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Celeste is hard, but its creators are smart about difficulty

The game’s Assist Mode is a genius accessibility option

Celeste - rain falling from purple sky Matt Makes Games

Everyone had told me that Celeste — a beautiful, brutal platformer from the TowerFall team — was not the game for me. I’m the person who found Cuphead far more enjoyable to watch than play, for example; other than its beautiful artwork, all I knew about Celeste was that it was extremely difficult.

What I didn’t know until I tried it myself is that the game doesn’t have to be that way. Loading up Celeste for the first time, the game greets you with comforting messages: “Just breathe,” “Why are you so nervous?” and “You can do this” — that admittedly bely its difficulty. I died a lot; I died over and over again. But knowing that the game itself had faith in me was empowering and comforting.

Still, I don’t really love to play games where all I do is crash and burn. I also don’t love to admit defeat, and either dip out of a game entirely or bump down to the easiest difficulty setting. The good news is that I’m still playing Celeste, because Celeste’s Assist Mode lets me tweak what could become an otherwise painful, frustrating time.

Unlike the similar Assist Modes in Nintendo games of late (think Super Mario Odyssey’s dotted directional lines or Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s auto-steering), Celeste’s version is granular enough to make the assistance feel like a learning tool. There’s a handful of options available to cycle through at will, like becoming invincible, extending the all-important air dash ability and slowing the whole game down in 10 percent intervals. Assist Mode allows for any combination of these to work at any time; if my redhead hiker hit one of the mountain’s spikes more than I could stand in one area, I could just turn her invincible for a hot second to alleviate the pain.

The game doesn’t actively encourage or discourage these handicaps; there’s a constant reminder to play Celeste the first time through without any assistance. But there is also a pleasant sense of acceptance on the part of the developers, who seem to know that this game could push those with a limited amount of time or patience away. (One of the team members, Noel Berry, wrote on Twitter that it only took “a couple of days’ work” to introduce these accessibility options, which is an inspiring note.)

I will never take the time to learn Cuphead’s sequences for survival, and that means I won’t get to experience what otherwise looks like a gorgeous and expertly made game. But I’m going to keep climbing Celeste Mountain, because I’m not afraid to admit that more often than not, I appreciate a helping hand.

Correction: Noel Berry is the developer that wrote about the time it took to program the Assist Mode. The name has been corrected and included above.

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