If there was a single game that stood out to me immediately at the most recent Nindies Showcase, it was The Messenger. Plenty of games seek to capture the nostalgia of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, though few have done it with such love and care. Even if you aren’t familiar with Ninja Gaiden, which serves as the main inspiration here, there’s a lot to appreciate within this incredibly deep sidescrolling experience.
Throughout my 30 minutes with The Messenger at PAX East this year, I was constantly being shown new things that made it stand out from other pixelated retro games. Right off the bat, I fell in love with the tight controls. Whether I was platforming or slashing at my enemies, everything felt just right, clearly fine-tuned by a designer who knew their history and what makes these games great. As one might expect from a Ninja Gaiden love letter, gameplay is difficult, but that makes every enemy defeated and every gap crossed all that much more rewarding. Modern players should be attuned to precisely calculating their moves, thanks to Dark Souls, Shovel Knight, Spelunky, and many others. Like those excellent games, The Messenger is challenging with a purpose, rather than simply choosing to punish the player with no merit.
Well-tuned hack n slash combat, good level design, and precise platforming aren’t the only thing that The Messenger has going for it. In fact, the most intriguing thing about it comes after the player has completed the first 8-bit, stage-based portion of the game. Upon defeating what appears to be the final boss, the young ninja is transported forward through time via a portal, emerging in the land of 16-bit design. At this point, I came to the realization that this game has so much more to offer than a simple tribute to Ninja Gaiden. Still holding true to those mechanics, The Messenger reveals that it has been a Metroidvania-style game all along, and playing in 8-bit was only one version of the world.
After “unlocking” the 16-bit world, the player can now swap between the two art styles, which serves as a metaphor for time travel. This holds a functional purpose as well, since there are geographical differences between the two time periods. In traditional Metroidvania style, there is a map that the player can reference in order to locate undiscovered areas, but each time period holds its own secrets. This transformation becomes a regular mechanic in the game, building upon the combat and platforming that the player has now had plenty of time to get the hang of.
Temporal passage is not accomplished by pressing a button, but rather by walking through gateways scattered around the map. Therefore, it becomes a thinking person’s game of which gateways to walk through in order to access certain areas of the map. I was met with one particular obstacle where I needed to do some puzzle-solving in order to uncover a new area. I began in 16-bit, ran into a gateway to 8-bit, which immediately caused me to hit a solid wall. In order to solve this, I had to find an additional gateway somewhere else on the map so that I could begin that particular instance in 8-bit and pass through the gateway to emerge in 16-bit when the wall was cleared.
Navigation is only given more depth by The Messenger’s jump system. Striking just about anything (lanterns, enemy projectiles, stationary set pieces) propels your character into an additional vertical leap, much like a traditional double jump mechanic. To make things even more fun, these extra leaps stack with one another, granting the possibility of “floating” across a level for high-skilled players. They can be used to find the numerous secret areas scattered across the levels, while speedrunners will have a blast utilizing this technique to skip over whole sections.
Despite being heavily influenced by the NES and SNES eras, The Messenger has a lot of modern sensibilities, especially when it comes to its death mechanics. The days of “Game Over” have long since passed, and I don’t think there are many of us who can tolerate those penalties anymore while keeping our sanity. Sabotage, who developed the game, have utilized a more forgiving checkpoint system to eliminate some of the greater frustrations that come with a system based around finite lives. This encourages players to take risks and try new things, since there are many paths and techniques to utilize within The Messenger. Each level that I spent time with seemed very long, so I considered its checkpoint system a blessing.
As you may have already guessed, this game is very difficult and even with a checkpoint system, there are going to be a lot of sections that try your patience. I ran across a number of instant-death traps, brutal precision platforming sections, and tough enemies who constantly fire projectiles. When you die (and it happens often), you’re haunted by a floating demonic goblin named Quarble who punishes you by stealing your currency. From what I gathered from the demo, it’s difficult to shake him off, since he was following me for quite some time. Eventually he did leave me alone, but not before robbing me of most of my hard-earned cash.
I walked away from The Messenger even more excited for its release, and I already had a lot of anticipation for what it could be. Sabotage have a deep understanding of what makes classic games fun, with the knowledge that modern games require some tweaks. There’s a level of depth to the design, whether you want to find every secret or simply complete stages to get to the end. They’ve absolutely nailed the art style as well, creating a world that players will want to spend time in.