The rules of the 2D platformer Celeste are evident after a minute with the controller in hand. You can run, crouch, jump, and grab onto the sides of things. You can also do a double jump in the air in the form of a dash. Your grab only lasts for a certain amount of time.Your double jump works once in the air but resets when you land on a horizontal plane. Those red, evil looking things? They kill you. Those red things that look like strawberries? Those are strawberries, you collect them. Going up or to the right is a good idea while falling down to the bottom of the screen – well, that usually kills you. The early rules of Celeste are either self-explanatory or a product of platformer tradition and with little penalty for failure, the game invites the player to experiment with what they can and can’t do.
The sense of experimentation never stops in Celeste. With each new world that the game presents comes new gameplay elements and with each of these new elements comes different ways to interact with the world. These elements are conceptually simple but the developer seems adamant in squeezing every last drop of use from them. For example, a green gem floats in the air and resets your double jump ability when collected. The gem begins as a useful tool for getting that extra height you need to get to your goal. It eventually comes to expand and change the gameplay completely. A series of green gems stuck between narrow passages of insta-death walls turns the game’s focus from jumping and grabbing to falling and dashing. Each element adds a little rule that the player has to keep in mind and when those elements and rules start to combine, the game becomes an incredibly challenging and enjoyable platformer.
Celeste does a wonderful job of keeping the player engaged despite the hundreds, even thousands, of deaths the player will experience. The game is divided into small challenges, practically one per screen, and failure just means you restart at the beginning of the challenge. It’s surprising to play a game with so little punishment also be so rewarding when you do succeed. Like any game, part of the satisfaction derived from Celeste is in getting to the goal itself but there is also a ton of enjoyment that comes from planning how you will get from one side of the screen to the other. With each run through the challenge, you’ll fail a little bit less than last time. You’ll start to learn about how that specific challenge works but also a little bit about universal aspects of the game such as momentum or wall jumping. Celeste is designed to have every minute of gameplay be both a challenge and a learning experience.
The best parts of Celeste are its minute-to-minute gameplay and how its overall structure combines gameplay elements. But the game’s art, music, and story are of an equally high tier. The story uses the in-game mountain that the main character is climbing as a metaphor for the challenges of mental illness, and while the story is straightforward, it stays interesting enough so that its message has some weight without the game being dragged down by exposition. As for the art in the game, the colour pallets are rich and the 8-bit art is some of the best in its class. The music too is well executed, with a main theme that is remixed and re-interpreted throughout and a supporting soundtrack that is as tolerable as it is enjoyable. And tolerable is important when you are hearing the same loop over and over as you die again and again.
The 2D platformer genre is one of the oldest around but Celeste proves that there is still plenty of innovation to be had. Different rules introduced by each item not only grant the player a new ability, they also change the expectations that the player has formulated based on previous items and rules. This creates a cycle of introduction, experimentation, and education by the player typically only found in puzzle games. It also makes each challenge the game put forward a blast to complete. Celeste is a lengthy, interesting, and masterfully developed platformer that pushes its genre forward.