With so many 2D throwback 8-bit platformers these days, it’s a wonder that Celeste wasn’t buried in the shuffle of constant Steam releases and “retro games of the week.” What Celeste had in its back pocket the whole time was enough heart and charm to fill this reviewer to the brim with existential joy. It’s another 8-bit throwback, sure, but narratively it serves as an allegory for depression, technically it adopts waves of modernity for which it has been celebrated, and creatively it’s like nothing else I’ve played in the genres it so lovingly borrows from.
Upon booting up, chill vibes from an award-winning soundtrack greet you and you immediately ascend to a brand new adventure. The remains of a pre-apocalyptic society emerge as you double-jump through screens of imaginative level design. Celeste is a masterpiece for all of these reasons and more.
You play as Madeline, a young girl choosing to climb the great mountain Celeste for what turns out to be no real reason. That is to say, she has no other reason than to just do it, which is reason enough when you are as “low to the ground” as Madeline. This young lady is trying to prove to herself that she simply can, an incredibly well-realized execution of a very relatable concept.
Madeline is depressed. Depressed people climb mountains, hike canyons, and Eat, Pray, Love their way around foreign continents. Maybe we aren’t all running out in droves to climb mountains, but metaphorically we might as well be.
You will meet friendly faces and challenges along the way, as well as come face-to-face with a dark version of your own self — a formidable foe indeed.
Theo is one of the first people you meet, and he is probably the most important. The sheer amount of dialogue prepared for multiple interactions with Theo, so long as you continue to press him, impressed me. He’s always sweet, and always very gentle with Madeline. This first encounter illustrates a careful dichotomy within the game’s DNA.
The thesis of this game is as follows: dire challenge then chill hang. Letting the sweet vibes of Theo (and company) allow a break from the grind makes for a memorable experience among the clutter of your current gaming queue. Celeste is careful and deliberate.
When you’re not pondering the greater mysteries of life and one’s own self, you will be platforming… hard! This game is all about taking on “Super Meat Boy”-levels of challenge, dying, and getting back in the action at a breakneck pace. Celeste has very quick load times so that it can dash you against the rocks of expertly-crafted puzzle design again and again.
The game isn’t as difficult as Super Meat Boy and it escalates appropriately. That said, Celeste has a nice challenge scale that explodes later on in the game (especially following the main campaign). It reminded me a lot of late-game Mario levels, best represented in Celeste when you finally clear a stage or grab a coveted strawberry after trying multiple times.
Modern 8-bit gaming aesthetics will always have my heart. But, this kind of graphical presentation currently saturates the market. Even when done right, looking at the same kind of game over and over again can be exhausting. Celeste is the best example of this kind of retro-experience, but it still falls into that tired category. Then again, retro-fatigue is like all fatigue… you get over it.
Visually, each area is completely unique and gorgeous, designed to be fully functional in both gameplay and story. Each area has a look and a reason for that look. For example, the “haunted hotel” level obstacles are basically red, glowing bunches of ectoplasm. If you touch the ectoplasm you become as dead as every other thing in that haunted hotel. Thus, dodging these prickly-pears is your objective both mechanically and narratively. Neat!
If you are looking for a gaming experience that captivates your reflexes and your emotions, look no further than Celeste. It has won many well-deserved awards, and at its current price you should give it a shot. It’s a fantastic indie title with a ton of depth, and perfect for anyone playing on Nintendo Switch. If you go the Steam route you can also pick up the score which is well worth the price. Lena Raine does such an amazing job with the score, and Celeste wouldn’t be the same without it.