It’s 2018, toy stores are becoming extinct, mobile phones have replaced GameBoys, and video games are downloaded via the internet. Yet for some reason when I finished The Messenger, I couldn’t help but feel that I had unwrapped one of my new favorite games from underneath the Christmas tree in the year 1995.
Getting The Message Across
We all know what it’s like to wake up for class and not want to go. Our protagonist feels the same woes for the ninja academy. However, when he arrives for his teachings this time the entire class is wiped out by the Demon King, who has come to reclaim earth as his throne.
You being the only ninja left in the academy, decide it’s a good idea to take on the threat yourself. Luckily, a hero from the future appears and wards off the Demon King temporarily. This future hero leaves you with a mission to deliver a mysterious scroll to the three prophets atop a mountain. It is the only way to stop earth’s impending doom, and from here on out you are marked the Messenger.
Your journey to the top of the mountain will introduce the Messenger to a wide array of characters that are both charming and full of life, thanks to their excellently written dialogue. By far the most memorable of these characters is the sharp-witted Shopkeeper who you will visit several times during the game’s campaign at various checkpoints.
The Shopkeeper always has a story to share and while some of them are purely for irony, others were surprisingly introspective. I made it a point to visit the Shopkeeper at every checkpoint just to hear what crazy tale he had in store for me next.
The Shopkeeper isn’t the only loveable oaf in this story, as I found almost every single boss to be memorable and funny in their own way. From the adorable Necromancer who lacks the needed confidence to be terrifying, to the two giants who want to enjoy their stew after a long day of being lazy, there are so many unique and cleverly written characters in The Messenger that it’s likely everyone will have their own favorite.
But what would a great cast of characters be without an epic story to tell? Luckily, The Messenger delivers a surprisingly compelling tale that you were unlikely to suspect from a game about ninjas. There is plenty of lore surrounding the game’s world and by the time you reach the halfway point you are introduced to a clever time travel element that expands upon the universe in such a dynamic way. However, there is one disappointing flaw that The Messenger‘s story suffers from.
Have you ever visited a friends house and despite having a great time enjoying their company they wouldn’t let you leave? You slowly inch yourself towards the door trying to give them any sort of hint that you are ready to go, but they still keep telling you more stories about their pets. Yeah, The Messenger is that friend.
While I was having an absolute blast playing The Messenger, by the time I had reached its third false ending I was beginning to wonder if the game would never end. The story elements that The Messenger decides to deliver during its actual final chapter are really endearing, but it felt a tad bit too late as I had felt like the game ended for myself about three bosses ago. It just goes to show you that sometimes too much of a good thing really is too much.
Donkey Kong Vania Metroid Gaiden
It is very clear that The Messenger is aiming to bring back the controller gripping platforming of the original Ninja Gaiden trilogy. What isn’t so clear on the surface, however, is that The Messenger is actually a love letter to the entire platforming genre on the SNES.
Yes, hack and slash platforming is The Messenger’s meat and potatoes, but along the way, you will encounter elements of games like Donkey Kong Country where you are shot out of plants and sent bouncing across several screens much in the way a certain barrel used to launch the great ape. Halfway through the game once you have traversed the entire map, you will be sent back through it discovering new secrets and hidden paths that were unreachable without the right tools. This is incredibly reminiscent to Super Metroid and Castlevania. At one point the game even pays homage to the classic shoot ’em up games of the SNES era as well.
What’s so great about The Messenger though is that rather than trying to hit the audience over the head with nostalgia, the game actually makes several improvements to these gameplay elements that in some ways make them more enjoyable than the source material.
For example, the infamous slash jump technique that played a major part in Ninja Gaiden speedruns has always been difficult to pull off, but in The Messenger, slash jumping is pulled off with such ease that it becomes one of the games most important mechanics. This allows you to traverse through long rooms filled with spikes without ever once touching the ground.
Along with this ability comes an array of upgrades and items that help you traverse the world in ways that were unimaginable in the original Ninja Gaiden trilogy. The squirrel suit allows the Messenger to glide through narrow corridors filled with traps, and a special pair of boots will let our hero run across water.
The amount of creativity that went into designing the levels around these mechanics is astonishing. This is especially noticeable in boss fights, which take advantage of every skill you have learned thus far and really put you to the test.
The game really opens up during the halfway mark, when you are granted the ability to time jump. By entering and exiting time portals strewn across the world map, you are able to travel from the NES inspired 8-bit style of the past to the more detailed 16-bit inspired graphics that represent the future.
This isn’t just for visual effects either, as entire rooms could have different layouts in both the future and past. This opens up new platform elements and in some cases clever puzzle solving that makes you look at the games map in an entirely new way. This helps progress the game further allowing you to backtrack to areas once blocked by obstacles, and in some cases uncovers hidden collectibles that provide an extra challenge for those masochistic who decide to accept.
Much like the games that it was inspired by, The Messenger can be brutally difficult. It acknowledges this fact too by giving you a loveable companion named Quible who will respawn you after every death. Of course, he does so at the expense of your pride by reminding you how many times you’ve died as well as by taking a portion of your newly earned loot. Loot is very valuable to you as you will be using it to purchase upgrades in the shop.
Unlike most skill trees in games, The Messenger‘s has no filler. I found every single upgrade to be useful in some way. There were the usual offerings of extra HP and defense, but power boosts like the swim dash and the ability to recover from knockback damage were far too useful to not be obtained.
The only problem I encountered with The Messenger‘s gameplay was its somewhat random placement of checkpoints. Some areas seemed littered with them to the point where it felt I was saving far too often. However, several extremely difficult groups of rooms were met in rapid succession with no checkpoints in sight, meaning if I barely missed one jump I had to go all the way back through every single obstacle in my way.
The Timeless Time Traveler
There’s a reason that pixel art will never age in beauty. That’s because when a game looks as stunning as The Messenger, no matter what era you play it in you’ll always be able to appreciate just how visually appealing it is. Every single area in the game has its own unique feel spanning a vast array of colors. When you are in the shop you will be indulged in dark blues and blacks that fit the aesthetic of the Shopkeeper, but exit into the Bamboo Forest and you will be bombarded by bright greens and blues that are so delightful it hurts.
Now for the real kicker, every single one of these areas was designed twice. Once with the more muddled and muted color spectrum of the NES and once with the much more lively SNES style that introduces lighter colors for more fine detail. It’s an impressive feat and made only more impressive when you are able to instantly switch to either art style on the fly by simply jumping through a portal. It truly is a sight that words will never do justice.
The only thing that can rival The Messenger’s visuals is its incredible soundtrack written and performed by the artist RainbowDragonEyes. These retro chip tunes are absolute bangers and you’ll most likely be humming their tune well after you have finished The Messenger. Much like the game’s visuals every song was recorded twice introducing new and more advanced sounds when you switch from the past to the future. It’s by far one of the best gaming soundtracks I have heard in years and can be enjoyed on its own even without playing the game.
The Messenger aims to replicate the games of the past, so it should be considered a great achievement for Devs at Sabotage Studios (the creators of The Messenger), that I felt just like I did as a kid playing my SNES on my parents living room floor. The sights and sounds that the game offered were almost a time travel mechanic in themselves to send me back to the days of my youth discovering why I loved playing games in the first place.
It really is a shame that The Messenger had to overstay its welcome with a campaign that dragged on a bit too long. Because besides that and a few questionably placed checkpoints, The Messenger is a damn near perfect game for anyone obsessed with the retro platforming genre.
Rarely have I ever had as much fun platforming as I did in The Messenger. For that reason, I believe that The Messenger deserves to be held in the highest regards among titles like Shovel Knight as one of the best retro-inspired indie games of all time.
Memorable characters, clever dialogue, gorgeous visuals, and one hell of a soundtrack truly make The Messenger one of the must play games of this year.