As one of the most common genres of indie games, platformers need something special if they want to stand out. That is what initially drew me to Celeste, as I am admittedly not the biggest 2D platformer fan. This game had to be masterful with all the hype that it garnered as an indie platformer. Even though the first game I ever played and loved was Super Mario World, 2D platformers just don’t do it for me anymore. They often feel repetitive and simplistic compared to a metroidvania or adventure game with platforming elements. It’s safe to say I’ve changed my mind after playing Celeste. It does so many things right that it has reignited my interest in an entire genre of games.
Celeste is a game about climbing mountains, both physical and metaphorical. The journey is comprised of multiple chapters that have the main character, Madeline, ascending the mountain. Madeline has no reason for doing this, other than feeling like she has to. Along the way, it becomes apparent that Madeline struggles with mental health, and the story is really about her battle with herself. The mountain is magical in a way that it brings out her negative traits like self-doubt, paranoia, control, anger, anxiety, and depression and manifests them into a physical form. This manifestation is called “Part of Me” or “Badeline”. The whole game Madeline is struggling with the Badeline, as it takes every opportunity to impede her progress and sow the seeds of self-doubt in her head. Along the way Madeline meets a few new friends that help her deal with the negative “Part of Me”.
Even with its cutesy presentation, Celeste tells a powerful story. I genuinely did not expect to become so invested and impacted by Celeste, but its plot resonated heavily with me. I obviously will not spoil the final resolution of Madeline’s story, but I was very satisfied by it and I think it does an excellent job portraying the importance of mental health. Sometimes you battle with yourself, and Madeline’s ascent up the mountain was both a physical and spiritual battle. Moreover, I think Madeline feeling like she has to climb the mountain is a meta statement about the game. Sometimes people are driven just to do things for the sense of accomplishment, it makes us feel better about ourselves when we accomplish a challenging goal. For Madeline that is climbing the mountain, for the player that is completing the game.
As a kind of retro platformer, Celeste is deceptively simple. Aside from the standard movement and jumping that are essential, you only have 2 other tools in your arsenal: the dash and wall-climb. When you jump you are allotted one dash that can be used in eight directions. You cannot dash again until your feet hit the ground. The wall-climb is just what it sounds like, you can grab onto walls and either hold on or climb up them. There is a stamina meter that depletes if you hold on too long or if you climb too much. Overall, everything is simple in concept, and that is what makes Celeste so great. You can pick up the controls and get good at the basics fairly quickly, but things quickly get more interesting.
Instead of giving the player new powers or abilities, Celeste instead focuses on environmental obstacles that introduce new mechanics. There are eight main “chapters” in Celeste, each of which contains its own unique gimmicks. For example, the first chapter introduces platforms that quickly shift when you stand on them as well as gems that give you an additional dash in the air. The second chapter revolves around these “dream blocks” that you traverse by dashing through them. Celeste does not dwell too long on these gimmicks, as each stage is fairly short, playing casually you could probably complete each one in under an hour. Despite this, Celeste squeezes out every drop of potential from these mechanics.
Each chapter of the game is split up into a few dozen screens. Going from one screen to another acts as a checkpoint and will save your progress. Since the levels are divided into these short screens, it allows the designers to make for some challenging sections. Chapters are designed in such a way that they begin with a simple introduction to a mechanic and then will build on it until you can pull off some crazy platforming shenanigans. The player is given the opportunity to master each gimmick, and the levels play with remarkable fluidity. You can feel yourself getting better and more comfortable with the gameplay, and soon you will be dashing around the screen with style. The game was also built with speed-running in mind. Chapters and screens are constructed in such a way that they can be optimized and sped through. While I am not a speed-runner, I definitely did find myself getting a lot better and faster with each subsequent chapter.
When I said Celeste has eight chapters, that was kind of a lie. The main story is contained with the “A-sides”, and the player can unlock far more difficult B-sides and C-sides for each chapter. This totals 24 chapters, not to mention the collectibles to be found along the way. The way I see it, Celeste has four stages of difficulties. In order from easiest to hardest: A-sides, strawberry collectables, B-sides, and finally C-sides. The strawberries are scattered in the A-sides of each chapter. Some are hidden in nooks that require the player to be perceptive, and others are in plain sight but require more difficult platforming tricks. I really like the strawberries because I they add a lot of content to the game. They often are situated in a way that makes you think creatively of how to reach them. The strawberries genuinely feel like challenges that were designed for the main game but were made optional as to not make the game drag. They don’t feel tacked on, which is a pitfall of many other games collectable systems.
Despite Celeste being fairly challenging, it is an extremely accessible game. Since challenges are short and self-contained, I feel like everybody could at least complete the main story of the game. Nevertheless, there is a “assist mode” available to players having trouble or who just want to tone down the difficulty. You can mess with certain settings such as the game’s speed, or how much stamina you have, or how many dashes you can use while airborne. Personally, I never used this feature but I suppose it is a neat addition for people who want to experience the story without the challenge. While I think the main story is certainly beatable by everyone, the B-sides and C-sides are ruthless challenges that require much more precision, perfection, and speed.
I took a dive into the B-sides thinking I was just going to try them out, but man I got addicted. They are full length chapters akin to the A-sides, but with much more difficult screens and without strawberries. They use the same gimmicks as the A-sides did, but they are pushed to the limit and require a level of proficiency that was rarely touched in the A-sides. They are long and grueling chapters but the sense of accomplishment is immense upon completion. As for the C-sides, they are without a doubt my favorite part of the game. They are much shorter than the A-sides and B-sides, as they only contain about three screens each. But to compensate, these screens are insanely hard. The reason I love them is while they are difficult and require absolute mastery of the chapters, they are short enough that they don’t overstay their welcome. Where the B-sides dragged on a little long in some instances, the C-sides just have you conquer a few screens and to get that feeling of satisfaction.
While C-sides are short and sweet, other chapters definitely go on for too long. This is primarily and issue with the B-sides because they are so difficult so completing them can feel like an exhausting task. One hard screen after another with no obvious end in sight can be mentally draining. The A-sides do not have this issue because the steadily ramp up in difficulty throughout a chapter, this way you are not slammed with hard screens through the whole chapter. The B-sides on the other hand are essentially entirely comprised of challenges similar to the hardest screens from the A-sides. It’s not too big of a deal because you can take a break whenever you want, but still some levels just gave me that feeling of “does this ever end”. I’m looking at you, chapter 6B.
My other issue with Celeste is a certain gimmick. In chapter 3 and chapter 8 there are moving hazards that kill you when you touch them. In chapter 3 they are dust bunnies, in chapter 8 they are fire balls. These hazards move in cyclical patterns, often back and forth or in a circle, I will call these patterns “cycles”. My issue with these cycles is that they are often impossible to time without extensive trial and error. The hazards move extremely rapidly and the player’s timing needs to be fairly precise. This isn’t so different than most of the platforming in the rest of the game, so what’s the issue? Well, often times a screen is decently long and some of these hazards are off-screen at the start of a screen. When you make the first few jumps, you can reasonably time the cycles to make it through. But then you reach the 4th, 5th, 6th, etc. jumps which you could not see them at the start. You cannot take a break to line up the cycles here, as you are often mid-jump or need to quickly avoid another hazard. This leads to a situation where sometimes the cycles just don’t seem to line up. You make the first few jumps no problem, but then the hazard is completely in the way for subsequent jumps.
The reason for this is that minute differences in timing will lead to the hazard being in a different part of the cycle when you arrive. I think when the designers made these levels, they had a specific way of doing them that would result in the cycles just lining up and working out flawlessly. But for players, small differences in technique will result in different timings that just don’t work. For example, a designer may have done a Northeast dash, but the player does an East dash. As a result, the player is a little faster than the designer, and when they get to a later part of the screen it turns out they were too fast and the fireball is now directly in their path. It’s frustrating because it often feels like I didn’t even know what I was doing wrong. The fireballs and dust bunnies were always in the wrong place at the wrong time, but there was no way for me to just stop and wait for them to move. Because of this, going slightly too fast or too slow on early jumps changes the way the level works. Cycling hazards in Celeste feel like an exercise in trial and error.
The last thing I want to mention about Celeste is how it is presented. The retro-style pixelated graphics and done extremely well. Since levels become hectic and fast moving once you reach the later stages of the game, everything needs to be clearly telegraphed and visible to the player. The game has bright colors and visuals that pop and are easily distinguishable; I never died to an obstacle I did not see. The other aspect of Celeste I want to talk about is its music. You can’t talk about Celeste without talking about the music. The music perfectly matches the mood and atmosphere of each chapter. It evolves through the level to match the different tones and emotions that you should be feeling. I’ve linked one of my favorites tracks from the game below. This track is from chapter 2 which exhibits a dreamy atmosphere. It is split up into five different sections to accompany the swings in mood throughout the level. The song perfectly encapsulates numerous feelings such as tranquility, fear, and anxiety. The music of Celeste is composed beautifully and appropriately to deliver the emotions the game wants to convey.
In retrospect, the issues of Celeste are minor when compared to the rest of the game. There were only a couple that were too long, and cycling hazards only appeared in some spots of a couple of chapters. These problems do not significantly detract from the rest of the game, but they may be frustrating in the moment. Despite these problems, Celeste has ridiculously fluid platforming that pushes its mechanics to their limits. Additionally, the storytelling of Celeste will stick with me for a long time. Madeline’s struggle with Badeline is the perfect metaphor for mental health. It is for these reasons that I give Celeste a 9.5/10. Celeste captivated me in every way, and it is absolutely in contention for best 2D platformer of all time.