It was a long year. When reflecting on the best games I played in 2018, I could not believe that Celeste released in the prior 12 months. Granted, the game’s release fell in January, but that is beside the point.
2018 also signified a return to the love of video games, with an increasing amount of time spent using my Nintendo Switch.
While getting easy access to quality content in the Nintendo eShop is but a distant memory, even a year ago, you could still find some surprises if you logged in over a weekend. Celeste was one of those surprises for me.
The Masocore Platformer
While it may not look like it from the screenshots, Celeste is a brutally difficult platformer akin to something like Super Meat Boy. The player is thrust into many small screens with instant death around every corner. Navigating the game’s world requires precision platforming through these interconnected screens, with some interesting twists to differentiate.
As the primary objective is to scale a mountain, the main character, Madeline, can grab and climb up ad down many surfaces as an integral part of the platforming. Hold on for too long and her stamina will run out. The other core to movement is an air dash of sorts, which the player gets to use once for every jump they make (under normal circumstances). This allows for a boost in any direction.
There are some really cool tricks you can employ with these mechanics that the game never explicitly teaches you as well. These tricks are only truly required for completing some of the game’s ore difficult, optional content.
Celeste has a perfect difficulty system
There is more and more discussion around the inclusivity of game experiences to all players. A lot of this funnels around really hard games like the Dark Souls series and around accessibility options. There are people in both camps with this argument. Some argue that creating an “easy” mode cheapens victory on these hardcore games. Others argue that some players physically cannot play games like Dark Souls, due to medical conditions.
While I am firmly in the second camp, I think Celeste absolutely nails difficulty and accessibility options.
While it may not solve for every conceivable medical condition or game accessibility guideline, the developers have certainly given some thought with a few different options for play in an “Assist Mode.”
This lowers the barrier to entry for players who might have more difficulty reacting to some of the more rapid-fire platform challenges.
Strawberries, B-Sides, Hearts, and the final area
Where I think Celeste truly sticks out from a difficult perspective is with the inclusion of strawberries, B-sides, hearts, and a secret final area (no spoilers beyond that!) as optional elements. These are normally in more difficult to reach our more challenging rooms in the game.
Importantly, strawberries, B-side tapes, and hearts are all collectibles that the player can choose to find and/or collect or they can be ignored. Rather than arbitrary easy, medium, or hard levels, the player can determine how many of these secrets they want to collect. In this way, the game has a near constant difficulty slider that is adjusted at the player’s discretion.
As someone who just completed Kingdom Hearts 3 on the arbitrarily chosen “Normal” mode, I never died once and wished I could have gone back and selected “Proud” mode from the start. Alternatively, while banging my head against a boss in Dark Souls, I need to “git gud” or stop playing altogether. In Celeste, I choose when and how I want to make the game difficult for myself.
Celeste vs Night in the Woods
While the gameplay immediately appealed to my personal preferences, it was the OTHER stuff that truly stuck with me.
At the time of Celeste‘s release, I had just finished playing through Night in the Woods, a critically lauded game that I just did not understand. This title felt like a visual novel that decided it needed game mechanics halfway through development. I did not relate to the writing or the plight of the various denizens of that game’s Possum Springs.
What I appreciate about Celeste–and again, this is from the eye of one beholder–is that it explores similar concepts to Night in the Woods, like mental illness and self care, but builds these concepts around solid game mechanics.
Without spoiling the story, Madeline’s scaling of the Celeste mountain is more figurative than it is literal. Madeline must come to grips with her anxiety, which is explored in very interesting narrative and game loops. By the end of the game, I felt exhausted for Madeline as well as emotionally moved.
Celeste is the complete package
I’ve spent all of this time gushing about how unexpected and lovely this game is, but this is truly how I feel. This game came out of nowhere and surprised me with its complete package.
The game’s old-school visual style is wonderful, and the soundtrack is among the best I have heard in some years, but that is not the point. Celeste is a harrowing, constantly surprising journey up a mountain, and I think players of all skill levels should make the climb.