Incredible platforming and emotional story make Celeste a surprise triumph.
Occasionally, while playing Celeste, I’d get light-headed because I’d focus so hard on a sequence of jumps that demanded precise timing and perfect button presses that I’d forget oxygen was a thing my body needed. Trying and failing and trying again, getting a little closer each time, I let the beautiful art and adaptive music of the titular Celeste Mountain – alongside the passionate, relatable story told there – completely whisk me away.
Despite appearing at first to be yet another retro pixel-art 2D platformer, Celeste is surprising in so many different ways. From the moment I took my first jump, I fell in love with the satisfying way its protagonist, Madeline, feels to control; soon after I fell just as hard for the charming world she inhabits. But Celeste also caught me off guard with a relevant and emotional story about the pressures of modern life. What’s remarkable is that the story isn’t told in the background or overlaid on top of the action with constant interruption, but seamlessly and thoughtfully blended into the level design using both subtle themes and overt conversations. That’s especially astonishing in a genre not known as a vehicle for such delicate messages.
That’s the bigger picture, but every corner of Celeste is overflowing with charm. Its handful of characters are delightful and expressive, and the world they live in is teeming with small details. Smartly written dialogue is accompanied by silly, synthesized gibberish voices and animated character portraits that strikingly clash with the otherwise-pixelated art style, giving each character a distinct personality of their own. Little touches – like Madeline’s red hair turning blue when she’s spent her dash charge and then back again when it’s restored by touching the ground or touching a power-up, or that dash causing lanterns in the background to sway when she zips by them – make everything feel alive and dynamic.
But Celeste doesn’t succeed on charm alone – it also nails the fundamentals of its genre. All of that character is wrapped around one of the most blissfully fluid, responsive, and fun platformers I’ve played since Super Meat Boy. For more than 20 hours of gameplay, Celeste has surprised me with consistently creative and fun platforming challenges and secrets that found unexpected depth from its relatively simple mechanics.
Celeste’s controls are extremely simple, just three buttons and a joystick, D-pad, or arrow keys. You can jump, dash once through the air in one of eight directions, and cling to walls and climb up or down for a limited time, but the nuance in how you use these easy-to-learn moves is extremely deep. Subtle changes in how long you hold each button, the angle of your jump, or the timing of your next dash can vastly change where you end up. This can be as simple as holding jump to keep yourself in the air longer or as complex dashing just next to a wall then quickly jumping off of it with precise timing to get you significantly more height. Critically, these factors were firmly in my own control and felt like skills that could be mastered.
Each success and failure was always my own – which is good because the failures do come often, and if even a fraction of them felt unfair it would’ve been massively frustrating. Hazards such as spikes and traps scattered around each level will kill you with a single touch, and Celeste sadistically tracks every single death on a level-by-level basis – though it dismisses any worries you might have about how quickly that number rises, and actually encourages you to do your best along the way. Respawning is just as quick dying, with barely enough time for a Mega Man-like sparkle to signify your death, and the checkpoints are smartly placed to be forgiving while still making you prove you can complete the challenge in front of you.
Celeste has one of the best game soundtracks I’ve heard in years.
Each of the eight chapters – a linear series of rooms that range in size from a single screen to a large side-scrolling area – have their own style, music, and a few unique platforming mechanics to interact with. The first takes place in a ruined city near the foot of the mountain and has platforms that speed along a track when you touch them (allowing you to launch yourself with a properly timed jump), while a later chapter is set closer to the peak, where winds will push you around and affect your speed and momentum. Every chapter feels distinct and different, which keeps Celeste from ever feeling stale.
The music and sound effects, in particular, deserve special mention here for the amazing amount of life they add to each location. Simply put, Celeste has one of the best game soundtracks I’ve heard in years. It shifts with each screen, different instruments and variations fading in and out as the pace and intensity of the scene changes. The music pushed me along and slowed me down in harmony with the level design itself, and its connection to both the platforming and the story helped me connect more deeply with both Madeline and Celeste Mountain.
Unlike many other 2D platformers, there is a refreshing element of exploration to the layout of each chapter in Celeste. You can rush straight from start to finish if you’d like, but destructible blocks and false walls often hide secret screens and diverging paths – and it’s not uncommon to find secret areas hidden inside of other secret areas. It’s not always easy to distinguish what’s a secret path and what’s just a dead end, which was initially a little frustrating, but there was usually some tell I could eventually learn to recognize – and the particularly well-disguised ones made going back to completed chapters to hunt for anything I’d missed more exciting.
The most obvious reason to go looking for secret doors is the floating strawberries scattered throughout Celeste. Collecting them is completely optional, and many are hidden in dead-end screens that you could completely skipped, but trying to grab them provides some of the best platforming challenges available. Oftentimes, jumping from one side of a screen to the other can be relatively straightforward, but doing so while grabbing that screen’s strawberry along the way takes much more finesse. Celeste also throws a bone to the completionists among us here, because after you’ve beaten a chapter once you can pause to see a dotted line representing which strawberries you’ve found and which you’ve missed laid out in their rough order within that level, and you’re able to restart at set checkpoints further into the chapter to access them without too much hassle.
The B-Sides are where the real challenge lies.
But strawberries aren’t the only collectible to grab. Every chapter also has a hidden B-Side cassette tape (developer Matt Makes Games playfully dates itself here) that, when found, unlocks a significantly harder, alternate version of that chapter with wonderfully remixed music. While the original chapters are generally difficult but doable enough that they come off as an excellently balanced base experience, the B-Sides are where the real challenge lies. It takes whatever mechanic that chapter introduced and pushes it to its limit, asking you for more creative problem solving with each screen, and then more precise button presses once you’ve figured it out.
Beyond the B-Sides, there are even more secrets to find in Celeste. The hardest of these tested every part of the skills it had taught me: they required a careful eye to find clues about the path leading to them, were challenging to reach once I found them, and some even presented creative riddles that took me days of thinking on to finally crack. On top of the six to eight hours it took to beat the normal levels, I spent nearly another 20 finding collectibles and completing its brutally fun B-Sides – one of which took almost three hours and 1,400 deaths to complete, but had me literally jumping out of my chair with joy at multiple points. So it’s remarkable that even after roughly 24 hours of playtime, Celeste still has so much more to offer.
And through all this variation and excitement, the basics of movement don’t ever really change. Similar to the brilliant Super Mario Odyssey’s focus on Cappy, every part of Celeste’s design revolves around Madeline’s dash. It’s the anchor for everything else, and each chapter plays with it in exciting and surprising ways. My favorite of these were the special diamonds (and some other level-specific mechanics) that can refresh your dash mid-air, creating ultra-satisfying sequences where you barely ever touch the ground.
Some of Celeste’s harder levels make its inputs feel like a fighting game, even without any combat.
Sometimes your dash will move pieces of the world around you, making me think harder about the exact spot and angle I needed to use it. Celeste also plays around with momentum, letting you do things like use those moving platforms to launch yourself to otherwise unreachable spots. Without spoiling anything, some of the later levels also play around both with empowering your dash ability and severely limiting it, which continues to provide unique and amusing challenges without ever straying from that elegantly simple three-button core.
A few chapters put your knowledge of their unique mechanics to the test with “boss fight” style final sequences that turn up the pressure and force you to think and act quicker. There isn’t really any combat in Celeste, but these sequences still manage to be intense and frantic, and a great way to put a different kind of spin on its level design. They also tie Celeste’s story more directly into its platforming, with the emotion behind these sequences ratcheting up the pressure just as much as the mechanics themselves.
Some of Celeste’s harder levels occasionally make it feel like a fighting game as well, asking you to move the stick in precise directions with tight timing. Dash up-right into a special orb that refreshes the dash, then swing the stick down-right before it spits you out in that direction, followed by quickly dashing right into a diamond and then again into another orb. Quick input chains like this can be forgiving early in Celeste, but demand perfection later. I love how high that makes the skill cap for precision movement (and I can’t wait to see my best times destroyed by speedrunners) but it can also sometimes make the absolute peak of Celeste’s hardest levels feel pretty punishing.
That said, I haven’t found one I couldn’t eventually beat with enough practice. Every time I died I could feel myself refining my strategy just a little bit. I would slowly dial in the angle of a jump or the timing of a pause, all the while getting more consistent at whatever parts came before that tricky bit. I’d occasionally have a breakthrough in those tough spots as well, fundamentally rethinking how I was coming at a jump and making it much easier as a result, proving that Celeste’s platforming requires smart thinking along with quick control. It makes beating these levels feel truly earned and immensely gratifying.
This is the type of game where you get better through doing and expanding your knowledge of the possibilities, not by powering up your character or getting new abilities. Growing and improving felt natural because Celeste is simple enough that it barely has to teach you its controls, but is still nuanced and complex in how you use them. After I had tackled a few of the B-Sides, going back to earlier chapters put that growth into clear perspective. They almost felt trivial compared to the new challenges I had faced in the meantime, and it reminded me how achievable completing Celeste’s story chapters really are amid the high skill cap of its end-game – which is great, because it’s worth playing even for those uninterested in pushing themselves further.
Celeste’s story starts out cute, with quirky characters and a clear goal for Madeline: climb to the peak of Celeste Mountain. Even though its garbled dialogue voices are a bit silly at first, their changing pitch and intonation (and the shifting portraits that come along with those voices) make each character extremely emotive and relatable. The characters Madeline meets along the way are lovable and funny; and while all of that sets Celeste up to be quite light-hearted, its story actually tackles some very real and important subjects.
Hidden under this challenging platformer’s adorable exterior is a game about depression and anxiety. It’s a hauntingly modern tale about being anxious and unhappy and never really knowing why, feeling like you just want to run away from how the world makes you feel. In this case, running away from social media and work and all the mistakes you’ve made takes the form of climbing a mountain, but really it’s just about doing anything crazy enough that it might shake you out of the rut you’re in.
Celeste blends its story beautifully into the arcade-y game that houses it, making me feel for its characters without ever forcing me to.
It’s a feeling that hit close to home for me at multiple points throughout Celeste, and one I’m willing to bet many others will relate to as well. But Madeline’s story isn’t all about running: it’s also about standing your ground in the face of the parts of yourself that scare you, and how learning to understand those parts is the only way to stop them from controlling you. None of these messages felt heavy-handed, and it’s all conveyed through the lens of a world full of magic and adventure, but its core message is very down to Earth.
There aren’t many games out there that feature two characters having a candid discussion about what depression feels like, or that depict a panic attack as tentacles attacking your character. I certainly wasn’t expecting that from a pixelated platformer where you collect flying strawberries and can magically dash through the air, but Celeste blends its story beautifully into the arcade-y game that houses it, making me feel for its characters without ever forcing me to.
As I read it, one of its chapters is a veiled metaphor for being in a bad or abusive relationship, while another is an allegory for how people can be consumed and trapped by social media. Maybe I’m reading too much into these levels, because those themes are thankfully never thrown directly in your face, but my interpretations of them were relatable and real either way.
Even though the story feels like a core part of Celeste, much of the heavier dialogue can be skipped past and ignored if you choose, and there’s an option to skip every cutscene entirely. That means people who just want the white-knuckle platforming Celeste offers with none of the emotional baggage can easily have it that way. Alternatively, an Assist Mode can be turned on to make that platforming significantly easier, allowing you to do things like play in slow motion or gain more climbing stamina, so people who want to experience the story but can’t make it up the mountain on their own will have a chance to do so as well.
That said, the way Celeste balances these two parts of itself by default is flawless. I cared deeply about Madeline’s struggle and empathized with her in a way I wasn’t expecting. That emotional struggle ties beautifully into some of Celeste’s better platforming sequences as well, occasionally pushing the pace of the level into a frantic rush that made my heart race along with Madeline’s – that speed and emotion being stoked by the soundtrack behind it.
The strength of Celeste’s story and the honesty with which it tells it transforms this game from simply being one of the best platformers I’ve played this decade into one of the most important ones as well. It effortlessly sneaks hard conversations about emotional and psychological health – important conversations that games don’t often have – into a game that’s still a phenomenal amount of fun without them.