Celeste is a game about overcoming your mistakes. Quite literally. You will die around a thousand times before you reach the top of the titular mountain.
It is the latest entry in the masocore genre, which consists of games that feel, at first, impossible to finish. These are the games where you die, and die and die again, trying to nail a single stupid jump. Super Meat Boy, Spelunky and Trials are some of the most well-known of these games.
While Celeste was brewed from the same cauldron, it’s more of a gateway drug than the hard stuff. It’s surprisingly sweet, soulful and welcoming, its heartwarming story gently motivating you from one tricky stage to the next. For one of the least player-friendly genres around, Celeste is a perfect introduction.
But just when you think you’ve mastered it, you’ll find yourself decidedly humbled.
Celeste’s depth isn’t immediately obvious. It’s a 2D platformer; you run, jump, climb walls and air-dash. That’s it. You’re not going to be picking up items, upgrading stats or finding costumes that give you the power to fly or spit fireballs. You may find strawberries, but those are just for noms (which is to say, they serve no greater purpose than tempting you to perform non-mandatory challenges liberally sprinkled onto each stage).
So how does a game with such simple controls maintain interest? For one, the world around you, the eponymous mountain, is filled with a variety of locales and objects that put a spin on your seemingly limited set of moves.
Early on you’ll explore an abandoned city, a crumbling castle and a haunted resort, each with its own environmental mechanics to master. The city, for example, has moving platforms that can launch you across chasms, while the hotel introduces deadly poison that coats the floors you’ve already walked, making retreat a no-no. As with any great platformer, these mechanics return throughout Celeste, becoming intertwined with other, more dangerous traps.
The platforming itself feels firm and consistent, which is mandatory in a game like this, where every death should feel earned rather than forced. As you glide through the air, narrowly avoiding spikes or lava flows, you’ll feel in complete control of the situation. Therefore, if you die, it’s on you.
And you will die a lot. Celeste is designed with that in mind. Thankfully every death is a mere hiccup, sending you back to the start of the screen you’re on. And, done correctly, you’ll never need more than 30 seconds to complete a screen.
But yikes, that 30 seconds of perfection can be hard to cobble together.
While the main game is tough at times, it’s pretty manageable, more Mario than Meat Boy. Celeste is very smart about introducing newcomers to the masocore format, reinforcing the fact that every death will teach you something new and lead you closer to victory.
Once you hit the credits, though, the gloves come off. The game’s eight worlds are paired with eight “B-Sides.” These alternate worlds bring the obstacles of the main game back with a vengeance, placing them in ways that demand absolute perfection. In one such B-Side, I died more times than I had in the entire main game. So if you were worried about this being a watered-down masocore experience, worry not.
Celeste feels like a very capably made platformer, easily on par with other masocore greats. But where it really sets itself apart is in its incredible presentation values. The game is home to some of the best 2D pixel art I’ve seen. Inspired by the SNES era, the characters and environments in Celeste are vibrant and memorable, adding way more visual charm than the genre usually provides. The aforementioned resort level is filled with peeling wallpaper, rusted elevator cages and moonlit mountain views, while a later level set in a temple features spooky totems and spinning torches. These visuals are backed by a stellar score from Lena Raine, whose synthy chiptune beats harken back to the days of Donkey Kong Country. And the adventure is held together by a gorgeous low-poly 3D model of Celeste Mountain that helps to convey the scale and trajectory of the climb.
These presentation values are put to good use in a charming, personal tale. Beautiful masocore games are a rare breed, but how many of them have characters you actually care about? Here, in her quest to conquer the mountain, Celeste’s protagonist comes across a handful of interesting characters. For example, a selfie-loving hiker named Theo is a constant, lighthearted foil to your own, darker persona. Within these interactions, the game doesn’t shy away from delving into deeper topics of depression and anxiety, without it ever feeling overbearing or tacked on.
In addition to giving your hands a rest between platforming sequences, the story’s themes of conquering your own limitations tie directly into the impossible-becoming-possible nature of the gameplay. It’s a neat trick.
It’s ironic that a platforming game’s greatest, most innovative elements lie not in the platforming itself, but around it. Yet perhaps that’s the point. Matt Thorson, the game’s designer, is clearly a master of platforming mechanics, as evidenced by his work on TowerFall and some truly insane Super Mario Maker levels.
Celeste reaches beyond, showing that tricky, well-designed platforming challenges are really just the tip of the iceberg. There’s far more underneath the surface. And maybe that’s worth dying for.
Celeste was reviewed using final “retail” PC and Switch download codes provided by Matt Makes Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.