Whoa...where the hell did this game come from? Well, as it turns out, Canada.
After hearing some “Nindies” buzz about Celeste and seeing just one trailer, I became convinced that this would be a game I’d enjoy. Envisioning a fun diversion, I thought it’d make a good 2D palate cleanser after the smorgasbord of award-winning Switch content that was Zelda:BOTW and Super Mario Odyssey. You know, something light, fun, easy. I was not prepared for this.
Celeste is a startlingly impressive, deeply rewarding, tough as nails—yet masterly fun—game. This is not just an indie darling, it’s a bonafide masterpiece.
The premise of is straightforward and simple. Our heroine (defaultly named Madeline, though changing it is optional) is attempting to climb a mountain in BC, Canada: the titular peak, Mount Celeste. The core 2D platforming gameplay offers limited tools for achieving this goal. Madeline can jump, climb for a limited time, and dash in a single short burst—that last technique giving you a versatile mid-air boost.
As the game ramps up, the combination of jumps, dashes, climbing, and wall-jumps makes for compelling action. Environmental additions like springboxes, dash-replenishing crystals, bouncy clouds, bubbles that propel you forward, etc. add more variety as the game’s jump puzzles get increasing challenging and deviously complex. The difficulty escalates quickly.
While on the surface, it’s clear that Celeste is a 2D platformer with a 16-bit art style, it might not be clear just how difficult the game actually is. I would call this “precision platforming” gameplay, requiring perfect control, split-second timing, and quick restarts (as deaths are fast and frequent). It’s legitimately hard, I assure you. Completing a level feels like a true accomplishment, a perfect analogy to the mountain Madeline is climbing in-game. The struggle is real, folks.
But if the main game isn’t difficult enough for you, you can try collecting the many strawberries hidden throughout the environment. An in-game message actually tells you that strawberries are good for “impressing your friends and nothing else”. Like so much else in life… If that’s not enough, you can also unlock crushingly difficult “B-Side” versions of each level.
It’s worth noting that the designers included an “Assist Mode” that players can freely turn on and off, adjusting the game at any time to make it less difficult. As clearly communicated however, this game is supposed to be hard, so they recommend only using this if you’re completely new to action games or really stuck. It seems like a nice way to allow a much wider audience to experience Celeste than would otherwise have been possible. So while there will surely be some asshole nerd gatekeeper-types out there forever decrying the inclusion of tools of inclusion, I think it is a decidedly good thing.
So the game is very challenging and this difficulty reinforces the mountain climbing theme, but that’s only where the artistry of Celeste begins. Unlike other precision platformers that Celeste will often get compared to—Super Meat Boy, I’m looking at you—this game tells an actual story with genuinely endearing characters.
The story, by the way, is incredible. I actually don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll be brief. Of all the elements that make Celeste a instant classic, the story is the most surprising. This might be the first game I’ve ever played with a compelling and nuanced portrayal of someone coping with mental illness. The game’s small cast of characters are charming and shockingly relatable as well—and no, I’m not just saying that because there’s a Seattle hipster in the cast. I was legitimately moved by the human struggle conveyed here through pixel art and a melodic piano-based soundtrack.
Oh wait, and oh my God—the SOUNDTRACK!
The Celeste soundtrack by composer (and fellow Seattleite) Lena Raine is nothing short of amazing! I really cannot overstate how good this game music is, and it’s a large part of how Celeste creates its incredible sense of atmosphere. It can be lonely up on that mountain, and you can feel the sober isolation every step of the way. Beyond the main score, Celeste also contains remixed “B-Side” tracks from the likes of Maxo and 2 Mello. These too are stellar, well worth a listen. As soon as I completed the game’s story, I immediately bought the soundtrack (and B-Sides) on bandcamp. Seriously, it’s that good.
Finally, the designers also included a low-res, 8-bit, arcade version of Celeste hidden within Celeste. Made with the PICO-8 fantasy console, this was apparently the original version of the game, made in four days for game jam. (You can even still play it free online today.) It’s such a small thing, but the inclusion of the PICO-8 Celeste really scored big points with me personally.
So yeah, Celeste blew my expectations out of the water. I strongly recommend getting ahold of this game and giving a try. If you enjoy 2D platformers in the slightest then you will not be disappointed.