Disclaimer: This review is of the PC version and was conducted on a PC with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 960, i7, 8GBs of RAM.

Retro-style platformers are not a new thing. The popularity of indie  games made it so any hack with GameMaker Studio could go about crafting  their own platformer. I even attempted to make my own Mega Man  style platformer when I was younger. That’s why, if someone were to deep  dive into fan games based on a platforming franchise, they’d find  pretty much only trash there. It used to be rare for retro platformers  to break the mold. Nowadays, thanks to Kickstarter and publishers like  Devolver Digital, more truly unique platformers make it to market. Most  recently, a Ninja Gaiden/Shinobi inspired game titled The Messenger has proven that in a genre as overdone as the platformer, there’s still room to make something truly incredible.

Ninja Gaiden gameplay with an emphasis on flow

Image from Steam

The Messenger is a 2D platformer that wears its Ninja Gaiden inspiration  on its sleeve. One of the character even makes a joke about how the  Messenger shares almost all of his abilities with Ninja Gaiden’s  protagonist Ryu Hayabusa. The Messenger can jump, wall climb, throw  shuriken, and glide like a real ninja (or echidna). The Messenger,  however, has an ability that completely unlocks the game from being a  copy-paste platformer to something that really flows: cloudstepping.

Cloudstepping is a simple mechanic. After landing an attack while in  the air, the Messenger can perform another jump to gain extra height and  distance. And he can continue to do this as long as he keeps landing  attacks. This turns everything in the game, whether it is an enemy or a  lamppost or other strange objects that the game has, into a way to move  faster and farther through the game. There are a number of platforming  challenges within the game that requires expert usage of cloudstepping,  and due to the ease of execution, these seemingly impossible challenges  can be handled with relative ease. Even as someone who isn’t amazing at  platformers, this mechanic is not only easy to use, but also extremely  satisfying.

Image from Steam

Cloudstepping, along with the glide and grappling hook, encourage  flow and speed through levels. If everything is a tool for platforming,  then there are a lot of crazy skips and movement tricks the player can  do to tackle the levels in their own way. It’s very reminiscent of how A Hat in Time tackled  3D platforming, giving tons of movement tools to the player and letting  them solve platforming challenges their own way. The Messenger highlights  this freedom of movement in the optional platforming challenges for  power seals. Each power seal requires skilled usage of all the game  mechanics, and some can even be taken down in ways the developers likely  didn’t necessarily plan. It’s exhilarating to tackle a challenge and  take it down in a different way than the game clearly intends.

The boss fights are also very impressive, with highly detailed  sprite-work and animations that sometimes push the limits of their 8-bit  recreation. Each fight is unique and fun to take down, although many  aren’t much more difficult than your average Mega Man robot  master. This is where the different tools in the Messenger’s arsenal  really get to shine, particularly cloudstepping. Some bosses can be  destroyed instantaneously with a little bit of finesse, while others  will take more effort but are still fun and satisfying to take down.  However, they mostly disappear after the first half of the game, which  is disappointing since the couple boss fights that happen after the  timeskip are my favorite ones in the game.

A meta style that crosses time and space

The most unique part about The Messenger, however, isn’t the cloudstepping or boss battles or even the superb level design. The best part about The Messenger is  how it crosses time and space to bridge the gap between the retro 8-bit  platformer and retro 16-bit platformer. Although many games will use  chiptune music but with 16-bit visuals, The Messenger goes above  and beyond by incorporating the two different styles as their own unique  worlds and levels. The music, visuals, and even certain level designs  will change greatly depending on whether or not the Messenger is in the  past or the future. The time-travel meta narrative is the backbone to  all of the features within the game.

Image from Steam

To explain, after around the three hour mark of the game, the  Messenger is sent into the future. This quite literally sends the 8-bit  platformer into the future, turning into a Sega Genesis title, complete  with an incredible Sega Genesis sound recreation. From the time-skip and  onward, the game transforms from a standard platformer into a  Metroidvania, complete with non-linear stages, things to discover, and  optional platforming challenges that pushed my death count well into the  triple-digits. There’s even some puzzle-solving that’s done by  traveling between time-periods mid-level.

This gameplay element is what helps The Messenger transcend  the average retro platformer. It’s honestly incredible how much the  development team was able to accomplish with this time-travel mechanic,  and it keeps the game very fresh throughout its surprisingly beefy  runtime. My main complaint is that some of the later stages drag on a  bit too long, particularly Forlorn Temple. Additionally, while the  difficulty curve is mostly fair, some of the later levels have absurd  difficulty spikes that tend to last for a single checkpoint before  returning to a reasonable level. The game is nowhere near as hard as  classic Ninja Gaiden, but it still has teeth and will bite.

Era-appropriate presentation enhances the experience

Image from Steam

As explained previously, the game is a retro platformer with retro  gameplay mechanics and style. Both the 8-bit and 16-bit styles on their  own would be excellent examples for future retro platformers. The fact  that both are directly woven together, along with a narrative that’s  actually fairly complex and interesting for a retro-styled platformer,  makes it so much better. Just looking at screenshots from the game shows  how impressive it is visually, but in motion it’s a completely  different beast. While other retro-platformers like Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon try to emulate console limitations with choppy animations, The Messenger is  not afraid to have the game look and feel as good as possible. Retro  purists might be a little disappointed, but defending things like the  intentional framerate lag in Mega Man 9 and 10 is not a hill I want to die on.

On top of that, the 16-bit era style is incredibly impressive looking, even by the standards of more recent games like Owlboy. It’s  probably not 1-to-1 accurate as to how a Sega Genesis game would  actually run or look, but it’s close enough without sacrificing gameplay  that, once again, I don’t mind. Plus, when the game opens up and the  player seamlessly transitions between the past and future, the game’s  visual style really get to shine.

Then there’s the soundtrack. The soundtrack is absolutely incredible.  Each song in the game has renditions for both the past and the future  that seamlessly transition with the visuals during the latter portions  of the game. The past has a sound similar to classic Konami/Tecmo  platformers, with some bits that are more Nintendo-esque. The 8-bit  death jingle in particular sounds very much like something out of Super Mario Bros. 3.  The future, instead of going for the Super Nintendo soundfont, went for  the much more interesting and underused Sega Genesis soundfont. This  includes the stanky basslines from Genesis titles, and as a fan of  classic Genesis titles it’s a treat to hear the soundfont in a modern  retro platformer, considering many 16-bit platformers these days tend to  lean toward Super Nintendo rather than Genesis. Each song is an upbeat  jam that drives the player forward and keeps them going. A personal  favorite song of mine is the shop theme, particularly the future version  of the song. It just reeks of that magical Genesis style.

Featured image from NintendoEverything

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