As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, thanks to my complete inability to not share screencaps and videos from whatever ridiculous garbage I’m sinking my free time into that day, I’ve been getting a lot of use out of my Switch lately. Which is good, because when I bought it two years ago to play Super Mario Odyssey, I spent the next couple of months in a long-term state of low-key buyer’s remorse. I have a habit of impulse-buying stuff and then not actually getting a whole lot of use out of it, and I started to convince myself that I’d done the same thing with the Switch. The library wasn’t all that great back then, and I worried that the same thing would happen with my Switch as had with my (equally impulsively-bought) Wii U. I’d get to the end of Odyssey, put the Switch in its case, and barely ever touch it again. I didn’t even have Breath of the Wild to play on it, since I’d already played the Wii U version.
So it’s been a relief and vindication to find that this week I’m suddenly up to my neck in great titles to play. Not that it’s really a sudden thing – the Switch has been building up a solid library over the last two years, and has definitely held its own against the PS4 mine’s sat next to, but the last month or so has been a real flurry of the good stuff. Untitled Goose Game dropped the other day, and once again set the internet ablaze with goose-based jokes and the honkest memes. Fire Emblem: Three Houses has recently united strategy fans and people who like shipping anime characters. The Final Fantasy VIII remaster is available now. The long-awaited Link’s Awakening remake came out last week, and as if that wasn’t enough classic Zelda, Nintendo released the first set of Super Nintendo games for its online service, including A Link To The Past, the literal best game ever.
Such a cavalcade of excellent experiences (OK, not everybody loves Final Fantasy VIII as much as me, but roll with it) requires equally excellent time management to actually play them all, and that’s exactly what I set out to achieve. So I bought and downloaded Fire Emblem, played an hour or two of it (it’s very good so far!), and then backed out to the title screen, spotted that I had Celeste installed, and immediately began a week-long and as yet unfinished Celeste bender. I mean, I managed to squeeze in a couple of hours to beat Untitled Goose Game (look out for our review episode of Argue The Toss next week), but I’ve spent most of my time – a significant fraction of my whole week – climbing a beautifully weird 2D pixel-art mountain, in a game that came out more than a year ago.
See, the other day, the developer formerly known as Matt Makes Games updated the game with a free set of “farewell” levels, making up a Chapter 9 to follow on from the game’s original campaign. I suppose I expected a short-ish selection of fun, challenging levels – a last look at what was so much fun about Celeste to tie off the whole thing before the studio (now known as Extremely OK Games) moves on to the next project. What I got instead was a lengthy gauntlet of absolute murder. The Farewell DLC is punishingly difficult and requires advanced techniques even to complete – even some speedrunner techniques that aren’t taught in the main game, or if they are, only in the extra-difficult B-side levels, which I hadn’t really messed with much on my first playthrough.
“Oh well,” a normal person might have said. “These levels are too hard for me, I’ll give up and play one of the other five games I have in the queue at the moment”. Unfortunately, I am a particularly obstinate bastard, and so instead of doing the sane thing, I decided to wipe my save and play Celeste from the beginning again so as to reacclimatise myself to the control mechanics, and also do the B-side levels to see if I could improve my skills enough to beat Chapter 9.
What I was surprised to discover was just how much of the game I’d missed by sticking to the main campaign the first time around. Celeste has a frankly stunning amount of extra content, and it’s not as if the main game is particularly short – even on a second playthrough, I clocked in at between seven or eight hours. Beyond collecting the game’s optional strawberries and once-per-chapter Crystal Hearts, the difficult, exacting B-side levels take just as long as the A-sides to complete. And beyond that, there are even C-sides, though I haven’t even gotten close to unlocking those just yet. People often talk about how Celeste is a game about anxiety, self-doubt, depression and other mental health issues, but they’re wrong. Only a third of it is about that. The rest is about suffering.
So why am I still playing it? I’ve discussed games known for their high difficulty before, but unlike Dark Souls, Celeste isn’t tough-but-fair in its optional stages, it’s just tough. And I actually don’t really get on with games that are hard for hardness’ sake. And yet I’ve spent multiple late nights this past week with a TV show on in the background, banging my head against near-impossible stages over and over until I finally learn them well enough that I can perform the move-sequences required to guide Madeline through the tight, deadly routes of each new screen. It helps that there’s a really fast respawn time – once you die, you’re immediately transported back to the beginning of the screen and can take off again with no delay, and even as you fail and fail at a mid-screen obstacle you’re slowly becoming more and more proficient at the other parts of the level, until you can… wait a second. Why do I feel like I’ve been here before?
The answer, of course, is time-loops. They got me again. Some of these stages might be ridiculously cruel, but each run is short, and you quickly feel yourself getting better and better. And then, when you finally get it right and navigate a particularly gruelling gauntlet, balletically dodging traps, spikes and crushers like they don’t even exist, there’s a huge rush of accomplishment, and you feel like you’ve just punched far higher than your weight. Celeste, when it really tightens the screws, becomes a regular dopamine machine, and I’ve inadvertently let it get its hooks into me again.
So, for now, everything else will have to wait. I do want to pick up Fire Emblem again, and I actually got a decent way into Final Fantasy VIII before I fell off the Celeste wagon. Oh, and next week I’m hoping to play a lot of Golden Glitch Studios’ point-and-click Shakespeare-em-up, Elsinore. A conversation-based adventure game, Elsinore casts you in the role of Ophelia during the events of…