In a way, The Messenger shouldn’t have been as well received as it has been. I mean, do we really need another 8-bit throwback in the indie world? What’s another Metroidvania compared to the last one? How clever can your retro jokes or your silly story really be anymore? It’s like the developers took a checklist of what was popular, hobbled it together into a game, and duped a publisher into sticking a $20 price tag on it.
And yet… The Messenger turns out to be straight up excellent and proves that room still exists in a tired, worn-out formula for originality, unexpected twists, clever writing, and slick throwback graphics and soundtracks.
The Messenger certainly nails its fair share of traditional game design aspects. Most obviously channeling Ninja Gaiden, The Messenger improves on the classic NES tropes with up-to-date level design and boss fights that relentlessly come at you with original, fun, and challenging attack patterns. I take my hat off to Sabotage Studio. I had no idea how NES inspired bosses could be taken to the next level, but The Messenger delivers on just that.
But what really defines The Messenger is how often it catches you off guard. Just as soon as you feel like you’ve got it all figured out, the story, the gameplay, the progression, the graphical style, the story; nope, you really don’t. I won’t give too much away, but Sabotage drops plenty of hints that their standard action game levels contain so much more than you realize the first time you play through it, and before the game’s end, uncovering the truth is just a “Wow” moment.
At 11 hours long, The Messenger does stick around a bit longer than I like for a game of its type, but I also completed it to (what I believe) was 100 percent completion on a single run-through and died quite often in the process. The game doesn’t throw too many terrible punches, but when you start to go for those Power Seals hidden behind tough-as-nails platforming segments, the gloves do come off.
Shovel Knight has long been held as the standard bearer for games that are inspired by NES design but add the benefits of modern day design to them. The Messenger carries the torch nicely as Shovel Knight winds itself down. Fitting, given the events that kick the story into gear.