The first thing you're likely to notice about Sabotage Studio's The Messenger — assuming you're properly versed in classic Nintendo games, of course — is just how strongly it resembles Tecmo's fast-paced NES platformer Ninja Gaiden.
This much becomes evident even before you reach the actual gameplay, which does indeed involve a very familiar form of hack-and-slash ninja platforming bearing an undeniable NES aesthetic. Right from the start, the opening manga-style cutscenes give off a strong Ninja Gaiden vibe: Demons emerging from a supernatural haze hearken back to the look of the eldritch idol that served as the MacGuffin in the NES game's story, for instance. Similarly, the cutscenes have a tendency to frame the protagonist's head left-of-center, resolutely facing forward, while his eyes dart around as he spouts exposition ... just like Ninja Gaiden protagonist Ryu Hayabusa.
Thierry Boulanger, the game's designer and lead programmer, happily cops to the influence. Indeed, he says, this is the game he's always wanted to put together since first playing Ninja Gaiden 2 as a young child.
"I've been drawing ninjas since I was eight, and Ninja Gaiden was obviously a huge influence on me," he says. "This game is basically why I picked up programming in school.
"I had an NES back when I was seven, and my grandfather showed up one day with a paper bag of games. All good stuff, best-of-all-time games like Metroid. But my mother would only let me keep five of them, so I had this magical afternoon of going through these games and sorting them into the yes pile, the maybe pile, the no pile. In the end, I had to pick between Ninja Gaiden 2 and Castlevania 3, which were on the maybe pile because they felt scary to me as a kid. I came so close to keeping Castlevania instead of Ninja Gaiden ... but I got hooked on Ninja Gaiden. Before speedruns were ever a thing, I was doing stuff like the pacifist run back in elementary school.
"Looking at the game designers I admired when I was young, the Will Wrights and Peter Molyneuxs, I thought you could go into one of the crafts you're interested in and emerge on the other side with the skills you need. But that wasn't really the state of the industry by the time I got there. Most studios were doing things more on the service side of things, and 'game designer' didn't mean what it used to be. But that's still what I was shooting for. I just realized eventually that [The Messenger] was something I'd have to build for myself — I wasn't going to have it just handed to me."
Before he could put together his dream tribute creation, however, Boulanger had to spend his time in the trenches, working on projects for other companies over the course of a decade. It was there that he met his current business partner, Martin Brouard, who responded decisively when Boulanger approached him with the concept for The Messenger.
"I began working on a prototype for The Messenger and eventually showed it to Martin, because he was my favorite producer," says Boulanger. "Just to get his thoughts, to see if it had any potential. And he was like, 'Hey, I'm going to quit my job. Let's do this.'"
However, The Messenger's most interesting hook has very little to do with how expertly it embraces the look and feel of a classic NES game. On the contrary, the game leaves behind the trappings of 8-bit gaming midway through. Perhaps fittingly for a game that has spent several decades (and console generations) in Boulanger's head, The Messenger spans generations within the course of its unnamed hero's journey. The plot leaps forward in time, and so does everything else. The visuals shift from NES simplicity to a Super NES-like look packed with greater color and shading. The music upgrades from square-wave chip tunes to 16-bit richness. Even the structure of the game transforms, leaving behind the linear stage-by-stage approach in favor of an exploratory adventure with a puzzle element. A specific skill allows your ninja hero to shift between the world's 8- and 16-bit skins in order to maneuver around the physical differences that exist between the two eras. For instance, a bridge that appears broken in the 8-bit past might have been repaired in the 16-bit future, allowing you to cross an impossible chasm by shifting between worlds.
Games borrowing the look and feel of Ninja Gaiden are hardly anything new; indeed, back in the day, Natsume did such a great job ripping off the series with Shadow of the Ninja that Tecmo actually published Shadow's Game Boy sequel as an honorary Ninja Gaiden spinoff. The Messenger stands apart from its predecessors for several reasons beyond the visual trigger, though.
First, it embraces the reality of our modern-day, post-Dark-Souls reality by abandoning traditional death mechanics. Sure, you'll die while playing The Messenger (and quite often at that, thanks to no end of instant-death traps), but there's no three-lives-and-it's-over element here. Instead, you're sent back to the most recent checkpoint by a tiny, greedy goblin named Quarble who penalizes you for your failure by hovering behind your shoulder and stealing the cash (called "time shards" here) you acquire for a while. Quarble will eventually drift away once he's acquired enough wealth or if he gets bored — you can stand around for a moment and he'll go away — though of course that strategy isn't much help for aspiring speedrunners.
That's important to Boulanger, who wants The Messenger to be extremely friendly to speedrunners.
"We mostly put the complex stuff off to the side. We don't want to make the game too difficult to beat for more casual players," he says. "In the later stages, you'll have to use [advanced techniques] more to maintain your momentum and clear big pits. And there are what we call challenge rooms where you have to clear a difficult room or two for big rewards."
"We're always thinking 'What's the simple path to get through a stage?' But then we make sure there's always a second path where you can use the tools and skip entire bits of the game by using your tools," he says. You can sense that commitment from the moment you first pick up the controller; The Messenger stands apart from decades of Ninja Gaiden wannabes by presenting players with the tightest controls I've ever encountered in a game of this style.
Ninja Gaiden worked in large part because it matched its ruthless difficulty with fast, accurate controls, but The Messenger puts even that 8-bit masterpiece to shame. It's quite forgiving with collisions, giving players a tiny amount of much-needed breathing room when it comes to enemy projectiles and screen-filling death traps alike, and the ninja hero moves exactly how you want him to. Despite the game having much lengthier stages than the old NES games — the levels sprawl in a manner reminiscent of its spiritual cousin Shovel Knight — I only took a single bit of damage in my first trip through the monster- and projectile-packed first stage. I freely admit this is less a testament to my skills than it is to the intuitive, fluid feel of The Messenger.
Boulanger says that's down to his own personal convictions ... not to mention his experience as a programmer. "I've always been into the kind of gameplay experiences that emerge from harsh limitations," he says. "These days, I miss that — I still play my retro game collection as much as something like Horizon: Zero Dawn. Simple games with no loading, just jump into the action with two buttons.
"And as a first project, what we're aiming for with Sabotage is to always keep those retro aesthetics but with modern design. Another core consideration for The Messenger's design is the player's expectations. We've gone with this simple story, setting and gameplay, so you think, 'Oh, I see what this is going to be.' And that sets up the twist of where the game ultimately goes.
"I've been a gameplay programmer for 10 years now, and that's the perspective where I'm coming from as creative director. There's the infamous 'Three Cs' of camera, character and controls, and if the controls aren't tight, the game will never be fun. I put roughly six months into prototyping the game before showing it to Martin, and it was just me and our level designer. We were working with grey blocks and a stick figure — we said, 'We're not putting any art on this until it's fun to control.'"
It also helps that The Messenger's hero ultimately ends up commanding a far greater array of skills than old-school Ryu Hayabusa ever dreamed. At the quest's outset, the ninja can only jump, slash, fling a limited number of shuriken and use a sort of double-jump skill called cloudstepping. The cloudstepping mechanic adds an element of skill and timing to the traditional double-jump: Rather than simply allowing you to gain extra air time anywhere you like, cloudstepping forces you to chain a mid-air leap off an aerial attack. Strike something with your sword in mid-air and you can immediately press the jump button to perform a second leap.
The limitation inherent in cloudstepping allows Boulanger to exert some control over how players interact with stages. You can't double-jump just anywhere, after all; there has to be something for you to strike in order to make it work. But it also opens up all sorts of possibilities for speedrunners and secret hunters. The ninja can cloudstep not only off fixed objects in the environment, but also off of enemies and even their projectiles. You can cloudstep multiple times in succession, too. By the game's second stage, I began noticing innocuous places that could potentially be accessed by cloudstepping — and sure enough, by double-jumping into those spaces, I found a variety of secrets, including massive stashes of time crystals. The jump-attack timing bears something of a resemblance to Namco Bandai's Klonoa games, and as in Klonoa games, The Messenger hides many of its trickiest secrets behind expert-level chain jumps.
The ninja's skill set eventually expands far beyond cloudstepping, as well. You can exchange time crystals to unlock new abilities from the hero's skill tree, including an aerial recovery ability that can help you avoid plunging into bottomless pits. You'll also uncover new mandatory techniques at set points within the game, beginning with a Ninja Gaiden-style wall-cling and eventually leading to a grappling wire whose workings are striking similar to the one in Steamworld Dig 2. With all respect to those other games, though, The Messenger puts these powers to work in a game far faster and with more precision than those others. While I didn't have the opportunity to play through any of the latter 16-bit exploratory portions of The Messenger, I can tell simply from watching footage of the more advanced challenges and techniques that the added maneuverability will fit perfectly with the keen play design present in the early stages.
The one downside to The Messenger, perhaps, is that Sabotage has elected to spoil its fascinating mid-game twist — the change to an open-ended 16-bit game style — well in advance. Unfortunately, they concede, that's simply a necessary evil in today's competitive market.
"For a long time, we thought of announcing the game without ever mentioning the 16-bit part and just letting people discover it for themselves," says Brouard. "But discoverability is so tough that it might be crazy not to use this hook to get people interested. And we were discussing recently some of the games that are inspired by memories of the greats — Stardew Valley for example. That's what we're targeting here. Taking these memories and making them something polished in terms of gameplay and controls. It's hard to go back to Ninja Gaiden after the playing The Messenger, in my opinion.
"Not revealing everything is important to us, because there still need to be surprises, but people need to know this isn't just some clone. We've put a lot of love and craft into it, and we need to make sure people get their hands on it."
The Messenger will be available on “Windows PC and console later this year.”