Simplicity can be a powerful thing. Take Bob Dylan’s anthemic single Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, for instance. A simple yet elegant riff that consists of a mere three chords has the power to inspire, rouse and elate. Adding more to that pure and simple triple chord progression would change the very essence of the composition, which would be a disservice to the song, and worse still: a detriment to it as a piece of art.
Keeping things simple can be profoundly impactful – and this isn’t only confined to just music, but also extends to other art forms like video games, too. Tetris, Super Mario Bros and a more modern example like Super Meat Boy, are all gameplay experiences that are successful because of their unabashed simplicity. Would I put Canadian developer Matt Makes Games’s newest hardcore platformer Celeste up there with those aforementioned classics? Well, let’s find out.
First things first, Celeste is a hand-crafted, brutally difficult, precision platformer that unsurprisingly harkens back to the old-school NES and SNES games of yore. You take on the role of Madeline, a mysterious daredevil adventurer on a personal pilgrimage to scale her way to the summit of the titular mountain, dubbed Celeste.
A handful of weird and enigmatic characters will both aid and hinder your journey to the peak of the mountaintop, but it’s the dangerous, rocky crags and bluffs that’ll prove to be your most insurmountable challenge, along with some dastardly weather conditions and a plethora of nasty spike traps thrown in for good measure. Yep, there’s a ton of spikes in this game. Ain’t that always the way.
Mechanically, Celeste is a thoughtfully designed platformer that feels incredibly lithe and tight. The controls are simplistic, though they do hide a surprising level of nuance, along with a deceptively high skill ceiling, too. There are only a couple of moves that you can execute – a jump and a dash – but the developer’s thankfully been super creative in the game’s design, and clearly thought out as many clever ways to implement your limited pool of maneuvers to make it safely through each devious level. One thing’s for sure: This is not an easy game.
Each screen acts as a self-contained level, and can last for as little as 10-20 seconds, if completed successfully on a first run (hint: that probably won’t happen). Maneuvering each miniature level successfully is where much of the game’s challenge is derived. When you bite the dust, you’re promptly sent back to the beginning of the level, à la Super Meat Boy.
The main ebb and flow of the moment-to-moment gameplay leans heavily into that age old adage: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Refining each run, and fastidiously transferring the environment’s intricate nasty ins and pesky outs to your short-term muscle memory is paramount to your ongoing success. Your ol’ platforming skills of yore will come in super handy here and will be thoroughly tested, that’s for sure.
Onto the presentation, then; Celeste looks wonderful, with a tonally fitting pixel art aesthetic complementing its back-to-basics retro-style gameplay. As you progress through the challenging campaign, there’s some welcome diversity in the environment’s wide-ranging color palettes, along with weather effects, like soaring snow and wailing wind, which really help to inject some life into your masochistic journey.
Some of the dynamic vistas in the backdrop, like sun-drenched sunsets and stormy billowing clouds, are also worthy of note, and a reason to stop, chill and gawk – which is kind of essential between some of the more devilishly difficult sections that the game throws at you. The meditative and relaxing synth/piano score is also a treat, too, but occasionally feels at odds with the savagery of some of the level’s insidious designs.
I don’t want to close out this review without mentioning a major caveat that may perturb many potential gamers from pulling the trigger: This is the kind of brutally challenging title that requires a certain kind of patience from the player. Truth be told, if you’ve read up to this point in the review, chances are you’re the right person for the job. That said, don’t go into this experience expecting an easy ride – it really is anything but.
There’s a timelessness to gruelingly difficult precision plaftormers like Celeste. Sure, it may take a certain type of patience to really get hooked into its laboriously challenging masochism, but it’s undeniably a well-crafted and thoughtfully designed gameplay experience that’s equally satisfying as it is unyielding. It may not clamber atop the summits of, say, Super Meat Boy, or that mustachioed plumber’s escapades, but it comes pretty damn close. And that’s a victory in my book.
This review was based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game, which was provided to us.
It may take a certain type of patience to really get hooked into Celeste's laboriously challenging masochism, but it’s undeniably a well-crafted and thoughtfully designed experience that’s equally satisfying as it is unyielding.