“Man saves the galaxy from certain doom with a big gun”. I’d like to start this review with a simple question. Honestly, how many games have you played that could be accurately described with that sentence? Swap out “galaxy” and “gun” with your favourite biome and weapon combo, and I’d bet my PS5 down payment it’s more than any self-respecting advocate of the humble video game would like to admit. Swap out “man” and you might get a couple more. But until Master Chief gets “me too’d” we’ll shelve that commentary for a rainy day.
And that’s absolutely fine, of course. There’s nothing wrong with dismembering demons with wanton abandon. When there are millions of dollars on the line, choosing the right theme for your IP is a delicate business. Treading the tight-rope between popularist demand and a scathing ooze of ravenous critics hungry for the next game to lampoon for lack of innovation must be a thankless task indeed.
Beyond the gungen
So when Canadian developers Matt Thompson and Noel Barry chose mental health as their vehicle of thematic deliverance in their 2018 pixel-platformer, curiosity was piqued. It was a decision that must not only be acknowledged but as it turns out, should be applauded.
Full disclosure -I made this review using a purchased copy, at full price. As an added tit-bit of info, I made that purchase exactly one week before it was reduced to $5. Who said Nintendo never has sales? Bastards.
White Girls Can’t Jump
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. From a game-play perspective, Celeste is very simple in both control and objective. The player takes control of “Madeline”, a driven young woman who must climb the titular mountain. It is ostensibly a platformer, with obvious inspiration drawn from 2010’s superb Super Meat Boy. Madeline can jump, cling, climb, and later, double and triple jump her way along. She inches one pixel perfect pirouette at a time steadily higher, yet higher up the mountain.
But it is in the masterful way in which forces Madeline to interact with an ever more intricate environment that lends unthinkable depth to this experience. Early game obstacles are oh so predictable. A moving platform here, a vanishing ledge there. But each screen marking our protagonist’s progression presents something new. Celeste presents something different that gives the player cause to stop, to think and plan. And then to die.
And die you will. Over, and over and over. At the point of writing, I had just finished the main story of Celeste, taking me just over 8 hours. During that time I have been impaled, crushed, brained, bashed, disintegrated, evaporated, and of course fallen to my death. 1,827 times. According to my fag packet maths, that’s roughly one death every 15 seconds. Miazaki, take note.
But even here Celeste shows Freudian self-awareness seldom encountered in even the most introspective releases. Celeste reminds us to “cherish our deaths”. To wear them as a badge of pride, honouring the journey in parity with the destination. It comes at exactly the right time, providing much needed encouragement coinciding with a difficulty spike in game. It’s spot on too. You really do make progress with each death. Finally landing the perfect jump after countless attempts feels like genuine accomplishment.
A Score Apart
Noteworthy too, is the music that guides you ever upward. It’s simply beautiful, coalescing with intricate perfection with the retro beauty of the game. It’s an 8-bit enthusiast’s wet dream, capturing seamlessly the repetitive melody of youth, with artful complexity and depth. The soundtrack notably changes as you progress further into the chapter. It culminates with alarming crescendo when the level boss final makes an appearance.
On that note (ahem), Celeste rewards the completionist still further. It rewards players with a level “B-Side” should they endeavour to crack one of a number of secrets inside the mountain. This lets you replay the level, but at a much higher difficulty. Unbelievably, the music design is effectively a remix of the score presented in the base level itself. These are optional, but on completion of enough B-sides Celeste grants end game content. Shamefacedly, this is not something I have managed to achieve at the time of writing (but I bloody will).
But that’s ok, too. The player is continually reminded that their experience of Celeste is their own. Collectable strawberries are strewn about each level present micro-challenges often harder than the level completion itself. But we are again reminded that “collecting strawberry’s unlocks nothing in game”, and should be attempted at the users discretion. Celeste even has a guided mode that allows the player to glide unaided through each level should they simply wish to enjoy the story.
It’s Time to Talk
There are myriad other secrets to find, too (an unlock-able ultra-retro find in one of the earlier levels I will leave for curious minds to discover). But more than the incredible gameplay, more than the perfect balance between failed endeavour and reward, more even than the pixel-perfect retro tribute in aesthetic and audio, the story and its portrayal are what set this game apart.
Madeline has issues. Celeste Mountain brings these issues out in stark contrast to the way even now mental health is skipped over and ignored. Or even worse, portrayed with clumsy childish cliché. Madeline has depression. Madeline has anxiety. And Madeline is terrified of herself and brought to life in spectacular literal form by the Mountain’s magic. She is, literally running from herself, opening up to NPCs along the way with brutal honesty and borderline desperation. She must conquer the mountain, and in doing so, conquer herself.
Already this would be enough, but Celeste takes this allusion to levels that would typically demand significant navel-gazing atop a leather-bound sofa in the care of a professional psychologist. I am not going to spoil this exception twist. As with mental health itself, a cure cannot be imparted on an individual. They have to come to that realisation themselves.
Simply put, an 8-bit pixel retro platform has no business delivering this message with such artful aplomb. It is unthinkable, unimaginable that the very best depiction of an illness long regarded as faux pas be so perfectly enraptured in not just a video game, but an indie one to boot. Utterly, utterly breath-taking.
You’re an idiot
Call someone an idiot for their opinion and your chances of changing their opinion are about as high as drinking bleach curing Covid-19. With the increasing popularity and critical acclaim widespread across indie developments over the current console gen, I just didn’t get it. I felt like the very industry I so adore was collectively calling me out. In other words, I felt like an idiot.
So it was with a certain amount of scepticism I came to Celeste, fairly certain I would hold out against the allure of my halcyon youth spent in innumerable 8-bit arcades. I approached each level with a determination to get through the game as fast as I could, ignoring secrets, strawberries and all other incidentals preventing me from the climatic peak. That did not last long.
Celeste simply draws you in. Its masterful story-telling urging you to sink deeper into the experience, as you climber higher towards the summit. I may have died 1,827 times, but it’s going to be a hell of a lot more before I finally, decidedly move away from one of the most enrapturing experiences I have ever had, period.
Summit all up
If you were expecting a detailed critique of how Celeste aspired, but ultimately missed the mark, then I’m afraid you’re out of luck. I have tried hard to conjure critique, prodded and poked at its every nook and cranny and I have been left wanting.
If you absolutely must have something then I’d suggest playing on a pro-controller rather than the joy-cons, the accuracy of which are as wanting as my search for real criticism. This is in stark contrast to the game itself, which runs superbly and without incident in the Switch’s handheld mode. But that’s a critique for Nintendo to ponder. To lay that at Celeste’s feet would be a bit like advising Picasso to paint with a brush, rather than a mallet.
Celeste, quite frankly is a perfect game. It’s true that it demands perfection from the player. But in return, it gives so very much. Without the story, as a pure platformer, Celeste is at least as good as Super Meat Boy. But daring to wrap that experience in a story as yet skilfully tackled in this medium, and pulling it off is utterly unimaginable. It transcends not just the platforming genre, but any game published to date. Celeste demands perfection, and perfection is what it will get.
But what do you think? Let us know below if you agree this indie gem lives up to the perfect score.
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A perfect game that dares climb where others fall
- Overall - 10/1010/10
A pixel-perfect platformer that demands perfection, and pays it back in spades. Help Madeline overcome her inner demons and conquer her greatest challenge yet, the mystical Celeste Mountain.