As is the case with any form of media, nostalgia is a strong selling point with video games these days. Interestingly, the nostalgic push that has permeated the gaming market for the past few years has taken a few radically different forms. One example is the recreations of classic consoles with HDMI ports slapped on and built-in collections of classics pretty much in their original forms. Then you have popular games of the ‘80s and ‘90s being re-released for modern platforms, complete with remastered high-definition graphics, re-recorded audio, and modern conveniences like game-save options.
The most curious way nostalgia has crept into the video game market, though, is by way of brand-new offerings that look like they could have been released a quarter-century ago, including all of the pixelated graphics and controller-throwing difficulty that defined games of the 8-bit era.
At first blush, Celeste looks like one of the latter. Despite debuting on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Steam, the game looks as if it could have just as easily been ported to the original Sega Master System. And that blocky, pixelated look complements its gameplay quite well.
At its heart, Celeste is what’s known in gamer’s parlance as a “platformer”—and if you don’t speak the lingo, just imagine the dominant genre from that era of gaming, in which you spend most of your time jumping from platform to platform as you work your way from one end of a flat 2D world to another. Think Sonic or Super Mario or Super Metroid or some other game with “Super” in the title, and you’re at least on the right track in terms of the gameplay.
In this case, though, Celeste’s hook is more of a lure. And I’ll admit, even I was drawn in by the premise of recreating the gaming memories of my youth without actually having to actually suffer through one of the unforgiving actual games of that bygone era.
Spend a few hours getting sucked into this delightful little slice of neo-nostalgia, though, and it becomes apparent—not quickly, but undeniably—that Celeste isn’t merely trying to feed you a dose of the feel-goods. There’s a point to all of this: The look, the feel, the simple three-button controls. Even the luscious piano and synth score, which isn’t exactly held to the same retro standards as the rest of the game’s aesthetic, is true to the spirit of music from ‘80s and ‘90s games, thanks to its deceptive simplicity and undeniably hooky melodies.
All of these retro trappings combine, in a weird way, to keep you focused on the task at hand, which is jumping, dashing, and grabbing onto platforms, with a level of precision that my teenaged self never would have dreamt possible. And the thing is, due to that intense concentration on running and jumping and not dying, you sort of end up missing the point of Celeste until you’re a few hours in.
Masterfully woven into all this platformer action is a rich and nuanced, slow-burn story about depression and ennui and the consequences of constant aspiration. It’s not heavy handed at all, and if you’re the type of person to skip dialogue sequences, you can easily nope right past it all. But you’d be missing out on one of the most heartfelt and gripping stories I’ve encountered in any form of media in quite some time.
Oddly enough, it’s a narrative that’s so tightly interwoven with the presentation of the game that I can’t imagine it being quite as impactful if Celeste had been a beautifully rendered, fully modern game with 3D graphics and 14-button control schemes. In other words, all of this isn’t merely nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, no matter how much it may look like such. The real brilliance of Celeste is that with its form, it sets up expectations of a silly narrative about saving princesses or whatever, then sucker-punches you with the sort of substance that would have been nearly unimaginable back when games had no choice but to look like this.
If you have access to a modern gaming console or computer, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. At $19.99, it’s practically a steal, and although you’ll probably burn through it in seven or eight hours the first time through, Celeste is a game with a heck of a lot of replay value. I can’t imagine putting it down anytime soon.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.