by Brian D. Wegener
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Celeste came out on January 25th, 2018 on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch. I purchased the Switch version and this is my review based on playing it portably and in docked mode with a pro controller. In these past two weeks I have played more than 15 hours, actually, this review was supposed to go up last week, but I couldn’t find time to pry myself away from the game.
Celeste is something special. It begins similarly to many other platforms from a bygone era, simply… by moving to the right. Within 10 minutes you’re jumping and dashing up walls. By the time you’ve played for 30 minutes you most likely will have died at least 30 times. If it weren’t as tight, or there wasn’t a certain magic to it I probably would’ve given up on my 100th death, or at least my 500th, but no, I just keep playing. The game is nearly the definition of insanity, I’ll try the same jump over and over again expecting different results, now this might take one minute or it could be close to an hour, but the funny thing is, at some point I’ll get it. Nothing in Celeste feels impossible or unfair, yes, there were moments where I attempted the same jump for close to an hour, cursing and repeating to myself that it’s just not possible, but maybe later, next time I picked up the console, I’ll complete it immediately and move on, cursing and repeating to myself at another section. Yes… Celeste is something special.
The artwork in Celeste seems simplistic, at first glance it looks like a lost generation between the NES and SNES, a 12-bit style if you will, but there’s so much more detail beneath the surface. The character portraits and fluid sprite movements make it feel more modern, like something from the 32-bit or 64-bit era. It’s a strange feeling to have so much nostalgia for a game I’ve never played. It evokes the memory of how those old games used to play instead of playing like them. The art is a treat, and over the course of the seven main chapters each of the locations on the mountain that you climb have a different aesthetic that makes them all memorable; the old ghost hotel, the underground cave, the cloudy summit, the city tower sprawl, all in a game that takes could take you anywhere from a couple hours to possibly four times that to complete. Every environment feels fresh and new excluding the last chapter that plays like a greatest hits, in all the right ways.
The artwork isn’t the only part of Celeste that feels nostalgic. The soundtrack is a fun collection of synth music that ranges from uplifting and inspiring, to ambient and adventurous. It made an impact on me enough that I had to purchase the album, I can’t say it’s the best soundtrack, or even the best gaming music I’ve heard in the past few months, but it stayed with me. It has this alluring power. Another wonderful thing about the soundtrack, there are special hidden levels that you can unlock by finding B-side cassettes in each of the chapters, each of these “B-Sides” have remixes of the original soundtrack by various artists. All of the remixes are amazing. If I had to recommend one track from this album it would have to be “Resurrections”, it comes in at a moment in the game where the story just starts to get interesting, and weird, and it fits perfectly. Parts of it remind me of a lost Clint Mansell track, back from his glory age.
Now to the story, it started off uninteresting and simple. You’re climbing a mountain, no duh. But within an hour it starts to get weird, without spoiling too much you find a part of yourself, which turns an amazingly tight platformer into a compelling and deep adventure. I’m not going to say that it’s without flaws, but I will say that if you stick with it, you’ll definitely be rewarded. Also, the dialogue between Madeline (the protagonist) and Theo is perfect. After recently complaining about poorly written videogame dialogue it was so refreshing to read dialogue that comes off as authentic.
The platforming is some of the best in the business, if not currently the best. It felt to me like someone had played Super Meat Boy and thought I can do this, but I also can make it into a connected platforming game instead of individual levels. While the chapters are broken up into a hundred (if not hundreds) of different connected screens, as you move between them you can find cracks and crevices that allow you to hunt the elusive Strawberries / B-sides / and another important collectible. I love the Strawberries because the game flat out tells you that there is no point to collect them, but the challenge in figuring out the platforming puzzles is reward enough, that and the obsessive collector within me wants to get them all. The gameplay is tight enough that even though I completed the main story I ended up finishing all the “B-sides”, unlocked the mysterious post-credit chapter, completed that, and then continued to play, all in a game that is essentially a semi-linear platformer. I have dozens of AAA open-world adventure RPGs waiting for me and I have been pouring all of my time into a game that feels like it could’ve come out decades ago. There is something special in Celeste, a mountain that Madeline has to climb, to prove she can do it, I had to beat it, to prove I could. Like the Radiohead song “Climbing Up The Walls”, Celeste is a story about who you are, what you are, what you try to hide, and what you try to forget. Celeste is a game about overcoming. Celeste is something special.
p.s. I based my score on the amount of strawberries I collected over the course of the game, as you can imagine this number only went up the more than I played.