At first glance, The Messenger appears to be the latest game attempting an 8-bit homage revival.
Much like Shovel Knight, it takes the formula laid out years ago and combines it with modern
technology to create something new and engaging, but this time in the style of Ninja Gaiden.
The end result seems to have it all - tight movement, brutal difficulty and a kickin’
soundtrack, but after spending several hours with the game, you realize this is all a
facade - a guise to draw you in before it slaps you across the face with what The Messenger
is really all about.
It’s got twists, it’s got turns, and it even has those little bamboo hats that Raiden wears.
Let's-...let’s talk about it.
I haven’t played the Ninja Gaiden games extensively but I’m certainly aware of their
influence: climbing streetsigns, throwing shurikens and jumprolling through tons and
tons of enemies.
Right off the bat, The Messenger seems to nail the original’s game feel, but add even
more fluidness to the movement - instead of stopping when you attack on the ground, now
you keep trucking along; you don’t just cling to walls here, you can scale them with ease.
You start the game with the cloudstep maneuver, granting you a second jump after slashing
your sword on an object or enemy, which by itself allows for much more freedom in platforming,
but it quickly ups the ante by giving you a wingsuit to float through the air and the
rope dart so you can grapple hooks to fling across gaps and hazards.
These build on each other in satisfying ways, and add in upgrades from the shop so you can
attack vertically while floating or even cloudstep off projectiles and you get - WOO I MEAN LOOK AT THIS
It kept some of the attributes from its inspiration, like enemies respawning if you move offscreen
then come back, but without the annoying hardware limitations causing sprites to glitch out
all over the place.
They even fixed the archaic lives system of the NES days, not by going the typical Dark
Souls or Shovel Knight route of losing currency, but instead introducing Quarble who will swallow
some of the future gems you collect as payment for bringing you back to life.
It’s sort of a 6 in 1, half dozen in the other type of situation, but it never felt
like an overly-punishing system, especially once you buy the upgrade to lower his compensation
He says some hilariously condescending remarks when you die too.
In fact, the whole game has outstanding humor, the shopkeeper is one of the most refreshingly
written characters I’ve seen in awhile.
It goes beyond simple 4th wall breaking jokes and into real meta-narrative type dialogue
which kept on delivering well into the major twist.
He warns you that the catacombs are an uninspired stage but to not worry because the game gets
more memorable later on, he jokes that there isn’t a boss fight in Bamboo Creek because
it’s a beautiful vacation spot, but then there actually isn’t a boss fight just to
psych you out and keep you on your toes, and he’ll even berate you for trying to open
his closet over and over until eventually he punishes you with a super long story that
you can’t skip.
In fact, if you try to sneak in when he’s not there, he’ll pop in and say AHA GOTCHA PUNK!
The bosses catch you by surprise as well - some aren’t as menacing as you would expect,
some befriend you after beating them, and some aren’t actually violent at all - your
battle was just a simple misunderstanding.
I will say I was a little bit let down by the enemy placement at first though, the stages
weren’t something to write home about.
I mean I was having a good time, but thought it was nearing the end without really taking
off or doing anything groundbreaking.
Little did I know that all of this is carefully designed on purpose to make you think this
is all there is - a shiny new coat of paint on an old format, wrapped up in a clever bow
and improved gameplay.
That is, until you mention to the shopkeeper that your adventure is almost over, and he
reminds you that the trailer says something different.
This is when it hit me, oh yeah I saw that trailer, there’s supposed to be time-changing
portals or something.
And right then the first of several big reveals takes place - as you defeat the tower of time’s
final challenge, you take a leap of faith into the future - complete with an entire
overhaul to the graphics: that’s right, everything is 16-bit now!
And it’s much more than just visuals, all the background music and sound effects are
entirely different as well - it manages to feel like a totally new experience even though
all the mechanics are virtually the same.
Now, they DID actually show this off in the trailer, I just didn’t pay close enough
attention to notice.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg, they left the real spoilers out of it entirely.
After defeating the demon king’s underling, the story gets hit with several big twists
and it’s done in a tastefully entertaining way.
Just like you were asked to take a sacred scroll to the top of a mountain by The Western
Hero, now you realize that this same process loops with a new messenger every 500 years,
and you become the shopkeeper guiding them on their journey.
Except, they left out an important detail - you’re supposed to make sure to send Quarble
to revive them when they die, otherwise there’s no more adventurer.
After a short panic when your new protege is a no show, the sages call upon you to finish
the job, and this is where the game truly becomes an entirely new behemoth.
Instead of a challenging level-based platformer, it goes full-blown metroidvania.
The scroll you have been carrying this whole time is actually a map of the various levels,
and you need to collect the magical music notes to break the curse and save the world.
From this moment on, two major changes happen from a gameplay perspective - it lets go of
any linearity or handholding and releases you to explore the world.
The only thing you have to go off of are hints from the elder sage.
And 2, you can now warp between time periods through the aforementioned rifts throughout
These not only switch things graphically, but also reconfigure the level layouts so
new pathways become available and harder enemy patterns are present in the future.
This blew my freaking mind!
I’ve seen games modify their visual style before, but often it simply upgrades as you
play and never goes back, like in Evoland.
The closest I’ve seen to this is Adventures of Pip but that’s only the main character
switching back and forth to use different abilities, not every asset!
It made me realize the true scope of pulling this off since they essentially had to make
two versions of the entire game, and the fact that it all happens so seamlessly and can
swap on a dime makes this something I really haven’t seen before.
Huge props have to be given to sound designer RainbowDragonEyes for his accomplishments
with this game, it’s honestly the best soundtrack I’ve heard in years and each tune having
their own dedicated 8-bit and 16-bit versions that switch constantly is a huge undertaking.
Basically this reinvention after pulling the wool over your eyes is a triple use of a mechanic.
Not only does it keep the old stages interesting by adding new hazards and puzzle elements
to the layout, but it’s used as a story beat to travel back and forth to the past
and future to accomplish tasks that would be impossible in one timeline, AND it also
is a nod to real life since 16-bit came after 8-bit graphics, making it easily recognizable
as the different time periods.
I don’t think The Messenger could have succeeded with this unique idea if it wasn’t so well-designed
in the first place.
Once the game opens up it introduces a bunch of totally new locations that utilize the
time portals in special ways and even add in new mechanics all the time, like rockets
shooting into the air, bouncing flower pads that remind me of the monkeys from the Lion
King for some reason, and even a new powerup that lets you walk on water as long as you
You’ll travel to all of the old and new places to unlock helpful items, fight extra
bosses and turn enemies into friends to help people in both timelines.
Sometimes you'll see characters in the future and be like, ‘oh yeah of course, they're dead!'
But then turn back time to interact with them.
I love that for the most part, the future versions of stages are harder, except for
The Cloud Ruins because when you go back to the past, it's a bustling electric temple
brimming with danger!
All the little details that you may not even notice your first time through really bring
the whole experience together - like how the fungi in Quillshroom Marsh will sing along
to parts of the melody, or how the new messenger emulates the same movements when YOU entered
the shop for the first time; jumping around, looking at all the knick knacks.
The last gauntlet is possibly my favorite area, as you enter a music box and the platforms
react to the beat of the song - it's a perfect final test of everything you've learned.
There’s even bonus collectibles called Power Seals scattered throughout the world that
teach you the most advanced moves in your arsenal to collect them - you essentially
become a master of traversal just by completing the game.
If I had one complaint, it’s that I wish you could teleport to any shop location instead
of the select few teleporters that are accessible from the temple headquarters.
It did get a little old traveling from the same spot so many times, but remember how
I said the stages had a relatively basic enemy layout?
This makes so much more sense when you take into account that you have to navigate them
several times to progress the story.
The first 2-3 hours of the game are essentially a tutorial for the rest of the experience,
and once you unlock all your movement abilities, it becomes quick and super gratifying to just
sail around the locals and see what’s changed since the last time you came through.
Overall, The Messenger not only nails the juice of what made games like this so satisfying
from back in the day, but introduces a new twist in a surprising way, pulling a fast
one on everyone's expectations of a genre.
It’s impressive to create a modernized homage to a classic franchise, but it’s almost
impossible to keep such a mindblowing secret under wraps in today’s day and age - and
I think the way it was marketed played a big role in that.
I kept seeing so many people saying they were enjoying The Messenger so far, and really
liked the movement or bosses and I kept thinking, 'oh just you wait and see my friend.'
It’s easily a Game of the Year contender for me, and will hold a special place in my
heart simply because of how much it came out of nowhere and blew every assumption I had
out of the water.
I’m curious - can you think of another game that wasn’t what you were expecting going
in, but became one of your favorites because of how it defied those expectations?
What was the x-factor that made it so memorable for you?
Tell me in the comments below and let’s talk about it.
If you haven't played The Messenger yet, you absolutely need to give it a try.
Sometimes a game looks like it'll be enjoyable for one thing, but you might be surprised
at what you actually find underneath.
Thanks for watching another episode of Good Game Design, I’ll see you guys next time.
Stay frosty my friends!
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Alright I’m outta here, later!