Contemporary Reviews

Celeste and my frustration with puzzle platformers.

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You know, there’s a kind of genre I don’t quite get why people like it: The puzzle platformer. I’ve tried playing some of the ones so highly recommended to me, only to leave with frustration and disappointment. A lot of puzzle platformers get me so frustrated that it soured the overall experience for me. But there’s one I played recently that got me rethinking my outlook on this genre, transgender memes notwithstanding.

Celeste. The puzzle platformer from EXOK Games that came out on 2018 that has become a transgender allegory in recent years, due to some of the plot relating a lot to trans folk. Lead designer Maddy Thorson realizing her own trans journey through the game after the release probably helped a bit too. We always need more queer game designers, after all.

I’m not gonna get too much into the non-gameplay elements here. The art style’s cool by using pixel art in a way that’s unique without feeling too much like deliberate retro bait, Lena Raine’s soundtrack is tense yet touching at the right moments (and I never got to play any of the B-sides which also sound like a bunch of bangers), and the story is rather touching and something I can relate to as someone who struggles through life. But I wanna talk about this game further cementing my belief on puzzle platformers.

This part from Blood of the Werewolf still haunts me to this day.

When I mention I get frustrated by these kind of games, I’m not kidding. When I think about some of the action/puzzle platformers I played for the blog last year, like Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit and Blood of the Werewolf, I leave those games with frustration and anger. How one mistake will usually result in death, with little chance to redeem yourself. Some parts of these games are so malicious to the player that requires so much perfect timing that I’m surprised I haven’t thrown my controller into my computer screen after some of the bullshit I had to go through to beat it.

This is apparently the only screenshot of VVVVVV I took. Rather fitting, really.

But it doesn’t just apply to those mostly-forgotten niche platformers. It applies to the more popular ones as well. For example, I never finished the critically acclaimed VVVVVV. The gravity-shifting puzzle platformer with a pseudo-DOS art style and catchy chiptune music was an absolute chore to play at spots. A lot of hazards and pixel-perfect precision to make it across made it maddeningly to play, so much so that I only got about halfway through it before giving up on it.

Stuff like Super Meat Boy I have avoided on principal, due to me seeing plenty of speedruns that made it look absolutely punishing for even a casual user like me to play through. Though it has a nice style and also makes callbacks to other punishing platformers in the genre, like I Wanna Be the Guy, which is basically the catalyst for this genre blowing up. (I played and never finished I Wanna Be the Guy either.)

Granted, maybe I’m too used to traditional platformers like Mario and Sonic, where you’re given a bit more leeway if you make a mistake, but I used to look at this genre with utter disdain and frustration if I knew it was gonna be Yet Another One of Those.

Would you believe this part made me curse a storm for a few minutes until I realized what I did wrong?

Knowing all that, I was dreading to play Celeste for that reason. It naturally pulls from that same formula where precision is required and death is certain. At least the process of restarting is quick. But by the time I got to Chapter 4, which required me to not only dash and jump with a timed moving platform ala Super Mario Bros. 3, I was just so visibly frustrated that I almost gave up on the game, further cementing my belief that these games just aren’t for me.

It wasn’t until someone reminded me about the Assist mode. I remembered hearing about it, but I refused to use it at first. I’m gonna chalk it up to that stubborn gamer brain of mine, because much like I punished myself for doing my first playthrough of games on Hard difficulty for a while, I figured using Assist mode would feel like I failed, that the game was “too hard” and I was accepting defeat.

But much like the Hard difficulty thing that I was hampering myself with, I was punishing myself. It’s in there for a reason, after all. Games these days try their best to accommodate a wider audience, and that includes folks with limited mobility or ones who may not have the dexterity or patience otherwise.

I only used one of the assists: The one where the game pauses and a directional arrow appears to show where Madeline is going to dash before releasing the dash button. Surprisingly, this helped me through a lot of the later parts of the game, as that small breather was just enough for me to stop and think where to go from there. Granted, I still died a bunch, sometimes due to bad controller inputs on my part, but it at least got me to persevere in a way that I probably wouldn’t have had I decided to play through the game normally, as those later stages are incredibly rough.

Even climbing up the summit, in the game’s last level, was a journey of anger, but enough to give myself time to stop, take a breath and figure it out. Then I made it. I finished the game, rolled credits, got a “Thanks for playing” message.


Granted, there is the tougher B-side levels, as well as Chapter 8, which unlocks after finding some hidden hearts around the previous levels. But honestly, I’m satisfied with what I got. I enjoyed Celeste, surely, but not that much to get to 100% the game. And that’s okay with me. I saw an ending, I’m satisfied with it, I can move on.

As I finished Celeste, it got me to re-evaluate how I look at the genre. Previously, I would describe these kind of games as looking good stylistically, but the gameplay being so frustrating ruins the enjoyment for me. Now, I tend to look at it more as a game that’s frustrating to get through, but it doesn’t completely negate the quality of everything else. While punishing puzzle platformers still aren’t really for me, I can now appreciate the challenge if everything else is solid. For example: LIMBO, a game I previously thought was an absolute slog that ruined an otherwise artistic game, is now something that while it is challenging, doesn’t negate the game has a good story and style to it.

I think this has me thinking a bit more critically about how a game is as a whole, rather than critiquing every part of it piecemeal, as I often tended to do. Perhaps us scoring games with categories like “gameplay,” “sound” and “graphics” was a mistake, as it kinda ruined how we look at games creatively. But that’s an opinion for another time.

If you haven’t played Celeste, I implore you to do so. It’s on every modern platform you could probably think of. It’s a challenging game for sure, but I’m glad I played it. The assist mode results in a game that while punishing, isn’t impossible to get through. If a schmuck like me can beat it, I figure others can too.

I definitely anticipate whatever EXOK Games puts out next, even if it’s in a completely different genre.

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