As an indie developer, you can’t get away with the umpteenth 8-bit platformer and at first glance, The Messenger by Sabotage seems to be the umpteenth game that fits in with faux-retro games. This game is clearly inspired by a long-forgotten series (Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi) and has a classic graphics style to evoke the right atmosphere. However, we should not write off this game so easily. For that, The Messenger is in fact much too creative.
Starting off as a decent platformer
It just takes a while before the game shows its best side. The first few hours, the journey of the eponymous ninja is mainly a decent platformer. The ninja in the leading role has a sword and a set of throwing stars. You will get a grappling hook, the skill to climb up walls and a special suit as the story progresses. After three hours or so of challenging linear levels, there seems to be a logical ending to the story. But appearances can be deceiving. Once you arrive at your final destination, the message is clear: to defeat the army of demons for good, you must make a considerable leap through time.
Travel through gaming generations
Consequently, the journey through time causes the game to undergo a transformation from the 8-bit of the NES to a graphics style that most resembles a 16-bit game on a Sega Mega Drive. The gameplay remains unchanged, but the music and levels undergo a major upgrade. With that, the path of the messenger from the title takes a new turn. After a few linear levels in this new style, the game reveals itself as a modest Metroidvania. All stand-alone levels seem to be connected to each other. In addition, they contain portals that make it possible to switch between the two times. A passage that is closed in 8-bit can be a new route in 16-bit.
The fact that the same levels can be reused is cleverly conceived and because of the other graphics style, it’s not even that obvious that you have already walked through it. However, this design also makes you spend a lot of time wandering around. The objective at this point in the game is to find eight magical musical notes. You will find that easier said than done as you have to find the right spots with the help of some vague hints.
The Messenger becomes a little less impressive in the second half, but knows how to impress in many other ways. The game plays smoothly and presents the player with an original challenge level after level. Combining skills creates complex platform sections in which your ninja hangs, floats and climbs between all sorts of obstacles. It won’t become as challenging as Super Meat Boy or Celeste but some experience with retro platformers will come in handy.