By: George Weidman
Celestial Mechanica is a game that is endearingly “cool.” The game’s graceful style and enchanting spirit softens the blows of its more tangible setbacks, but above all else, Celestial Mechanica is brimming with the kind of passionate, unrestrained authorship that makes indie games great even when they’re rough around the edges.
Visible authorship is one of those interesting differences that define indie games against their big-budget competitors. In this market, where upstart amateur developers are given the freedom to create without the pressure of a publisher breathing down their neck, stamping one’s name all over a piece of work is not just a matter of style but also of professional need.
And stamp they did. The dynamic duo Roger Hicks and Paul Veer are all over this game. All of their passions are contained within: from pixel art to hip-hop to underlying revolutionary themes. The musician-programmer Roger Hicks cameos himself in-game, promoting his website directly through a hotkey he introduces to the player. So does Paul Veer, the enigmatic pixel artist who almost exclusively makes games during the last minutes of game-making competitions. For them, this is their first commercial project, but the rushed quality of the game suggests that it was made in the same environment of breakneck speed and financial scarcity as their free work.
Oh, That X Button!
So after reading up on the two developers and installing their game, I get ready to jot down my first impression: “the controls don’t work.” The readme doesn’t explain why. Support forums are nonexistent. How do I fullscreen? I just ran off-screen. I can’t get back. Everything just turned blue. It just saved during all this. What?
Celestial Mechanica is a game rife with technical problems. It does not include any kind of in-game options screen to assign controls to a gamepad (and as a 2D platformer, it feels way more natural on a gamepad.) Instead, players must make their own Joy2Key controller profile, and the one included by default is a mess. Direction keys are mislabeled and the “X” key (the freakin’ jump button!) was neglected by default. The readme says the game only uses “space” and “enter,” though just ten minutes of playtime reveals an abundance of needed keys that the authors didn’t write about.
All of this troubleshooting lasts much longer than it needs to, and only sours the first moments of what is otherwise a competently-made game. A quick story scroll introduces the backstory: humans nearly destroy Earth until the robotic “Mechanians” suddenly appear in a sky fortress and save the day. No Mechanian has been seen for a century… that is, until we see our protagonist Mechanian tumble out of the sky and begin our game.
Immediately, the presence of a grid-based map grounds the game within the “Metroidvania” genre, as do the permanent character upgrades and back-and-forth traveling. The ages-old familiarity of its Metroid-styled design is crossed with levels that are inspired by a more contemporary subgenre of side-scroller: that still-unnamed flavor of games like Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV that throw around 90-degree difficulty spikes with anarchistic glee. Levels in Celestial Mechanica are packed to the brim with instant-killing death traps, invincible enemies, and precarious jumps that require pixel-perfect precision. Death comes fast and without warning, and virtually without penalty. Our little jumping Mechanian robot respawns just as fast as it dies, oftentimes too fast for the camera to keep up. Overall, the challenges presented in these areas are never overly difficult to the point of being frustrating; instead, they’re just satisfying.
Celestial Mechanica is Mega Man meets Meat Boy, and it’s glorious. It’s certainly less challenging than both games, but not without its own moments of insanely hard jumping puzzles that lead to the inevitably satisfying victory. However, there are a few button-pressing puzzles that are less well-executed, of the “hit-a-switch-and-backtrack” variety that are certainly less fun to play than the rest of the game. Sadly, these seem to exist just to pace the twitch challenges. But for the most part, jumping and sliding our little robot through this world is a delight.
Music That Will Give You Goosebumps
Speaking of delights, the one feature of this game that seems to have had as much effort put behind it as it deserves is the soundtrack. In a word, it’s fantastic. Celestial Mechanica sports a soundtrack that is by all means perfect for this kind of game. Powerful bass guitar lines fade smoothly and quickly into an organized chaos of percussion, giving the game the charming but sinister ambiance that it deserves. If Celestial Mechanica is a cross between Mega Man and Meat Boy, its soundtrack is a cross between Muse and Explosions in the Sky. Its music is soothing and ambient 80 percent of the time, and riveting and stressful for the other 20 percent. This balance suits the difficulty spikes of challenging gameplay perfectly, and it’s a soundtrack that is almost worth listening to by itself (though is questionably more expensive than the game itself.) Even the non-music ambient tracks are equally well done; the quiet serenity of the game’s opening forest area, for example, is complemented by birds that chirp to a melody.
Pixelated Graphics: The Uniform of Indie Games
For the most part, Celestial Mechanica looks as pretty as it sounds. There is something that must be said of the pixel, and of its persistence. This kind of old-school, nostalgia-exploiting graphical style is one that can look aesthetically pleasing on any budget, and Celestial Mechanica executes its own style with the same kind of wide-eyed determination that characterizes the rest of the game. That is to say that it’s actually kind of a mixed bag. Some backgrounds give an awe-inspiring sense of scale and detail, yet others are just one flat, monochromatic color. Most of our little robot’s running and jumping animations are crisp and slick, but the ones for the more advanced moves are wonky and jerky. Though Celestial Mechanica is certainly a good-looking game, its style is not always conducive to its gameplay.
Final Thoughts – Is it Worth $5?
It’s hard to say no to Celestial Mechanica, but I’m going to have to. The current asking price is $5, and while that certainly isn’t a lot, Celestial Mechanica only lasts about two hours and feels more like a sponsored flash game that a fully-fledged commercial release (in fact, in an interview with TPG earlier this year, Roger Hicks mentioned that his original intention was to find a sponsor and release this game for free.) Considering the alternatives, the $5 price point is just too much. VVVVVV is of undisputable quality and is the same price. Likewise, there are countless flash games available for free that accomplish just as much as Celestial Mechanica.
It’s an adorably flawed attempt at creating something that its creators might not have the finesse to pull off now, but certainly will for their next game. While it looks, sounds, and plays great, it’s just not of a high enough quality to ask for $5. The readme barely explains how to play the game, there’s a complete lack of in-game options, the side-scrolling screen jitters and lags consistently through the whole game, and the backgrounds change inconsistently from screen-to-screen. After a few more patches it may be worth $5, but until then, virtually everything could have more work put into it. Except for the soundtrack. The soundtrack is awesome.
Celestial Mechanica Summary:
- Time Played – 4 hours
- Widescreen Support –Letterboxed at all resolutions
- 5.1 Audio – No
- Bugs – Many
- DRM – None
- Control Scheme – Non-customizable keyboard, Joy2Key gamepad support
- Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
- Worth your money – No