realizing that despite all the hardships you went through, you were successful in making progress. It is a bit of a completionist's nightmare however, as there's a ton of extra content, some of which is absolutely brutal. Really though, the only ways you can go wrong with Celeste are to underestimate it or to avoid it completely.
Celeste is now available on PC, Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.
A copy of Celeste was provided by Matt Makes Games Inc. for the purposes of this review.