Heralding back to my gaming origins with the original NES, it is likely no surprise that one of my best and also most frustrating experiences was with Ninja Gaiden. That game was amazingly fun and infuriatingly difficult, yet the experience was well worth it. Wall clinging, spinning ninja-jumps mixed with cool sub-weapons and tricky platforming and topping it off with one of the first real stories I can remember from a game of that era made it really stand out in my childhood memories. Fast-forward almost 30 years and I happen to pass by my son playing a game that is no doubt heavily inspired by Ninja Gaiden. The Messenger had made its way into our library and I had to give it a try.
To begin, the game does have some obvious influence from Ninja Gaiden but has some definite twists and adjustments. The difficulty spike is certainly much lower and reasonable. Grant is a pretty good gamer, but he really struggled to make it even past the second stage of NG. The Messenger eases the difficulty on a little at a time, including new skills and tools as the player progresses, thereby letting one get comfortable with what is currently available before piling on too many additional abilities and techniques. The incredibly serious tone of NG is also softened with what I have come to expect from a many “retro-inspired” modern games – they seem to like to take their story with a bit of humor, often a sort of “meta-humor”, and this one is quite quirky.
The basic story of the game is that the last surviving humans live in a secluded ninja-village in which they spend every waking hour training in order to be able to survive in a demon-overrun world. There is a prophecy of a hero “from the west” that will arrive to aid them, but they must hold out until the arrival. One day in midst of a demon attack which appears likely to destroy the village, the hero arrives, saving the player and asking assistance. There is a scroll that must be delivered to the “top of the mountain”. This is all rather vague but sets the course and the player sets off on the quest as “the Messenger”.
The game plays with what is, in my opinion, all of the good elements of Ninja Gaiden, while removing most of what I disliked about its forefather. The wall cling, which was eventually upgrade to climb, is kept in the climbing form and is quite precise. The upgrade tree allows the player, as I mentioned, enough time to become comfortable with new abilities before adding more. A “save jump” that is gained from this tree allows some ability to correct knock-back, which can be so deadly in the original Ninja Gaiden games. A wing-suit allows for gliding and occasional updraft-catching flight. The “knife-rope”, or horizontally fired grappling hook, is completely new to me and I am still getting comfortable with it. With all of these platforming upgrades, however, the game has a much more forgiving feel and I never feel unfairly punished. There is some truly cruel enemy placement, on occasion, but even this is usually balanced with very forgiving checkpoint placement.
The life bar is much reduced from NG, and even requires upgrading to be even half as large. Enemy damage is generally quite tame, however, most dealing only one point of damage. This in comparison to later-game NG enemies that often dealt 3 bars of damage per hit could make that seemingly large life bar become depleted deceptively fast. I think I prefer the newer balance, with less bar and more standardized damage. There is even an upgrade that keeps damage minimized, which will be a huge help as 2+ damage with so few health bars can be really impactful.
The boss-battles are all quite fun so far. The bosses tend to evolve their tactics as the fight progresses, often times speeding up or adding new flourishes to their techniques. Some of them are dramatic, screen-covering beasts that are really satisfying to bring down. This is not to say that they are not challenging, as most so far have really taken some practice to defeat. With the fairly short life bar mentioned earlier, this leads the player to needing to develop a pretty solid strategy and feel for defeating the bosses. There is really no possibility of damage racing these obstacles. This has the benefit of really making that final attempt in which the boss is defeated feel clean and precise, like it should for a true ninja! When I finally get the hang of each boss fight I have found most of those final attempts end with me taking very little if any damage, and that can really leave the player feeling like “a boss”.
The life/continue system has been removed in favor of a “death save” mechanic, or ally, if you can call it that. The little demon assistant will save you from your last death in exchange for collecting your next few bits of the games “upgrade currency” that you would have gathered. Technically speaking I like the system quite a lot. Something about the little demon’s cynical humor really rubs me wrong at times though. It is a small complaint and easily overlooked, but it is a bit like playing a game while your “sort-of-friend-but-not-really” who is also kind of a vocal jerk with no filter watches with full commentary.. but then he is a demon after all.
Game music is not at all one of my focuses. I generally just need a little ambience or some fun chip-tunes that are simply not irritating. I have enjoyed most of what I have heard from the Messenger, though none of it is particularly memorable. The music seems well placed and all of it seems to fit the area in which it plays well, but I do not think any of it will stick with me save the rather strange tune that plays in the Shopkeeper’s area. This may well be repetition as much as anything, though the tune is growing on me.
The graphics are true to their theme. They look like a very clean version of a game from the later days of the NES life-cycle. They are enjoyable and important elements stand out nicely. Backgrounds are interesting while not jarring or distracting and the pixel art is simple and clean. I love the animations of the Messenger himself which really can make it feel like the player is truly cutting their way through the demonic hordes that roam the land. The choice to make him able to continue running while swinging his katana was a great one and adds an element of unstoppable momentum to his ninja-ness. There is more I would love to say on the graphics/art of the game, but I could not without spoiling one of the coolest surprises I have had from a game. I must insist that you find out for yourself, dear reader.
Also of note, the “shopkeeper” who peddles upgrades and is supposedly guiding you on your quest will often share stories with the player. These really do not seem relevant to the game but most are actually quite enjoyable as they come across as really strange, sometimes twisted, fables. I encourage players to take the time to read them.
Overall I have to say The Messenger is well worth the price and time for anyone who enjoys a clever and well executed throwback to classic games. It may be worth taking a moment to check out some gameplay videos or trailers if the tricky platforming seems off-putting. I do believe this is all well balanced with tight controls and a perk system tailored to assist those who struggle in this area. I can confidently admit to being a mediocre platformer and yet feel pretty comfortable working my way through with an adequate amount of challenge but never feeling over-stressed. The forgiving checkpoint system makes it easy to set the controller down and take a break when needed, which would have been a blessing in the older days. With the game being a bit older, it should be easy to catch on sale for Steam users, as I have often seen it go as low as $9.99 US, which is an incredible deal considering the time and effort that must have gone into the game.
So what are you waiting for? Unsheathe your katana, pack your shuriken and get ready to wallop some demons! And as always..