In the nostalgia-heavy climate of the video games industry, retro pixel-art games are a dime a dozen, and it takes a truly special project to make its mark in the saturated market. For Quebec-based developer Sabotage Studio, its debut title The Messenger hits all the right notes to make the game stand out in the crowd. Combining tight controls and a time-shifting mechanic with a surprisingly mesmerizing story gives this 2-D sidescrolling platformer a powerful foundation that shines brightly, urging players to get to the end despite a few shortcomings along the way. To put it simply: If you’re remotely interested in platforming games, don’t miss The Messenger this year.
In this game, you play as a young ninja who is tasked with carrying a scroll with an important message to the top of a distant mountain, all in the name to save your people from a demonic invasion. This ninja is dubbed The Messenger. Now it’s up to you to travel through varied environments — from bamboo forests to icy mountains — while slicing up enemy demons and jumping over spikes and pits. The game starts in an 8-bit style, but eventually your character gains the ability to shift between 8- and 16-bit.
The game has rewardingly tight controls. Every death feels earned, but every obstacle cleared fills you with a sense of pride. It’s the kind of gameplay that looks and feels cool when you’re in flow, effortlessly flying from one ledge to the next. Although you can’t double jump in The Messenger, the developers opted for a more unique approach. After an initial leap, striking something — whether it’s a projectile or an enemy or a lantern — provides you with an extra jump in the air. This air jump can be chained infinitely as long as you have something to hit. Add wall climbing, a grappling hook and a wingsuit, and you’ve got some fairly intricate platforming segments, some not even involving a floor. This medley of locomotion is the game’s bread and butter, occasionally making enemies nothing more than literal stepping stones.
As mentioned previously, you eventually gain the ability to shift between 8- and 16-bit by passing through gates. The change is seamless, and it affects many details. Aside from the very obvious graphic changes, the music and sound effects go through their own evolutions. Every stage’s background music has its own 8- and 16-bit versions, and the same can be said for every sound effect. By having both, The Messenger wonderfully switches between the two console eras. Each stage has slightly altered level designs in each era, meaning certain areas of the map are only open in certain timelines. The gameplay itself is unaffected, so the change isn’t jarring while you hop around the level.
The era shifting isn’t simply a game mechanic. The protagonist travels to the future whenever he enters the 16-bit world, which plays a major part in the engaging narrative The Messenger weaves. What starts as a fairly simple tale transforms into a memorable story. Unfortunately, a majority of the exposition is saved for the second half of the game. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how storytelling evolved more in the 16-bit era, but it doesn’t change the fact that it takes a bit for the ball to start rolling. As far as narrative goes, the first half of the game tides you over with some snarky, self-aware dialogue by a shopkeeper, whose meta sense of humor got a few good chuckles out of me.
The Messenger's story isn’t the only thing that takes an unexpected turn halfway through the game. Soon after the 16-bit shifting is introduced, the adventure becomes more of an open world rather than a linear quest, opting for a Metroidvania-inspired progression system. In order to move the story along, you’ll need to revisit old locales and find new environments through paths previously inaccessible. You’re given hints that point at where to go next, but sometimes you’ll be left guessing about the next destination. While it serves as an excuse to tread old ground through a 16-bit lens, constantly traveling through the same sections can wear itself out across the roughly 10-hour long playthrough. However, finding the outstanding artistic design in the new stages are a reward in and of themselves.
As with most sidescrolling platformers, a boss caps off almost every stage, and your smarmy shopkeeper usually gives you advice on how to defeat them. Every boss is designed differently from the others, and it’s satisfying to take advantage of the airstep mechanic to deal heavy damage in one go. Every one of them, from human-sized mages to gargantuan beasts, are challenging but fair in their attack patterns, and none of them feel like repetitive copies of another.
It’s hard to talk about The Messenger without applauding the nostalgia-laced soundtrack, composed by “extreme chiptune dance metal” musician Rainbowdragoneyes. Every level’s music fits the environment so well, and his work on the 8- and 16-bit versions of the music helps keep you immersed in the world. Tracks like “Civilization in the Sky” and “The Frozen Dark” are perfect examples of the catchy chiptunes that you can hear in this collection of songs, which evokes rose-colored images of the past.
The Messenger goes beyond paying its respects to the games of the past, effectively using the time shifting as a homage to the 8- and 16-bit eras. It’s more than a gimmick, acting as both a game mechanic and a storytelling tool. The interesting narrative draws you in while the clever writing breaks the fourth wall to make you laugh. The tight controls keep you playing, despite the slight tedium of the Metroidvania segments. The Messenger toes the line between being a tribute to old-school games and being a modern game with a fresh feeling. Publisher Devolver Digital chose well when it picked up Sabotage Studio, and I look forward to what the developers have in store.