With Celeste, players will unearth two sorts of joys: the temporary happiness of performing miraculous platforming tricks, and the everlasting knowledge that they have just experienced a journey for the ages
Life is full of sudden and brief moments when one is overcome by the unexplainable desire to just go ahead and do something. If questioned as to why they have that urge, the majority of people will most likely fail to come up with a reasonable explanation, as it occurs in cases where will is instinctive rather than rational. Whether or not the motive can be articulated, though, the determined, the stubborn, and the ones that feel their lives will be better if they pursue a thrill – be it big or small – follow through on their quest to fulfill that craving, and it is safe to say that, more often than not, endeavors like those do lead to positive outcomes, either in the form of tiny mercurial pleasures, life-changing experiences, or results that lie in the infinite spectrum in-between those extremes.
Such a point needs to be made because Madeline, the protagonist of Celeste, must have felt one of those urges, because one day – without being able to say why or identify the real objective behind the task – she decides to climb the peak that lends its name to the game. With a coat, a backpack, and the determination of someone that feels there must be something other than snow lying on that peak, she ventures towards the mountain stepping on warnings regarding the difficulty of the route to the top and ignoring the words of caution uttered by an old lady who lives in a cabin by the foot of Celeste Mountain. Madeline is too stubborn – or strong-willed – to be held back by omens of danger and death, and – thankfully – both her and gamers who decide to join her are better off because of that decision.
For Madeline, climbing the mountain pays off because Celeste is a game wrapped by one sweet storyline. Where most platformers see plot as just a means to get an adventure rolling, Celeste is pretty committed to its tale. It is not that the storyline overtakes the gameplay. Its development is actually kept to punctual and short instants along the trail to the summit when Madeline meets and interacts with a small and likable cast of characters that either support her or get in her way (with both of those not being mutually exclusive). The weight and omnipresence of the script shows up in how the entire journey, even when one is avoiding deadly spikes and executing jumps that once seemed impossible, is underlined by a sense of self-discovery.
The further up Madeline travels, the more she understands who she is; why she is climbing a block of dirt, rock, and ice; and what are the ghosts she needs to overcome. It may sound like a whole lot of personal content to be covered by a retro-looking platformer that – true to its visual style – tells its tale through speech bubbles, a limited set of facial animations, and character voices that amount to delightful gibberish. Nevertheless, most of the beauty of Celeste stems from accomplishments that are unlikely (such as an inexperienced climber tackling a peak of the sort or the execution of moves that require absurd precision), and its storyline is not different; the game conveys a lot by showing a little, and it builds a touching plot by using the simplest of tools.
For gamers, meanwhile, the trip up Celeste Mountain is rewarding for numerous reasons: firstly, there is the opportunity to witness satisfying character growth, which is achieved via joy and despair alike; secondly, there is the chance to go through a seamless junction – rarely achieved – of platforming gameplay and meaningful story development; and, finally, there is the fact Celeste is made up of hundreds of small levels that are immaculately designed, brutally difficult without ever being overwhelmingly frustrating, and utterly filled with heart-pumping thrills and segments that require players to tackle platforming conundrums as if they were reasoning-requiring puzzles.
In the world of indie gaming, Celeste has one clear influence, and that is Super Meat Boy. Like Team Meat’s love letter to a time when games were simpler and much harder, Celeste is not afraid to turn up the dial of its difficulty level to staggering heights. At the same time, and also following on the footsteps of its greatest inspiration, it chooses to counter the possible anger that players could feel in trying to land absurdly precise jumps for the hundredth time with one simple trick: by making its levels be ridiculously short, with their full content being usually packed within one or two screens. Additionally, whenever Madeline gets herself killed, she will be returned – with eye-blinking speed – to the beginning of the stage she is trying to clear, allowing players to immediately try again without being forced to watch time-consuming animations.
Where Celeste drastically sets itself apart from Super Meat Boy is in how those levels are set up. The game is broken into seven distinct chapters, and each chapter houses a series of stages, which is pretty much the basic configuration of the genre ever since Mario first stepped on a Goomba and went on to visit various castles looking for his elusive princess. However, instead of being standalone stages, they are actually all gathered inside one overarching fully-connected map. In fact, the whole concept of levels barely exists here. Clearing a platforming segment causes Madeline to move on to yet another piece of scenery where a new challenge awaits, making – as a consequence – these maps feel like regions ripped out of a Metroid game; only, in lieu of being inhabited by enemies and environmental puzzles, each room was left to be decorated by an architect of platforming madness with a slightly sadistic demeanor.
Naturally, each chapter concerns itself with a part of the mountain. Madeline starts her journey by visiting what seems to be an abandoned industrial city on the lower level of Celeste; afterwards, she goes on to explore a haunted hotel, a sinister temple, a lush valley, and other locations. What is truly noteworthy about the game’s chapters is that the changes that happen between them are not merely aesthetic. They also occur in gameplay, with new elements, traps, and gimmicks appearing as Madeline advances through Celeste and serving as the centerpiece for each chapter; and, most surprisingly, in design as well.
For instance, while in the Forsaken City, players will be treated to a generally linear progression through the map, with one platforming section leading to the next one. Meanwhile, both the temple and the hotel force Madeline to go back and forth between rooms looking for keys to open up the way, adding a tinge of backtracking to the formula. Finally, one of the final stretches of the mountain does away with reserving a screen to each stage and packs them all up inside a wide open environment, still – fortunately – giving players room to breathe by saving their progress every time a challenge is overcome. These shifts, albeit small, further increase the differences between the pieces that make up the whole of Celeste’s adventure, therefore completely eliminating any chance that the game may get stale in the long run.
Keeping with the theme of doing a lot with a little, Madeline has a pretty strict set of abilities, and the game succeeds in creating an astounding amount of clever challenges around those skills. Other than running, jumping, and wall-jumping, the main character can hold onto walls and climb for a short while (until her stamina runs out), and perform one dash (in any of the possible eight directions) while in midair. As such, most of the constant creativity that levels present relies on the elements that they posses, and developer Matt Thorson and his team absolutely excel in that particular area.
Celeste’s levels have surfaces that cannot be touched more than once, platforms that move quickly when the character comes into contact with them or that are activated when a dash is performed, feathers that let Madeline temporarily soar through the air as an energy ball, powerful wind currents, bumpers, gems that restore her ability to dash without the need to land from the jump, walls that can be traveled through, and far more. And all these assets are used to assemble incredibly tight challenges that will have Madeline sneaking through narrow passages filled with spikes, chaining eye-popping series of dashes without touching the ground, and just generally avoiding death at all costs.
Players will most likely be incurably hooked. Celeste takes such a joy in killing Madeline over and over again that a death count is proudly displayed as a badge of honor whenever chapters are cleared, and gamers will probably witness their hero fall to her death more than one thousand times before the summit is reached. None of those stumbles, though, will keep players from trying. Firstly because there is something completely addictive about how one slowly learns to perform maneuvers that, at first glance, seemed impossible; and secondly because there is a visual splendor and satisfaction (similar to those produced by fireworks) that come with watching Madeline execute the right mad moves at lightning-fast speed.
Save for a few instances when segments bump into trial and error given new obstacles come way too quickly into the screen for reaction and thinking, Celeste never feels unfair. There are no absurd difficulty spikes, as the game slowly builds its challenge from decent to very hard. The segments are, with a dozen or so exceptions among hundreds of stages, brief enough not to make gamers feel like they have lost a huge amount of progress when dying. Finally, to those who want to make their way to the top but feel that overly challenging platformers are not their cup of tea, the game features a spectacular fine-grained assist mode where players can adjust the game’s speed, give Madeline infinite stamina or extra midair dashes, or simply make her invincible. Configurable difficulty in platformers has always been an impossibility due to how their challenge stems from the stages themselves and not from enemies, but by giving players so many options to toy with, Celeste essentially lets customers choose how hard the trek will be.
On the other end of the scale, those unsatisfied with simply reaching the summit without any kind of assist (which should take about eight hours) will have plenty to do after Madeline achieves her goal. For starters, all chapters contain a specific amount of strawberries, which are often in plain sight, that require extra platforming prowess to be acquired. Additionally, they also have a deviously hidden B-side tape that unlocks a much harder (to a hair-pulling degree) version of the original level. Furthermore, both regular chapters and their B-sides house one extremely concealed Crystal Heart each, and when four of them are acquired an extra final chapter is unlocked as a ultimate prize. At last, the bold level design of Celeste will delight daredevils of the platforming genre, who will certainly have a blast speed-running through the chapters that make up the climb.
Madeline’s choice to answer her inexplicable urge to climb Celeste Mountain, then, amounts to a massive and unexpected classic of the platformer genre. Her journey is one that matches simple yet effectively charming pixel art visuals with a spectacular soundtrack, and that pulses life into them by creating challenging levels with the precision of a craftsman and writing a storyline arch with the certainty that the message contained within will be valuable to a significant amount of people. Like all sensible lunatics that follow their wishes regardless of whether or not they can explain the reason behind those cravings, Madeline ends up unearthing joys that are both temporary and long-lasting. In the former category, there are the numerous instances when players will sit in awe at the unlikely platforming tricks they succeeded in performing; and, in the latter, there will be the everlasting knowledge, which will probably come right after the summit is touched, that they have just experienced a game for the ages.