Before you read
If you’ve been on this website before, then you are most likely aware then I’m very familiar with the platforming genre. That also goes for ”pixel-perfect” platformers, which Celeste essentially is. My way of reviewing a game mostly comes down to the gameplay, but Celeste is one of those special cases where I will also talk about the theme which I will put in a spoiler tag just in case. Before I started writing this review, I’ve beaten the entire game on normal difficulty without assist mode, as well as most of the optional B-side levels, but I enabled assist mode for the very final chapter (you know which one) and the C-side levels. I only did so because I wanted to have seen the entire game before I made this review, and I’m a person that lets frustration easily affect his opinion on a game overall. The game has been played on Steam.
I’ve picked five songs for you to listen to. They’re mostly random/B-side remixes as a lot of songs are good, but most are better due to where they are played. There is one exception, which I’ve marked as a spoiler.
It’s the 23rd review since my new writing style! What’s so special about the number 23? Nothing really. No really, there’s nothing special about that number. One of my best friends just came up to me and said ”Hey, my birthday is on the 23rd, make a review for me” and I jokingly went along. That is because Celeste is actually one of the birthday gifts he has given to me! And even if I wasn’t dedicating this review to him, a playthrough of this game probably wouldn’t be far off. Celeste has taken the internet by storm and has even been considered a ”Game of the Year” by many people. I was definitely intrigued because from an outsider’s perspective, Celeste looked like a good game but not that much different from what other games in the same genre have done. So let’s delve into what makes Celeste so special!
History and trivia
Celeste started life as a Game Jam project, an event I’ve covered a few times before where multiple game developers gather to create a game in only a few days. A lot of great games have come out of this event, and Celeste is no exception. The original project, now dubbed Celeste Classic, was designed for the Pico-8 fantasy video game console which was designed for speedrunning and precision. This version of the game is free for download, but it’s also hidden somewhere in Celeste itself! The game was created by studio Matt Makes Games, consisting of (as the name implies) Matt Thorson and Noel Berry, with art by Brazilian studio MiniBoss. While Noel Berry did not have any commercial releases before Celeste, he did make a few smaller games which are available on his site. Matt Thorson is more known for another indie hit, namely TowerFall Ascension. Fun fact: you can actually play as Madeline and Badeline in the Nintendo Switch release of that game. That said, Celeste doesn’t really have anything in common with that game and is instead based on some of the developers’ older games, as well as difficult 8-bit and 16-bit games and Super Mario Maker. The game went on to become a massive indie success, being nominated for several awards including Game of the Year. At the point of writing this review, Celeste has won a total of 10 awards and these probably won’t be the last either. For your fun trivia of the day, did you know that the mountain Celeste is based on actually exists? Noel Berry googled British Columbian mountains for a setting for the game, and they chose Mount Celeste as they liked the name. The real-life mountain also appears on Theo’s Instagram in-game!
A theme more realistic than you might expect
I usually don’t talk about themes- or stories when it comes to platformers and instead focus mostly on how the game plays, because in most cases a story doesn’t make- or break a platforming game. I’m making an exception for Celeste because it is one of the defining reasons as to why this game has become so special to a good amount of people. I don’t think it’s a spoiler what Celeste is about anymore, but I’ll put it in spoiler tags just in case. This spoiler won’t cover the ending or anything else, just exclusively what the theme is about and how the game handles it. It’s always for the best to discover games completely blind, and Celeste is no exception to this rule. Madeline is a girl that wants to climb a mountain for… a reason we don’t know at first. A girl, a mountain to climb; that’s the plot. We quickly learn however, that Madeline is a girl with personal struggles such as anxiety problems, and that she wants to climb the mountain not only to overcome those struggles but also because she desires a goal, a meaning in life. This is exemplified by the introduction of Badeline, who gives off the usual ”evil doppelganger” vibe but is actually the personification of Madeline’s personal struggles come to life. Madeline initially runs away from her and calls her a demon, only to later realise what Badeline represents before she eventually accepts this side of her as her own. She is helped by multiple characters but in particular another traveller called Theo, who teaches her a method to deal with panic attacks but also has some sort of ”big brother” role. The most important message this character provides is that no one is alone in this world and that there is nothing wrong with relying on others. Madeline initially was just a snarky character who felt the accomplishment of climbing a mountain was hers alone, but she later opens up to more people and accepts their advice. It is all a subjective theme since I personally never dealt with personal struggles such as depression, but Celeste handles it wonderfully and is one of the reasons for its major success.
Learn from your deaths… a lot
I’ve put myself in a tough position now haven’t I? I want to talk about the gameplay which is very complimentary of the theme, but I put the actual theme in a spoiler tag sooooo… huh. For simplicity sake, let’s just say that the main protagonist Madeline wants to get better at mountain climbing despite being inexperienced in doing so. It’s not an easy thing to do, and requires a lot of trial and error. Well what do you know, Celeste is exactly that kind of game! As the genre implies, the game is a pixel-perfect platformer which directly translates to ”one wrong move and you’re dead”. But deaths aren’t as punishing as there is a checkpoint in every room that you enter. If you fail, you can immediately try again and rooms usually don’t last longer than a few seconds if you’re able to succeed. Failure is therefore not punished harshly and you learn from your mistakes every time until you are able to get past this obstacle. It’s also balanced fairly well as the main game isn’t that difficult in my opinion. You’ll still die–a lot–but most of the difficulty comes with the completely optional collectables and post-game levels. If you decide to skip the strawberries–which is totally viable as they add literally nothing to the game except an achievement–, you probably won’t have that much trouble with the game. Even the strawberries aren’t that bad in my opinion, though some can be really nasty. And the levels don’t often allow for backtracking which annoyed me quite badly since that meant I had to replay sections though in the game’s defence, you can choose which section to start in from the level select. No, it’s the post-game levels and golden strawberries that ramp up the difficulty by quite a large margin. You’re expected to make your way through the most ridiculous hallways filled with bottomless pits- and spikes. I really didn’t enjoy these at all, but that’s because I’m not the target demographic. I actually dislike pixel-perfect platformers quite a lot, but the level designs are still very much fair. And if the game is still too difficult for you, there is an assist mode that gives you full control over how easy you want to make the game for yourself. For example, granting invincibility or infinite dashes. These do work in the post-game levels so if you’re just here for extra story or completion, that is an option. I don’t recommend assist mode as it makes the game too easy and works against the theme of the game and what it wants to be, but the option is there for people who aren’t very good at video games.
Smooth as butter
Madeline’s gameplay is actually very easy to describe as it mostly comes down to jumping- and dashing in eight directions, and wall climbing for a short duration. There really isn’t much else to her at first, but there is also a reason why Celeste is so loved by the speedrunning community. The later post-game stages actually teach you new moves that you’ve had access to for the entire game, but it was never necessary to use them in the main game. If you dash down diagonally and then jump right as you hit the ground for example, you’ll move a lot further than you would when dashing normally AND you get a free extra dash. I say this because after using a dash once, you’ll have to land on a solid platform- or on the ground to regain stamina for another dash. Dashes are therefore not abusable and the game does challenge you when it comes to wanting to use one or not. When it comes to how Madeline controls, I’d say it’s very smooth though a dash cancel could have been helpful at times. You will always go a specific amount of frames ahead so you not only have to consider when to dash, but where to dash. Other than that, Madeline’s actions are mostly based on stage-specific objects. In one stage you may find a bubble that shoots you across the entire screen until you hit a wall, while another has mechanical platforms that move the moment you touch them. The early parts of the levels do a good job introducing you to them, while the latter sections introduce more variants- and methods to use them, ending up in a beautiful string where you have to use them multiple times in a row without failing. Absolute mastery is needed for the post-game levels, but for the main levels you can afford to fail at times. I feel the level design overall is pretty good baring the ”points of no return”, especially when it comes to secrets which are hidden just good enough to not be obvious but also not a complete mystery. Only the crystal hearts collectables sometimes had me scratching my head due to what you had to do for them, though there is one in particular that’s a very fun reference to a particular retro game I may have covered not too long ago.
I think it speak volume that someone who doesn’t really enjoy pixel-perfect platformers that much still had a great time with Celeste as a whole. This is not only because the game is very forgiving and overall not that extremely difficult when just focussing on the main game and ignoring collectables, but also because of how well it compliments the theme of the game which, without spoilers, is definitely one of the high points of the game. The level design is set up very well in that regard too, as the early parts teach you everything you need to know about a stage and its stage-specific obstacles, while later on you’re tested with variants on them and longer segments. Madeline also controls very well, with the best thing being that there are a lot of hidden speedrunner moves available from the start that the game only teaches you in the post-game levels. I do wish there was a way to cancel dashes however, and the levels allowing for little backtracking is also something I’m not fond of. Regardless, Celeste is an excellent game and I’m not surprised by the amount of love it has gotten from gamers all around the world.
(disclaimer: the difficulty is based on completion of the game, which has also impacted my fun score just a bit.)
Thank you for joining me today! I tried to remain as unbiased as possible because I just really don’t like pixel-perfect platformers that much. I dislike Super Meat Boy for example, which I a beloved game by many people but not by me. I did also get frustrated by Celeste a few times, but I can acknowledge the game being fun. The same can be said about the theme which doesn’t personally affect me, but I can see how well it’s handled. I’m definitely glad I was able to give Celeste a fair shot and while it isn’t amongst my favourites, I’m glad to see how impactful it has been to many people.
Games to play if you like Celeste
- The End is Nigh – Since recommending Super Meat Boy is boring as everyone does it and I don’t like the game, have another similar game by the creator that looks just a bit more like Celeste in level progression!
- Jump King – It’s a precision platformer and you climb up high, best comparison I could make but hey, you might enjoy it!
- VVVVVV – This game also has a screen-to-screen structure with stage-specific hazards. Plays very well too!
Question of the Review
Is there a game with a theme that has hit close to home with you? A game with a love relationship similar to your own for example, or a theme of loss?