A heavy, wrought iron gate slams shut behind as you enter an empty, circular arena. Control is wrested from you as an unskippable cutscene introduces an unspeakable, screen-filling horror. Its name slowly scrolls out along the bottom of your TV, a chyron forecasting your death. You’ve done this enough times to know that the only way out is through.
Picture video game progression as a hose; the bright green kind that mom and dad warned you against running over with the lawn mower. In this analogy, you are the water, and it’s the game’s job to push you along from faucet (“Press any button to start”) to spout (roll credits). If it helps, you can picture the hose, sunning itself on a grassy hill or scraping up the front porch steps, as the difficulty curve. Following this, boss battles like the one I introduced above are the hose’s kinks — the frustratingly tight loops in the rubber that pinch off the flow and stop the water dead in its tracks. The kinks impede the player’s progress, holding them back from moving forward.
While open world games allow a player to do something else if they encounter a too-tight kink in the hose, players of linear games are stuck with a single hose — unkink it or stay stuck. It can be extremely frustrating to hit a seemingly impassable wall, but it is possible for linear games to present boss fights in a way that heightens challenge while curbing frustration. The recent pixel art mountain climbing platformer Celeste offers several compelling cases for an alternative approach to boss design.
While Celeste— like Super Meat Boy and Super Rude Bear Resurrection before it— is a masocore platformer that offers a spike-filled, death-rich journey through a series of increasingly perilous levels, developer Matt Makes Games made three design decisions that help heighten the fun of Celeste’s challenging boss encounters while mitigating frustration.
***Light spoilers for Celeste and Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds ahead***
First, and maybe most importantly, the gameplay during Celeste’s boss fights is consistent with the rest of the game. For comparison, let’s also look at the recent triple-A blockbuster, Horizon Zero Dawn, whose final fight of The Frozen Wilds DLC is a chief offender in being inconsistent with the rest of its play.
While the majority of Horizon’s fights offer the player tall grass to hide in or high points to jump from, Aloy’s trek through the Banuk territory concludes with a controller-breakingly difficult battle against a new and frustratingly resilient enemy with nary a patch of grass or rocky outcropping to be found. It feels like a betrayal of the strategic approach to combat the game spent more than sixty hours teaching.
Celeste is more consistent. There is no combat in the campaign, so its challenge is one of evasion. The player must maneuver protagonist Madeline through consistently labyrinthine levels while avoiding a vast array of pointy obstacles. Likewise, boss battles in Celeste aren’t really battles at all — they’re sustained periods of evasion that don’t end when you knock the enemy’s health down to zero, but when you reach the end of a tough stretch of platforming.
Here’s an example: Look at how this normal platforming section plays out. Madeline deals with this cloud in the exact same way she deals with the boss from a previous level, Mr. Oshiro. As in that sequence, Madeline can jump on the white sphere, or avoid it.
Now, this is the encounter with Mr. Oshiro, the ghostly proprietor of a hotel that Madeline passes through on her trek to the summit. When she expresses her desire to leave the long-empty hotel, Mr. Oshiro transforms into this bobble-headed monster and gives chase.
As you can see, Celeste’s boss battles work because they increase the challenge of the game without betraying the spirit of its gameplay. Celeste is about precision platforming, so its boss encounters follow suit.
The second aspect which keep’s Celete’s boss encounters from becoming frustrating is that they allow for forward progress without requiring sustained perfection in performance.
The most teeth-gnashing moments I’ve experienced in games often come at the tail end of a boss fight. My Dualshock 4 bears battle scars from the moments in Bloodborne when I believed that I had defeated a boss only for them to use their last, nearly invisible sliver of health to end my celebration. can’t forget the time that I felled the mechanical octopus in Sonic Mania only to be killed by the unpredictable oil that covered the bottom of the screen. The octopus was defeated; its hull exploded. I was still dead.
That sort of unexpected eleventh-hour defeat sucks, and Celeste knows it. Whereas Sonic Mania and Bloodborne place significant distances between save spots, Celeste offers ample checkpoints within boss battles. With each death, the player will start over at the beginning of the most recent screen reached, rather than from the beginning. This allows players to focus on the challenge without worrying about their life count, or about the amount of lost progress that an untimely death will mean.
Celeste will never force you to complete a piece of a level that you’ve already finished, so Matt Makes Games can put players through the wringer with each new screen, maximizing individual challenge while minimizing overall frustration. Slowly, but surely, players will make their way through boss encounters. One platforming section may stop you dead in your tracks for a half hour, but if you can complete it once, you’ll never have to waste time doing it again.
Of course, no discussion of Celeste’s difficulty would be complete without noting the way that Matt Makes Games gives players the option of tailoring the challenge to their own capabilities, a third feature that helps curb frustration.
With its robust Assist Mode, Celeste allows players to approach bosses (and the rest of the game) however they want. Sick of dying? Turn on invincibility. Want to air dash forever? Give yourself an infinite supply. Tired of falling off walls? Increase your stamina. This Assist Mode is found behind four screens of text explaining that this is not the intended experience, but it’s available if players are having a hard time with one section, or if they just want to experience the game for its story.
Thanks to these three decisions, boss battles won’t be a stopping point for those who get into Celeste and want to take Madeline to the summit. For some, the trek will be a fun and easy story-based experience. For those who want it, it will be a harrowing gauntlet filled with plenty of tangles in the hose.
The nice thing is, Celeste is the rare video game that lets players get as kinky as they want.
Some of Andrew King's best memories are tied up in games and game culture. Writing for GameCritics is his sure fire way to ensure that his future memories are, too.
When Andrew isn't writing about games, he's working as a News and Sports Reporter for the Hillsdale Daily News. His work has been featured in The Detroit News and The Washington Times.