I hate Quarble. I want to punch the patronising, fourth wall breaking know-it-all right in his stupid face. The small red one-eyed demon’s witty quips and putdowns of my gameplay skills were initially amused, I even laughed as my protagonist died and Quarble said that I could always blame it on the ‘gameplay lag’ (there is none by the way, the Messenger is smooth as a hot knife through butter). But now, as I die for the umpteenth time trying to navigate a particularly pernickety array of platforms, I want to slap Quarble so hard his children feel it.
Now I’ve got that out of my system, allow me to say that The Messenger is a slice of retro infused platforming perfection. Taking its queues from Ninja Gaiden, but with a sense of humour that is all its own, The Messenger has an addictive gameplay loop that kept me hooked from beginning to end – even if my little ninja protagonist died more than is healthy for a person.
A Demon King has destroyed most of humanity – obviously – and is now attempting to wipe out what little remains, namely a Ninja filled village. One of those Ninjas is chosen to be The Messenger. His task? Deliver a message to a distant mountain. There is much more to the plot than that, but to say more would spoil a time-travel yarn that is surprisingly inventive, filled with character and laugh out loud jokes.
Whilst its NES inspired visuals are basic, don’t let that fool you. The 2D platforming gameplay across linear levels is an absolute delight. Everything is so responsive, so tight, that even as the difficulty ramped up and Quarble became increasingly mean, I knew that each death was due to my own error, and my error alone. Even whilst traversing intricate and complex arrays of platforms, I always had complete confidence that my character was doing exactly as I asked him to do, and my confidence was never misplaced.
Your Ninja protagonist has all the abilities you would expect a Shinobi to have; there’s grappling hooks, shuriken, squirrel wings and more besides. Each is drip fed to the player with a pacing that gradually helps open up the gameplay. The key ability, that really helps separate The Messenger from its contemporaries, is that by tapping jump after each successful attack the ninja can gain an additional leap. With the right timing you can glide through levels with ease, you Shinobi’s feet never even touching the floor.
But just when I thought I had The Messenger figured out as a super smart 8-bit platformer it pulled the rug out from under me. A time-trip to the future, a charming 16-bit graphical and musical overhaul, and suddenly The Messenger is a metroidvania. My ninja is now leaping both literally and figuratively as he travels between 8-bit and 16-bit realms to solve puzzles and discover entirely new areas. It’s a masterfully delivered masquerade that put a huge smile on my face, as the wonderful game that I believed was coming to an end had only just gotten started.
The text box writing is a cut above most video games out there, managing to smash through the fourth wall with its gaming references, whilst also proving to be emotionally affecting. Everything is a delight to read, though it is the shop keeper and his stories that stand-out. Each is a moral fable that dances between humour and philosophical pontificating with ease. Forget the game, I’d be happy just reading a book of the shopkeeper’s tall tales.
Not everything is so stellar, though. Your foes are standard 2D platforming fare and are overused through the game’s run time. More variety would certainly help as hacking up elemental gargoyles and big turtle dudes loses its lustre long before the end is reached. The same can’t be said for the bosses, each of which is a tactical treat with a different puzzle to solve before they can be defeated. Sure, there’s a few provide unpleasant and sudden difficulty spikes – a whip-cracking leaf ninja is particularly troublesome – but the vast majority offer superlative game design that is a joy to experience.
Then there’s Quarble. Rather than a traditional ‘lives and continues’ system, Quarble plucks your ninja out of time just before death, returning him to the last checkpoint. In return, Quarble will follow you around for a bit and eat all the lovely shards that you collect as currency to purchase new abilities. He’ll also insult you whilst the game reloads. I found the mechanic initially refreshing, but after hundreds of deaths Quarble’s insults soon started to aggravate and, were there the option, I would have happily deleted that little red demon douche.