It’s a sad fact that the ’90s developers who pursued the 3D gold rush left the glory days of the 2D action title in their wake. While major studios and indie devs occasionally revisit that genre with great success – Mega Man 9 and Shovel Knightare two notable examples of that trend – we’re still left wanting more of those 2D action titles that gave no quarter to those with pockets of quarters.
In the ways that matter most, The Messenger by Sabotage Studio is the nostalgic experience that takes us back to that golden age. However, it also happens to be much, much more.
The Messenger tells the story of a young ninja whose village and clan are destroyed by ancient demons looking for revenge. During the attack, our ninja protagonist is overwhelmed by his foes and eventually gets rescued by a mythical “hero from the West.” The hero gives the ninja a scroll and requests that he deliver it to a mysterious tribe who live in the mountains in order to warn them of the demonic invasion. That’s where your quest as the messenger begins.
Sabotage Studio made no attempts to hide The Messenger’s nostalgic heart. It beats with the game’s rhythmic chiptune soundtrack and with every screen transition across the many scrolling levels. The Messenger’s visuals and audio are a pure throwback to the genre’s glory days, but don’t take that to mean that the game is resting on your fond memories. Developer Sabotage clearly understands the appeal of these aesthetics and delivers designs that trigger strong memories while forging new ones.
Granted, that does mean that certain elements of the game are intentionally simplified. That’s especially true of the enemies, which all utilize a simple series of attack patterns that will be instantly familiar to old-school Castlevania fans. The one boss I fought during my time with the game was a bit more intense – he utilized several types of attacks – but this is certainly the type of game where enemies exist to create a kind of death zone that you must navigate through.
That’s quite alright, though, because the combat and movement systems are as airtight as you’d hope they would be in a game of this type. Sword strikes land without fuss from reasonable distances, bouncing between walls is fluid, and avoiding death traps requires just a knowledge of the obstacles that lie ahead rather than leaps of faith that require pixel perfect movements. The Messenger isn’t trying to cheat you, but it’s definitely a challenging game.
The game even manages to gradually incorporate additional skills in a way that feels friendly for less experienced gamers. An early example of that design saw me encounter a gap that couldn’t be crossed with regular jumps. Fortunately, there is a shopkeep at the bottom of the gap who is more than happy to sell you a kind of squirrel suit with a glide ability. By allowing you to fail before acquiring a new ability, The Messenger is better able to relay the purpose and significance of every new mechanic.
The Messenger is also a bit of a parody of the ’90s action era. Not every dialogue sequence is played for laughs, but most exchanges feature some kind of jab at the classic titles that inspired so much of The Messenger’s design. For instance, our hero will chastise a shopkeep for taking up too much of the text box with a long-winded conversation. A merchant will sell you a rope arrow and remark that he’s pretty sure gamers are just going to call it a grappling hook anyway. Things like that keep the game feeling fun no matter how hard the level may be.
This is a game that will first appeal to old-school gamers who long for the days when good triumphed over evil by virtue of the player’s reflex. However, it turns out that The Messenger’s familiarities are just a lure designed to instantly appeal to those who will soon be dragged into the game’s shocking depth.
There comes a point in The Messenger when your 8-bit adventure is seemingly at an end. Without going into specifics, certain events occur which soon transport you to a 16-bit world. Now, an entirely new action game has begun that pays homage to that style of side-scrolling adventure. This section of the game feels like an era-appropriate sequel to the “original” 8-bit title.
But that’s not all. Manage to complete your 16-bit quest and the game changes again. This time, you must navigate a Metroidvania world with multiple paths and navigation options. Alongside the navigation skills you’ve learned throughout the game, you must use a series of portals that transport you between 8 and 16-bit versions of each level in order to fully explore every area. It was at that point that I began to understand that The Messenger’s developers aren’t just interested in paying tribute but also showing off their knowledge of why those games worked as well as they did.
Sabotage blends the 8-bit and 16-bit styles in such a way that ensures the word “gimmick” rarely crosses your mind. The transition effect between the various visuals is seamless and technologically brilliant – music even changes between 8 and 16-bit on the spot – and the levels are all designed in such a way as to accommodate for the eventual portals without making you feel the base areas were designed specifically for that purpose.
What remains to be seen is whether or not The Messenger is able to sustain the appeal of the baseline retro gameplay that drives the game’s more intriguing elements. While the action remained frantic and fun during my brief time with the game – which consisted of about a half-hour of play and a half-hour of developer walkthrough – the mileage you get from this adventure may still end up being heavily dependant on your desire to play a throwback experience.