The third platformer on my list is Celestial Mechanica, which is the result of a collaboration between Roger Hicks, known for the game rComplex, and Paul Veer, who animated the excellent Super Crate Box. It originally came out sometime in 2011, I think, but I never got around to picking it up despite being intrigued by the footage I’d seen. Then, not long ago, it was released for free, which finally convinced me to grab it and check it out.
For those not well-versed in platformers, exploration platformers eschew discrete levels in favor of a single, explorable world, usually gated by the need to find upgrades in order to reach new areas. Such platformers are often referred to as Metroidvanias, a reference to the Metroid and Castlevania series. I’m not a huge fan of that term, since I feel that the entries in the Castlevania series that apply (most do not) were derivative of the Metroid series anyway, with the possible exception of Simon’s Quest. But no matter what you call it, this type of game is very popular among indie developers; some notable examples include Aquaria and La-Mulana.
Celestial Mechanica is a clear homage to the classic exploration platformers, with a visual aesthetic and gameplay style that hearkens back to the 16-bit era. The fairly basic story tells of the shattering of Earth at the hands of humankind, and last-minute salvation through the sudden appearance of celestial beings. These beings live in a floating city called Mechanica, which prevents Earth from splitting apart. The humans revere them as gods, although none have been seen on the surface in over a hundred years. Until now, that is. The game proper opens with the player character, a Mechanician, plummeting to Earth from Mechanica. From there, the adventure begins.
To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed with Celestial Mechanica at first. The camera is set up with a very close-in view of the protagonist, which makes it hard to see upcoming obstacles, and makes it feel as if the protagonist moves too fast. In fact, once the double-jump upgrade is found (such an upgrade is virtually a requirement for such games), a simple double-jump straight into the air is enough to have the ground fall out of view. This makes the game tricky to control, and I found myself dying frequently because I couldn’t see where I was going well enough or react quickly enough to obstacles. Also, there are no traditional checkpoints, with the player simply restarting the current screen upon death. This means it’s easy to try a tricky section multiple times, but makes backtracking annoying, especially if I’d accidentally taken the wrong route. And, while I love the pixel art for the characters, the environments weren’t as appealing, often composed of bland blocks without much detail. These things gave the game a bit of an amateurish feel, and I was frustrated more than entertained.
But as I continued to play, the game’s charms started to win me over. The music is quite nice, and the dogged optimism of my NPC ally (that’s “non-player character” for those unfamiliar) was infectious. And as I got used to the controls, I was able to appreciate what is actually some very good level design, with the environmental puzzles in the water temple being the highlights. Plus, the various upgrades make things much more interesting. In the beginning the protagonist can’t even jump, but later on she can not only double-jump and glide, but can also catch enemy projectiles and hurl them back at the attackers. There’s even a “secret” powerup that was added in version 1.2, although it’s clearly designed to be picked up on a second playthrough (hint: if you can see it but can’t see a clear way to get it, you’re too late). But, since Celestial Mechanica only takes an hour or two to complete — less than that once you know the puzzle solutions — it’s not a big deal to head through again to grab the secret upgrade and see what it does. I did, and while it’s fun to play with, it’s certainly not required, so don’t feel obligated to play through again unless you want to.
Ultimately, despite the annoyances, I wished there were more to Celestial Mechanica. I felt it ended too soon, which is another way of saying that I overcame whatever frustrations I had early on and really was enjoying myself. But those issues aren’t magically fixed as the game progresses, so I must temper any recommendation with some caveats. Fortunately, since the game is now available for free, there’s no harm in picking it up and trying it out yourself. I won’t blame you if you’re turned off in the beginning, but stick it out a bit longer and you might find yourself quite liking this little game. It’s a worthy way to spend a few hours.
EDIT: The Indie Platformer Marathon is now complete! See all the posts here.