It was a very good year for platformers (honestly every year has some pretty good entries) with the “release” of Dead Cells from Early Access, the release of a new Mega Man game that wasn’t just a nostalgia fest, and even the release of a “bonus” game from the team working on the spiritual successor to Castlevania: SOTN. But there are two games that took starkly different approaches to how to make a game accessible to an ever aging audience (like me) whose platforming skills have dulled over the decades. The first of them released right at the beginning of the year and set the bar EXTREMELY high. I’m talking about Celeste of course, a charming, difficult and surprisingly touching platformer that still sticks with me nearly 11 months later.
The game thrusts you into the role of Madeline, a young woman who has decided (for reasons that become clear as you progress) to climb the titular mountain on her own. Since the game comes from the creator(s) of Towerfall, you can get a grasp on the controls very quickly; however, the game is more closely related to Super Meat Boy in terms of difficulty and in many ways feels much more precise and controllable. The basic controls of the game include the ability to jump, dash in the air, and grab onto walls and climb up them with a vague “stamina” meter which is conveyed by Madeline’s hair color changing/flashing.
The game also joins the storied pantheon of Mario games in that each of the first few chapters introduces a new mechanic, and then spends a majority of the level teaching you the ways to use the mechanic to beat the level. The further along you get in the game, the more layered and varied the puzzles become, but it never felt overwhelming and everything felt possible to beat if your skills are sharp enough. I however, am not a youth and my skills have dulled a bit over the years. And while I was able to make it to the very LAST PART OF THE LAST LEVEL without having to “tap out” and enable the extensive assists the game has available from the start. It allows you to remove the stamina restriction and even the ability to just be invincible. As I’ve said, a game that respects my limited gaming time will always be a welcome sight, and I would have been infinitely frustrated if I had been *just short* of completing the game.
In many cases, this would have been enough to make it a stellar example of a platformer, but Celeste went and beyond when it came to Madeline’s story. As you progress up the mountain, you’re confronted with what basically amounts to her “dark side.” And this becomes the main antagonist for most of the game. During her ascent, she’s forced to come to grips with this part of herself, and the story, while “simple” is handled deftly and with great care. It also has some great supporting characters who break up the more somber moments with some well needed humor.
And finally, i can’t say enough about how GOOD the soundtrack is, even while hearing certain parts constantly as my death total climbed. It was during The Game Awards performance of the music by the composer that I was reminded just how fantastic the music was. From top to bottom, Celeste was a fantastic time that ended exactly how i hoped it would. I’d even like to go back and tackle some of the B-sides and remixed levels someday.
This comes in stark contrast with my time spent with The Messenger, a game I was EXTREMELY hyped for when I read/watched anything about the game. As a long time Ninja Gaiden (NES version) fan, the aesthetic/music/style of the game made me excited to actually play it. Unfortunately, while I had a fun time with the parts I played, it was a singular section of the game that literally broke the experience. Put it more simply, I never got a chance to encounter the “twist” touted by the game’s fans because of this.
The Messenger certainly doesn’t hide its inspiration, a take on the classic 8-bit combat platformers with some modern twists. The main gameplay mechanic being used is the ability to “double jump” when you slash and kill and enemy (or destructible item) and it allows you to chain this over and over again. In addition to the standard platforming/puzzle solving with this base mechanic, it even has an upgrade tree (more on this in a bit) that allows you to purchase various upgrades along a couple of different paths. The shopkeeper who sells you these upgrades is definitely a highlight of what I played, with funny writing and cool moments of respite from the challenging world outside his inter-dimensional door.
And for the first few levels, I was genuinely enjoying my time with the game, making incremental progress, finding hidden challenges and generally having a grand old time. And THEN, it happened. The game had ALWAYS been placing a health/magic refill item(s) at every shop/checkpoint throughout the entire game so far. Seeing this cadence, I decided against an upgrade that would refill health/magic when I reached one of these checkpoints, but little did i know the game would decide to NOT PLACE A HEALTH REFILL at the last checkpoint before the “final” boss of the 1st half of the game (right before the twist). Now while this might seem like a trivial matter, the problem with the game structure is that if you die at the boss, you respawn at that checkpoint with HALF FUCKING HEALTH and not have any way to recover it. With this being the “last” boss, the damage being dealt means I only had 1 to 2 hits before being killed, thus requiring me to play perfectly to have any sort of chance of success. As I mentioned with Celeste, my twitch skills are not the same they once were, so after spending nearly an hour trying to beat this boss, I threw my hands in the air and haven’t touched the game since.
It’s a shame too, as I hear the 2nd part of the game (after the twist) has some fun aspects to it, but I’ll NEVER see them due to a single design decision before the most difficult boss fight of the game (at that point). I don’t know if I’m alone here, but this just seems like something that SHOULD have been fixed in testing, but somehow got missed. The Messenger basically gave me the middle finger and said “Git Gud you noob” whereas Celeste looked at me and went “It’s OK, we know games are hard, please enjoy the end of the story we told.”
So, in the end you should all go play Celeste and maybe play The Messenger and tell me how it ends, since I’m not going to go back to that one unless something dramatically changes.