First Impressions: The Messenger — A Sharp Slice of Gaiden Goodness

Nostalgia and how it translates to the modern gaming landscape is a funny thing. On the one hand, you have Shovel Knight, a game that takes several cues from beloved Nintendo Entertainment System games (namely, Mega Man and Ninja Gaiden) and updates old ideas in a way that makes it stand apart. On the other hand, you have Mighty No. 9, a so-called Mega Man spiritual successor—with one of its original creators no less—coming out an uninspired trudge that had its Kickstarter backers infamously crying, like an animé fan on prom night. The scale is one of extremes: either the tributes cut to the bone, like a sword, or bounce off and stab the designers’ squarely in the eye.

The latest of these retro revivals to take a swing is The Messenger from Sabotage Studios. Its visuals, music, and gameplay style form such a faithful homage to Ninja Gaiden that even the original creator took a shot at it recently. But for all the retro flattery, the more important question is whether this ninja can overcome its roots and deliver a journey that transcends time and space.

The answer? If the first few hours are anything to go by, we’re not playing with any wimpy Ninja Dogs.

A Guide(n) for the Uninitiated

The comparison between The Messenger and its Gaiden framework is easy to make. They both work as 2D action-platformers with a focus on combat and cinematic storytelling. In the beginning, your custom-named ninja—the eponymous messenger—receives a scroll from the “Western hero” of legend and goes on a journey to the highest peak in the land to deliver it. Like Ryu Hayabusa before him, the quest takes the form of a series of platforming levels covering a wide variety of locations, from autumnal forests to poisonous bogs and even the depths of Hell.

The Messenger ninja hiding in a tree
True ninjas take the high ground and hide in trees.

Speaking of Hell, The Messenger makes no bones about staying “Nintendo Hard” (a.k.a. very hard) in every respect. Checkpoints are sparse, enemies and platforms are laid out in increasingly tricky positions as the game goes on, and the boss fights pose a test of dexterity even for platforming veterans. Players are expected to not only be good with a sword, but a new cloud-step technique, gaining jumps for every enemy killed. Lives are infinite, but death comes with a costly price in the form of Quarble. This tiny one-eyed demon brings you back from the brink but sucks up all the Time Shards you collect for a limited time—the currency you need to buy upgrades from Shops. Also, he keeps track of your death count. ON PURPOSE.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

It sounds unfair, but in practice, it’s the exact opposite. As Quarble himself points out, this system is more palatable than the old system of limited lives and continues that forced you back to the beginning. It ensures the challenge never boils over into Switch-smashing, kicking-a-hole-in-the-wall levels of frustration.

Between the cloud-step, responsive controls, and numerous checkpoints, The Messenger provides the best kind of retro revival: paying due service to its roots in a manner anyone can appreciate. If these first hours are any indication of what’s to come, this heroic Hayabusa homage could indeed go beyond his roots…but that’s a story for another time.

The Messenger Clings to a Cliff
There are plenty of beautiful sights to see while clinging to walls in The Messenger.

Stay tuned for our “Final Impressions” of The Messenger on Couch Bandits—coming soon! Follow our blog at the bottom of the page to never miss an update. 

All artwork belongs to Sabotage Studios. No copyright infringement is intended.

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