Zigged when you should have zagged?
Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just here to give the review.
Yet another exciting console exclusive for the Switch, The Messenger from Canadian developer Sabotage Studio is another fine-tuned platformer with classic sensibilities. It’s been garnering a lot of attention and acclaim lately, and deservedly so, as it explodes the common traits of classic platformers, before meticulously reorganising them using modern techniques and methodical improvements.
The Messenger, much like similar indie hit Shovel Knight, is inspired by classic action-platforming games of the 8 and 16-Bit era. As expected you’ll be doing a lot of running, jumping and slashing, and there are multiple levels with traditional boss battles, but the game throws curve balls in its design with the way it subverts expectations. An early example of this is that alongside the well placed lanterns throughout, you can use incoming projectiles to give you an extra jump, forcing you to fight your intuition and jump towards them rather than ducking or avoiding. Mechanics and design choices such as these are refreshing and challenging to your preconceived cognisance of what is happening on-screen.
Perhaps the easiest and closest comparison to The Messenger would be Ninja Gaiden, not least of which because of the protagonist’s garb, but this comparison is also illustrative of the strides the genre has made since then, and how this new game has taken classic elements and improved upon them. For example, whereas enemy placements in Ninja Gaiden could be annoying and unfair, with the knock back after hits resulting in you falling to your death, The Messenger transforms taking hits into an up-gradable skill, a ‘comeback’ mechanic that allows you to spring back into action when you would have otherwise tumbled to your demise. Clever solutions like this to niggling yet notable flaws make The Messenger a game that’s more forgiving and reflective of the modern day; still challenging but in the right ways.
The Messenger’s awesome soundtrack fits the screen-to-screen momentum of gameplay, making your increasingly skilled movements a rhythmic dance, but things get a bit more interesting when you shift into the 16-Bit aesthetic, as it ushers in those familiar Mega Drive twangs…
A fundamental and purposeful spanner in the works, The Messenger‘s gameplay crux is a two-act structure that teaches you brilliantly. The first act is a linear experience, garnering skill in different abilities, environments, enemy patterns and alike. After completing the main map and fulfilling your prophecy as ‘The Messenger’, the second half then takes those lessons and remaps them into a branching exploration ‘metroidvania’, forcing you to use techniques differently in order to progress.
Whereas originally you know exactly where you’re going and in what order, with this mode you at times have no idea which direction to go, and with the game opening up multiple portals at the beginning of its second act, there’s no right or wrong answer. Despite at times being a bit difficult to figure out what to do, the devs to a good job of subtly removing the training wheels before dropping you in at the deep end, and you’ll also discover new areas and collectibles via new time-shift environmental puzzles. The Sunken Temple stage is a great example of this, with the 500 year time shift switching between platforming that is on land and underwater.
The latter half of the game introduces a ton of replay value with its branching paths and map, and as with any good platformer these days there’s also some lovely scalable difficulty for those wanting to test their chops. Power seals scattered around the map provide some controller-clenching challenges, similar to the optional strawberries in Celeste.
A young ninja sent on a quest through foreign lands to stop an evil demon by fighting his cronies and collecting musical notes to break a curse, The Messenger’s story is pretty trite, but it’s aware of such, and makes fun of itself along the way with some humorous dialogue and meta references throughout. The hooded shopkeeper, a character who will sell you upgrades and give you pointers during your journey, is written well and interacts with the character in a way that creates a fitting, lighthearted tone. The same is true of the other varied characters and bosses, who are each unique and funny in their own right. The gameplay should be taken very seriously, but it’s nice to know that the narrative doesn’t have to be.
Items and abilities that you gain along the way from the shopkeeper help you to interact with the platforming in different ways, eventually learning to pull off feats that truly make you feel like a ninja. Powers include shuriken stars, gliding, and even a rope dart, and it’s gratifying seeing your save file screen fill up with all your perks as you progress. In addition to this, The Messenger throws lives out the window in favour of Quarble, a demon that will bring you back to life if you die at the cost of your next bunch of shards, or coins, or points, or whatever these arbitrary things are you’re collecting. It’s a brilliant update, as with the frequent save points the loss of points is a better consequence of failure than a simple ‘game over’, and it’s funny getting some pretty discouraging and rude messages from Quarble every time you fail to stick a simple triple-somersault.
Also, speaking of save points, The checkpoints are perfectly suited to the Switch’s handheld portability, allowing those on the go to jump in-and-out of gameplay without having to repeat sections.
The Messenger is an NES game perfected, a classic 80s title retrofitted and augmented with modern trimmings and historical hindsight. From fluency of animation, to more forgiving and fair challenges of skill, to simple nuances such as parallax scrolling and the little underwater effect the audio has when you go for a swim, it’s a delight. Parallax scrolling. I just wanted to say that.
The Messenger stands alongside the likes of Shovel Knight as an example of classic platforming mastered. By retrofitting modern sensibilities, fine-tuned controls and deep replay value into the heart of a traditional game formula, it creates an experience that’s nostalgic, yet new and exciting.