Originally published September 10, 2018 for Doublejump.co
In The Messenger, everything comes back to time travel. I wish I could start every review that way.
Developed by Sabotage Studio and published by Devolver Digital, the game begins as a straightforward retro throwback to 8-bit action-platformers. Move left-to-right through the level, beat the boss, repeat. The Messenger modernises the genre in a number of ways – before exploding into something very different.
Using the original NES Ninja Gaiden as a foundation, The Messenger builds on its iconic gameplay – the nimble ninja player character, the quick slash attacks, the wall-climbing, the throwing stars – and updates it into something more fluid and accessible. The titular Messenger (who the player gets to name, à la Legend of Zelda) controls extremely well with low latency – no floatiness, no sliding, just direct action-response gameplay that becomes second nature in no time. It keeps the deliberate nature of Ninja Gaiden and games of its ilk without the brutal arcade sensibilities that make them tough to approach today.
Sabotage Studio took the same modern approach when designing the game’s aesthetic. Crafted in a retro 8-bit style – simple sprites and a limited colour palette – The Messenger’s visuals are downsampled for a modern, HD-friendly look, especially on larger displays. Its lengthy era-appropriate soundtrack, composed by chiptune artist Rainbowdragoneyes using Famitracker, is catchy and distinct and gives each level a memorable theme. Audio design is just as slick with a host of impactful sound effects and attention to detail – it’s a small update over its inspirations but muffling the audio whenever you’re underwater is such an endearing and oddly entertaining little feature.
Even the writing is better than what you would expect from a platformer throwback. Mostly comedic, the charming script is consistently funny and polished, always poking fun at either the player or the game itself. It only packs a few surprises story-wise, generally unraveling as you would expect, but the otherwise quality writing (chat with the shopkeeper whenever you can) elevates an already strong game into something often joyous.