Over the years, I’ve been slowly catching up on a whole bunch of popular indie games. Undertale, Cuphead, Hollow Knight, and most recently, Celeste. Like Cuphead, I went into Celeste with a mixture of excitement and trepidation because I had heard that this game was brutally difficult. On the surface, the game follows Madeline as she attempts to climb Celeste Mountain, despite warnings that weird things happen to people who do so.
The game mechanics are very simple. You can jump, climb walls for a limited time, and dash through the air in eight directions. Every chapter has unique features that add to the gameplay, as well, like the addition of wind or moving platforms or blocks that you can dash straight through. The game does not hold your hand at all, and it is designed well enough that I was able to learn everything I needed just by playing. For example, Madeline’s hair turns from pink to blue when she exhausts her stamina, and certain objects will replenish your stamina, as seen when her hair turns pink again. (There are later portions in the game where you can remain in the air for quite a while due to this. It’s…pretty wild sometimes.) I also learned completely on my own that you can wall jump, which can save you when Madeline’s climbing and gets too tired.
To fully scale Celeste Mountain, you will need to complete seven chapters, with chapters 8 and 9 (9 was added in a free update) being optional and only accessible if you collect crystal hearts. Other optional collectibles are B-side tapes for a harder version of the chapter and strawberries, which affect the ending. I barely collected anything in this game (and not from lack of motivation), so I have to admit, I was a bit relieved I couldn’t do chapter 8. It’s not because I didn’t enjoy the game. It’s because…the game is frickin’ hard!
Sure, the game does increase in difficulty as you go, but every chapter after chapter 2 really tested my skills. Chapter 7 was so absurd, I really didn’t know if I’d be able to complete it. (If I had to compare it with something, I would say it’s like the Path of Pain in Hollow Knight. Which I never finished.) Celeste is one of those games that might make you want to rage quit, but the sense of accomplishment when you complete a new chapter, or even just a challenging screen, is immense. And I’d never really say the game is unfair in its difficulty. Sure, sometimes you have to be insanely precise, and I would often die because I was slightly off in the direction I dashed (I can’t tell you how many times I dashed at an angle when I wanted to go straight…but that was always my own fault, not the game’s). But with practice, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish. Part of me felt like I was climbing a real mountain. When I finally reached that summit and completed the game, I felt like I had overcome a massive obstacle and was, frankly, so proud of myself.
Speaking of climbing mountains, that’s not really the point of the game. I mean, that literally is the point of the game. But not figuratively. There is actually a far deeper message. You see, what makes Celeste Mountain unique is its ability to draw out your weaknesses, a side of yourself that you don’t like. Madeline starts to see this in chapter 2 when she encounters a dark reflection of herself. That’s why she chose to climb the mountain in the first place. To work through some issues she hadn’t been able to overcome otherwise. She got more than she bargained for, but then again, wouldn’t we all if we were faced, I mean really faced, with our darker side?
Looking back over my experience with Celeste, I was shown how impatient I really am. To be honest for a second here, sometimes this game made me so angry. Sometimes…I kind of hated the game for how hard it was. Sometimes I grew frustrated because I couldn’t finish a chapter as quickly as I would have liked. And I learned that…I need to slow down. I need to know when to take a break. There’s no excuse. The game lets you save anywhere. You don’t have to complete a chapter in one sitting. And when the game gets to be too tough, there’s no shame in taking a break and coming back later.
But I didn’t do that. My biggest problems with the game came from myself. My mistakes were all my fault. So was my impatience. When I complained that a chapter was way too long, I should have stopped being obsessive and taken a much-needed break. I tend to work myself too hard. I stay up late trying to finish things that don’t need to be completed so soon. I end up feeling exhausted and miserable much of the time…and it’s rarely for anything necessary. I don’t have to finish editing that video tonight. I don’t need to write that many blog posts before bed. I’ve already worked at my job for eight hours today. I don’t need to keep going. Just take a break already.
I think we can all learn something from Celeste. We can learn a thing or two about our weaknesses. No, not where our platforming skills fall short, but there’s that, too. This game can teach us a bit about how we handle difficulty. Do we get angry? Do we place blame where it shouldn’t be?
Celeste is really amazing. From the awesome soundtrack and mix of art styles to that difficult, but rewarding gameplay. I can’t believe I finished it. This is by far one of the most challenging things I’ve done in a while (right up there with certain Cuphead bosses we shan’t speak of…). And as many times as I wanted to quit, I’m so glad I kept going. I mean, I just couldn’t quit. As frustrated as I would get, the overwhelming feeling was…I have to keep trying. I’ll get it. Just another screen further, and we’re one step closer to the goal. Checkpoints are abundant in this game, so that sense of relief when you clear yet another tough room is going to be quite frequent.
Just a word of advice if you’re thinking of playing this game for yourself, but are intimidated by the difficulty level. Yeah, this game is really, really hard, even if all you want to do is finish the main story. Just…don’t be like me. Take breaks when it gets too hard. Forcing yourself onward when you’re losing your concentration is not the way to go. Also, there is an Assist Mode that’s supposed to make things easier. I didn’t end up using it due to stubbornness, so I don’t know exactly how it works. But there’s no shame in using it if you really need to. And it’s okay to inch along at a snail’s pace like I did (impatient though I felt at how slow my progress was). Just take it one step at a time. It doesn’t matter how long the journey takes you. Just that you get where you’re going in the end.
This post was originally published on Virtual Bastion on March 23, 2021.