I have died
2333 2569 times so far in Celeste. While, I don’t know how many times my virtual self has perished in any other game, I’m fairly certain this would lie on the high end of the spectrum. Despite causing me to frequently meet my doom, Celeste is an unbelievably welcoming game and an unexpected gem that is on the fast track to my Best of 2018.
At first glance, Celeste appears heavily inspired by the brutally grueling game Super Meat Boy, but the similarities are only skin-deep. SMB was punishing for the sake of setting you off, but Celeste treats your countless deaths as a learning tool, even providing inspirational messages about taking something from them. Sure, I would occasionally mutter a random curse word after my 50th straight demise, but the game is mostly about the joy of overcoming the obstacles and the elation of making a perfect run. Additionally, where SMB was focused on small levels devoid of checkpoints, Celeste breaks its large levels out in to rooms that serve as checkpoints, so whenever you die you don’t lose more than 30 seconds or so of progress. I was actually playing the new Switch port of SMB when I downloaded Celeste, and I haven’t looked back. This game is about the journey, not the frustration, and it manages to never cross that line.
In Celeste, you play as Madeline, a young woman who has decided to climb the titular mountain in an attempt to learn about herself in order to overcome her fears, depression, and anxiety. You quickly discover that your emotional struggles aren’t just holding you back mentally, but the mountain is actually manifesting them in a negative-zone like version of yourself who frequently shows up to wreak havoc in your path (Note: I just found out her name is Badeline, and I love this game even more now). Thanks to the help of some friends you meet on the mountain, like the selfie-obsessed dream daddy-looking Theo, you learn to not just overcome your issues but also how to live with them as they’re part of what makes you who you are. It’s a game that celebrates your failures and never makes you feel bad for needing to ask for help.
There are three main moves at your disposal to help you traverse the mountain and overcome your fears – climbing, jumping, and the balletic air-dashing that lets you quickly change direction and reach even greater heights. In order to succeed, you have to be able to quickly transition between each of them in rapid succession which means there will be a lot of trial and error in figuring out the optimal path through a dangerous zone. After a decent learning curve, I found myself capable of performing gymnastic symphonies that would make a feather blowing in the wind blush. Successfully clearing a room full of traps almost feels poetic, and it never gets old.
Aside from just overcoming obstacles, there are several collectibles to find along the way including ubiquitous strawberries that don’t seem to have any value but have a cute payoff in the end, cassette tapes that open up harder b-sides of levels, and frozen hearts that can only be acquired through puzzle-solving. Often times in games like this, I find myself skipping the collectibles to get through the story more quickly, but I am committed to finding them all as there is a great payoff every time you navigate the series of traps or puzzles to acquire one.
Throughout my 12 or so hours with the game, I have been amazed by how much Celeste continues to grow on me. On my first play-though (a mere 1450 deaths), I thought the levels were a tad too long. They all seemed to go on about 20% more than I felt like playing. But on my second go-round, I realized that was all just because I was learning how to master the move-set. In a new twist for my gaming habits, I find myself trying to speed run each level over and over again to perfect my lines and attempt a clean run without dying (a feat I have managed in the first actual level at a blazing time of 2 minutes and 6 seconds). The replay-ability of this game is off the charts, and I don’t anticipate I’ll be putting it down anytime before my 5000th or so death.