Celeste, the indie hit platformer from Matt Makes Games, is a lot like climbing a mountain. From its outset, it’s a gradual ascent up a hill of standard platforming, but by the end of the experience your skills are tested through hellish hair-pin jumps, wall-bounces and dashes that could single-handedly give you Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Expertly melded with catchy beats, beautiful 16-bit backdrops, and a heartwarming story about the ongoing struggles against one’s personal demons and depression, Celeste deserves its place alongside the greats in the Valhalla of platforming games.
Many platformers derive their difficulty through increasingly challenging puzzles, usually accentuated by time constraints, and the addition of enemies and spikes because what would a good platformer game be without an abundance of spikes? Celeste, building off the framework of games like Super Mario World, Ori and the Blind Forest and perhaps most notably Super Meat Boy, kicks difficulty acceleration into 12th gear, so much so that the game comes packed with an Assist Mode which can grant you invulnerability, infinite jumps and infinite stamina just to stay afloat amidst difficulty spikes (no pun intended).
Wind direction, persistent shadow doppelgangers, star blocks, springboards, alternating temperature switches and too many other gameplay advancements to count add significantly to each level of dynamic platforming. These additions test your mettle in a new way at every turn, making every consecutive level a fresh platforming experience, rather than giving you the same challenge against a new backdrop. These additions aren’t limited to the base game itself either; in the B-side levels, the difficulty equivalent of mountain climbing without a harness, new moves are introduced frequently, like wall-dash jumps, and crouch jumps. These moves are usually exclusive to speedrunners and exploiters due to their difficult execution, but here they become an integral aspect of getting from screen to screen.
But it doesn’t stop there. After completing (read: suffering) through all the B-side levels, you’re introduced to Golden Strawberries and C-side levels, the difficulty equivalent of climbing a mountain without a harness while blindfolded. Every time you think you’ve mastered the mountain that is Celeste, a higher peak reaches out in the distance, beckoning hardcore players and masochists alike to keep climbing. While this kind of difficulty acceleration can be seen in games like Super Meat Boy and Hollow Knight, Celeste stands out in its incremental addition of dynamic platforming, that only kicks your ass when you’re cocky enough to think you can handle it.
But seemingly-impossible platformers are a dime-a-dozen in the indie community, so why should you be emotionally invested in that challenge when your character has less visible facial features than Mario did in 1985? Because Celeste has something important to say, and you need to hear it, so, beware of SPOILERS from this point on.
Madeline, the player character, has decided against her better judgment to climb Celeste Mountain. She’s not sure why, and the history leading up to her decision is never concretely explained, but she knows she must do it, even if part of her is afraid she can’t. Along the way, this nagging, negative voice at the back of her head takes physical form, breaks out of a mirror, and urges her to stop her foolish quest before chasing after her. Later, during a moment of respite from her aggressive mirror-image, recurring NPC and new friend Theo compares headstrong Madeline and her actions to his sister, Alex, who suffers from depression. Theo asks Madeline to explain how that feels, and her response is extremely poignant.
“It’s like… I’m at the bottom of the ocean. I can’t see anything in any direction. It’s claustrophobic, yet I feel exposed… I remember feeling normal. But now it just feels out of reach, no matter what I try. Then again, I was probably always messed up. It just took something hurtful to bring it out. There must be something wrong with me… I guess I thought that I could… I don’t know. I’m just floating in this abyss, swimming in a random direction. Hoping that I find something. That’s really why I’m here. But I can’t escape myself. I’m literally fighting myself the entire way.”
This puts into perspective the role that Dark Madeline plays throughout the story, as the part of Madeline that is ruled by fear and self-deprecation. The remainder of the game follows Madeline as she combats this aspect of her personality, initially trying to defeat her inner demons, but ultimately coming to terms with the fact that this part of her will always be with her, and that she’ll have to learn to live alongside it. For a game that looks like it came out on GameBoy Advance, it paints a complex and accurate portrayal of depression and anxiety that is usually unseen in gaming (I’m looking at you, Dark Link!).
So, as described above, Celeste has all the ingredients to be considered a “new classic”. However, one of the game’s biggest strengths isn’t its similarity to genre-defining titles, but how Celeste’s unique style makes wall-jumping from screen to screen feel like a fresh experience.
Double jumping is pretty much a standard of platforming, to the point that we don’t question how it’s possible to defy the laws of physics, or how Olympic Gymnastics works in that context, and just appreciate the extra boost. Celeste’s spin on the double jump, the mid-air dash, brings in a dynamic level of momentum that double jumping lacks, opening avenues for precise button-commands in 8 different directions. This mechanic is at the heart of Celeste’s fast-paced experimental gameplay style, and what allows the game to alternate between moments of pure-speed and moments of meticulous platforming without Madeline ever having to touch the ground.
When it comes to story, though, platforming games usually fall on either end of the spectrum, having too much story shoe-horned in, or seemingly none at all. Celeste finds a healthy balance between harsh platforming marathons and quaint, interactable cut-scenes that add context and motivation for your agonizing climb. When you’ve lost an hour of your life trying to wall-jump off a ledge you swear is only a single pixel wide, you can’t help but put yourself in the self-doubting, yet unwavering shoes of Madeline, as you both test your mettle against the unforgiving mountain.
But if dynamic gameplay and parallel storytelling aren’t enough to convince you that Celeste stands firmly on its own two feet, look no further than the game’s surprisingly expressive pixel-style. What would seem like a hindrance when attempting to immerse the player in a story about facing their own demons, Celeste’s pixel style perfectly accentuates the tone of each level and significant moment in Madeline’s personal redemption.
From decrepit ruins to glittering peaks, each backdrop, accentuated by a masterful ambient soundtrack, sets the tone both for the difficulty of each level, and Madeline’s equivalent mental state. Also, by keeping to a simplistic style, Madeline always pops out from her surroundings, despite being a jumping, dashing blur the majority of the time. If the addition of all these unique, complimentary gameplay features doesn’t reserve Celeste a seat at the Adults Table at Platforming Thanksgiving, I don’t know what will.
Though it sounds like a flawless game, I can admit that the staggering difficulty, even with Assist Mode, is discouraging for most players, but so is climbing a mountain. It’s difficult, often lethal, and can bring out the worst parts of you that you never wanted to acknowledge. But that doesn’t mean that, when you finally reach the summit, the 10,000+ attempts it took you to get there weren’t worth every second and penny spent.