I was born at a time and in a country where there was an anti-ninja media movement, it was a bizarre time to live in. In the early nineties, the UK’s BBFC Video Nasty censorship rules had many tentacles reaching in all directions. Anything that referred to or featured nunchaku or shuriken was cut from films and television shows. In the UK we got a trimmed down version of Enter the Dragon. Just as with Reagan’s war on drugs; the BBFC’s war on ninjas failed. I had burned the lyrics to my favorite TV show into my developing brain at such an early age that I still and always will sing “Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles” rather than the otherwise universally accepted “Ninja”.
Fair warning to you dear reader this will be a biased review. Ninjas have and always will be a massive part of my cultural identity, from the first time I saw Hero Turtles kicking shell, Shinobi, Tenchu, the five consecutive years I dressed as ninja for Halloween, every person I’ve ever annoyed with my classic truth about ninjas speech*, Grey Fox/Cyborg Ninja/Raiden, Ibuki to every one of Godfrey Ho’s spectacular films.
The Messenger feels a lot like a classic that had once lost to time accidentally buried in Alamogordo, New Mexico and recently unearthed for of all mankind to now play for themselves. In actuality, The Messenger is a completely new entry in the Metroidvania genre (although for very technical reasons does not become a true Metroidvania title until the map unifies late in the game). The Nintendo Switch is fast becoming a Metroidvania master machine. Which is ironic as there have not, as of Autumn 2018, been any official announcements from either of the parent franchises Metroid or Castlevania.
Unlike Castlevania or Metroid’s slow pace The Messenger encourages you to zip, zap, zop through the stages, Sonic the Hedgehog style, jumping on your enemies fading corpses to get access to the next tough as nails screen, although methodical exploration is rewarded through currency and unlocks.
Anytime a new gameplay mechanic is introduced you are given enough room to discover, experiment all in preparation to then die and die, over and over again. First of all, you are taught the ways of Cloud Stepping; the art of skipping like a stone on still water off of downed enemies’ dissolving corpses. It’s not too long before you have a full arsenal of weapons both familiar and unique. The difficulty slowly creeps up on you but ever overwhelms or kills that ‘one more try’ feeling.
A single static enemy is no challenge but eight bad guys firing projectiles and moving all over the shop can occasionally become a true challenge of the spirit. No space is ever wasted, everything that is presented in The Messenger is there for a reason. Every single screen has been designed to test you on your knowledge of your accumulated skills. Eventually, these tests become true tests of timing, skill, and luck. Survival often requires you to quickly improvise using all that you have learned up to that point. No challenge is insurmountable and every screen you somehow manage to get through is a classic cathartic reward. It may take you twenty-three continues to conquer a level but using trial and error you can get through stage bit by bit searching out your next save point.
From my initial sighting of The Messenger in its original trailer, I was hooked, at first, I thought this was due to my just my natural inclination toward the semi-mythological tribe of Japanese assassins. The gimmick that really got me was the intriguing time travel ability that magically transitions all gameplay and audio from eight to sixteen bit. I have not played a game in a long time that every feature is so perfectly implemented while making thematic and aesthetic sense. Unlike a majority of games that attempt comedy, the writing and humor are expertly sprinkled throughout.
The writers fortunately never gave in to over-saturation. I can imagine this game’s script could have gone either way and been so dark, gritty and bleak it hurts or spammed the player with “jokes” and references becoming another retro-inspired nostalgia fest. Your brief, but humorous, interactions with NPC’s normally reveal a slither of world-building information leave you wanting more. Jokes are funny The Messenger is what would have happened if Douglas Adams had contributed to a time traveling ninja game on the Famicom or Nintendo Entertainment System.
Every bit of audio in The Messenger sounds classic and somehow fresh with menu noises coming straight from Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger which is audio-butter to my chubby, old ears. From the main characters, digital screams every time you die to the soundtrack that is now up there with Streets of Rage and Sonic the Hedgehog for my favorite 16-bit soundtracks. Characters are simple yet expressive and full of life, conveying 8-bit emotions that until now seemed impossible!
The character designs are almost generically simple. The titular Messenger looks identical, except for a basic recoloring, to his other ninja brethren but this perfectly codifies that up until the start of the game the hero was just another face in the crowd. The enemies look like they are ripped from Space Harrier or Secret of the Ooze and feature the terrific use of familiar tropes while still remaining fresh, although that freshness will more than likely fade once you have died a few hundred times…
During my playthrough not only was I on the hunt for the elusive green coins and time shards but also any errors or bugs. There where none to be found. This is a perfectly crafted title, that is also a must buy! Will we see a sequel that takes us into the far-off future of a 32-bit world? I for one am excited to see is next in store from the spectacular team at Sabotage Studio. Well done and thank you for creating this new ninja classic!
*The truth about ninjas is that the way they are depicted in the media is completely wrong. The black overalls and face mask is that of traditional Japanese stagehands that had to hide their faces while moving props during plays. The semi-mythological assassin tribe would have stuck out walking around enemy strongholds dressed in pure black, so their disguises would have been the enemy’s uniform and if they ever did actually exist they would have found more use in poison and sabotage than katanas and shuriken.