The Messenger is the genre-bending platforming masterpiece you’ve always wanted

By Steven T. Wright, Contributor

From their very inception, video games have surprised and baffled players by messing with their expectations. Whether it’s the hidden warp zones in the Mario series, a bizarre hot tub in ToeJam & Earl, or a developer secreting their initials in countless retro classics like Adventure, secrets and twists are native to the medium. However, there are only a few games that manage to wed an ever-present sense of nostalgia and discovery to pinpoint mechanics that feel fun and satisfying even 20 hours in. Sabotage Studios’ The Messenger is one of those lucky few.

At first blush, The Messenger is a straightforward tribute to classic 8-bit platformers, particularly the Ninja Gaiden series. When the curtain rises, your humble ninja’s village is attacked by evil demons, and you’re tasked with delivering a scroll to the top of a mountain. In classic NES style, you run to the right, jumping over bottomless pits and defeating skeletons, demons, and towering bosses with a flurry of shurikens. However, as the levels roll by, things begin to get a bit weird; once your mysterious shopkeeper friend starts talking to you about rips in time, the true nature of the game begins to reveal itself.

Past the initial battery of 8-bit style levels—which culminates in a tower of trials that’s far more intricate than anything you’ve seen until that point—something goes hilariously wrong, and your ninja is left to save the world himself. It’s here that The Messenger turns from a throwback action platformer to a sort of simplified Metroidvania. Your ninja gains the power to navigate through portals to the past and future, here represented by 8-bit and 16-bit art styles. These portals don’t just change the layout of each level; they also seamlessly change the background music from catchy, 8-bit chiptunes to the gritty, multichannel growl of the Sega Genesis. Though the effect is seriously impressive, the soundtrack doesn’t necessarily need the help: You’ll likely find yourself humming the tunes well after you’re done with the game.
The Messenger
Though The Messenger does open up around its halfway point, don’t let the Metroidvania influence fool you: This is a platformer through and through. Though a few of the game’s bosses can put up a decent fight, most of the challenge lies in navigating gauntlets of traversal challenges. (This becomes doubly true once your ninja gets access to the Rope Dart, which is essentially a fancy grappling hook.) The late game has you delving into the previous levels to find the MacGuffins you need to kill the big bad once and for all. For my part, these sections struck the perfect balance between simply exploring and actually forcing you to think about the layout of each zone in order to finally triumph.

The Messenger has a lot of things going for it, but perhaps its greatest asset is its sheer charm. From the bizarre conversations with the shopkeeper to its gonzo, fourth-wall-breaking approach to worldbuilding, it’s a romp that never takes itself too seriously. However, there is a cracker of a game beneath its veil of absurdity, with well-designed levels, great pixel art, and a fantastic difficulty curve, too. If you’re looking for a retro throwback that lives up to the true classics instead of just mining them for ideas, The Messenger is the game you’ve been waiting for.

The Messenger is available on the Epic Games Store.