Celeste - Review (Switch)
If you haven’t played Celeste yet you’re missing out because it’s one of the best 2D platformers I’ve ever played. It blew my mind that a small indie game company can put together something that contains the most creative level design, top-notch retro-inspired music tracks, and a touching story that puts triple-A game companies to shame. Developed by Matt Makes Games, who is actually a guy named Matt Thorson, and a handful of others, the game originally released back in January 2018 but already feels like a timeless classic.
Celeste is a celebration of classic SNES games I grew up playing as a kid. It takes the simple concept of Ice Climbers, the tough as nails platforming from Mega Man, and fantastic music tracks similar 16bit SNES and sega Genesis Remix beats. While it feels reminiscent, it plays likes nothing else that has come before. Yes, it may fall into the challenging platformer category, along with Super Meat Boy or N+, but it also is a game that stands apart because of its unique story, art style, and characters.
The last 2D platformer I played that left this much of an impact had to be Braid released a decade before. While Braid had a more puzzle focus, Celeste’s creative platforming level designs also led to eureka moments when you figure out how to get past a challenge. This is most showcased in the B-side and C-side levels that are unlockable and completely optional. But figuring out what you need to do and executing it is a completely different skill set.
Luckily the controls are super precise so it is up to your fast reflexes and sometimes building some muscle memory to get you from point A to point B. I played the game on the Switch with a pro controller, which probably helped a lot because letting your thumb drift slightly or not pressing the jump button at the precise time can lead to starting again from the most recent checkpoint. The dashing ability has 8 fixed directions or 45deg increments, so sometimes I would mistakenly dash to the right instead of in the upper right direction even though that was what I thought I was doing. Other than that, you have full control of your character, especially while Celeste is in the air that allows you to make adjustments while she is falling to avoid obstacles or move closer to ledges to grab onto. Grabbing the very tip of a ledge with the rest of your body dangling feels extremely satisfying like a real climber.
The game is always throwing new mechanics at you to keep each of the 8 chapters feeling fresh and exciting. Some include this blob that you can dash through that propels you forward, a reflector that bounces you off like a pinball machine, and fierce winds that you propel you forward or push against you so you can barely move without dashing.
While the gameplay is enough to sell the game, it also revolves around a unique story that will linger with you that you don’t see much in other platformers. Of course, I could go into the obvious metaphor of the mountain but other themes and real-life struggles also soon take center stage. The game also includes nicely drawn character portraits for dialogue and end of stage screens that make it easier to connect to the 2d pixel art you look at most of the time.
The optional B-side and C-side missions I mentioned is where the challenge really ramps up, and contains some of the most difficult, inventive, and rewarding platforming stages I’ve ever seen in a game. The reason it doesn’t become frustrating is not only because of the precise controls but the way the game encourages you to experiment and respects your intelligence. Its surprising to see a game not give you hits or suggest lowering a difficulty level after multiple deaths. The game keeps track of how many times you die, and even after more than a thousand you feel compelled to keep trying because you get a little further each time or figure out an easier way. The checkpoints are also placed in perfect spots so you don’t have to replay large sections to get back to where you are were dying. After you die you respawn in less than a second so you can immediately put what you learned to the test. This message sums it up the game’s approach to death, and as a full-time teacher I love this concept and I think about how I can encourage my students to learn the same way.
I can’t end without mentioning the music in the game. Emphasized in the optional B and C side missions, the soundtrack for these missions is truly stellar. Even after you die the soundtrack continues so you don’t have a lull in the music or repetition that can get dull fast. It works together with the main idea that dying is part of the process and the music reflects that perfectly.
I’ll keep this short and just say that this game is a masterpiece and I was blown away that this is an indie game and one that everyone hasn’t played yet. So if you haven’t, download it now, and let know what your death count gets up to.