Celeste is pure. Each room offers new challenges, but the solution is always the same: jump. Jumping is remixed in dozens of different, exciting ways. Celeste is the very soul of simplicity, and that’s what makes it such a beautiful game.
Celeste tells the story of Madeline, a young woman on a journey to climb the titular mountain. Madeline is in a funk: anxious, unsure, and struggling with depression. The mountain is more than just a giant rock. Climbing it is an achievement Madeline desperately needs. It’s a gruelling task, but one filled with purpose. Madeline climbs up, and when she thinks she can’t go any higher, she keep going anyway.
To conquer the mountain, the player guides Madeline through hundreds of platform-filled rooms rife with spike pits and other hazards. Madeline can jump a small height and perform a single mid-air dash. Sheer walls are scalable, but Madeline’s limited stamina prevents her from hanging onto a cliffside indefinitely. Fast movement is key—platforms crumble and, in later stages, monsters close in. Players only have a few seconds to decide where they want to go and how to get there. When do you dash? Can you climb that wall without Madeline’s energy giving out? If you bounce off that spring pad, can you squeeze through the spike walls? Celeste is packed with uncertainty, and there’s very little time to look before you leap.
Failure is a fact of life in Celeste. While early rooms are accommodating and breezy, later levels are full of false pathways and perfectly-positioned hazards that punish the player for being a few pixels off. It can be frustrating to fall short of success because you didn’t dash at exactly the right time, but after repeated failures it becomes easier to accept that not everything will go as planned.
Part of this comes from how satisfying Celeste is to control. Madeline moves in a sprightly run, and players can easily guide her after a jump thanks to liberal amounts of fall control. She can dash in eight directions with the lightest button press. Everything makes sense, and this makes it easy to tune out distractions while playing Celeste and blaze through rooms as if you’ve been playing the game for years. Celeste breathes meaning back into the word intuitive. Leaping feels as natural as breathing and while the game punishes flawed execution, the controls never betray the player’s intentions. It says a lot that the game’s ultimate power-up simply allows the player to dash twice. Celeste feels good to play and knows it.
In order to add variety, Celeste introduces new mechanics throughout the game. The player can dash through shimmer blocks at the cost of giving up mid-air control. Strange fungal growths sprout barbs when the player crosses over them, preventing backtracking. Floating orbs snatch the player and shoot forward until they hit a solid surface. If a moving platform shoots up, jumping at the right time can lead to a massive leap. These changes shuffle levels into puzzles that the player must solve through a mixture of persistence and observation. Levels become clever obstacle courses that are consistently delightful to clear.
My co-worker Tim Rogers is also a fan of Celeste. He made a video about it. We love it!
Every level is filled with secret rooms and collectables. There are strawberries hidden throughout levels, many of which require daring acrobatics to collect. In some cases, it is not readily apparent how to reach these rewards. The strawberries don’t do anything. The player can grab them if they want, finding satisfaction as they clear difficult rooms, but if things are ever too challenging, they can simply walk away. Celeste encourages the player to test their limits throughout its bonus rooms but never judges them for taking a step back. Players who are looking for special challenges can unlock special “B-side” remixes of each level.
Celeste wants to be accessible and allow players to determine the level of challenge they’re comfortable with. This extends to a robust Assist Mode where the player can adjust game speed, turn on infinite stamina, or even activate invulnerability. Games such as Even the Ocean have offered more robust accessibility tools but Celeste’s Assist Mode is a good fit given the tricky platforming. Celeste is a punishing game that is arguably best experienced without the Assist Mode, but its inclusion is refreshing.
Celeste excels in gameplay, but it also succeeds with a heartfelt narrative. It brims with likeable characters, from a cackling old hermit to a selfie-taking hiker with a heart of gold. After Madeline releases a magical doppelganger from a mirror, she must learn to reconcile her relationship with her darker half. Celeste takes just as much time to craft believable characters as it does dangerous levels. Madeline struggles with panic attacks and is a little too nosey for her own good. One noteworthy sequence involves controlling dialogue for two characters sitting by a campfire. These small moments are as enthralling as any mad dash through barbed walls.
The soundtrack complements the game’s colourful pixel art. Composer Lena Raine’s score captures the cocky climbing of earlier levels before slipping into something more mystical as the game progresses. A subdued piano track plays in the background of mirror-filled ruins. A roaring score accompanies the final climb. It is, beat for beat, the perfect companion to the action.
Some players will conquer Celeste quickly, scaling mountain walls and zipping through hallways in a frenzy. I’ll remember Celeste for a long time to come, thinking back on its mystical ruins and wind-swept peak. It’s a joyous game brimming with hope and one of the best video game jumps ever.