A retro-inspired look for a side-scrolling action game, harkening back to the days when console power was measured in bits, is not entirely new. Capturing the spirit, both in feel and presentation, of the 16-bit powered Super Nintendo or Mega Drive-era can be found across many – and often exceptional - releases. But going back further than that, to the days of the 8-bit NES is rare. Fewer colours, larger pixels, and sound that is quintessentially MIDI and videogame-y.
Where outdated presentation begins to tip the nostalgia scale away from cool towards niche. A difficult place to create something that can still feel fun and fresh after a few minutes. The Messenger from developer Sabotage and publisher Devolver Digital, deals in NES-style retro nostalgia – but it also manages to blend generations of classic games into an impressive package. Perhaps most surprising is that even after a few hours it continues to add layers in a way that feels modern. And more importantly, fun.
And when The Messenger time-travels from the 8-bit NES to the 16-bit Super Nintendo era, this more-than-a-visual-gimmick moment opens the door to much larger scope and ambition. One that shifts some of the tone and momentum away from the forward momentum and action of Ninja Gaiden towards something more in line with Super Metroid and A Link to the Past. An ambitious design choice that doesn’t always pay-off but is commendable none the less.
As mentioned above, where The Messenger draws the bulk of its inspiration from is Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden series. Making its debut on the NES in the late 1980s it was quickly hailed as one of the most impressive titles for the console. Not only due to its responsive ninja mechanics but in how it leveraged the limited 8-bit power of the console to create impressive cinematic transitions, and detailed and distinct levels.
There’s a level of care and attention applied to the creation of The Messenger, before the time travel stuff, in capturing the look and feel of the NES and Ninja Gaiden especially. Even though it’s played in widescreen-HD, the NES-love is authentic. From the way scrolling works to the flickering sprites and the music – it’s 8-bit charm is undeniable. But beyond that there’s a sense of humour to be found in the straightforward save-the-world story, which plays into a modern-day checkpoint system where you don’t so much die as respawn thanks to what we assume is a cute afterlife demon thing.
This is important because the difficulty of both the platforming, action, and boss battles ramps up at a steady pace for the duration of The Messenger’s 8-bit action – without ever feeling cheap or harsh in the way that some retro titles can. Throw in skill trees and purchasable upgrades and you get the first taste of The Messenger’s ambitious scope. Which is brought to the fore when the 8-bit visuals swap out for a 16-bit overhaul.
Now, there’s a reason why many prefer the 16-bit SNES era over the 8-bit NES one – separate to the cleaner and more impressive visuals. A large slice of the NES library has aged poorly due to the repetitive nature of padding out or adding in overly-difficult moments, and the general infancy of many of the genres being represented. The Messenger’s 8-bit sections don’t fall into this trap which makes the transition to a more modern look (that is by the way of the early ‘90s) more of a brilliant and welcome surprise than it is something that drastically alters the flow of the action itself. And in a genius move each new 16-bit location is built using new design techniques and features first seen in the 16-bit era - from more advanced scrolling to sprite scaling.
The Messenger justifies the transition thanks to its fun and engaging story – that also happens to be filled with subtle humour and great writing. But the shift from tight linear levels to a giant map where backtracking and shifting between time-periods opens the door to a more Metroid-style adventure – has its problems. With the most obvious being that a radical change in structure means that adjusting to the new norm takes time. And the larger scope means that more time will be spent in this part of the game than the preceding 8-bit style Ninja Gaiden sections - which offer tight platforming, action, and exceptional boss battles.
In no way treated as an intro sequence, the expanded Metroidvania style second half of the game inadvertently overshadows those opening hours of brilliant platforming and action. But even so, The Messenger features an understanding of design, from the 8-bit to the 16-bit to the modern era, that make it more than a throwback.