Back in the NES era, the late 80s and early 90s, there were two different types of games. Call them linear and non-linear. The linear games, like Super Mario Bros. and Ninja Gaiden, had you go through each level once and only once. The non-linear games, like Zelda and Metroid, allowed for backtracking and exploration. It wasn’t often you’d find a game that did both.
The Messenger, which is out today for PC and Switch, does both. The game’s first half is a linear platformer in which you play as a ninja who needs to bring a scroll to the top of a mountain. Along the way you’ll acquire new tools—shurikens, a grappling hook, and so on—and jump your way through a series of oddly shaped levels.
It’s all just ... OK. The platforming isn’t quite as smooth as a Mario game, and the level design isn’t as evocative as, say, Hollow Knight. But it’s serviceable.
Then, a few hours later, there’s a plot twist. Suddenly you’ll find yourself in a Metroidvania, asked to backtrack and re-explore all those levels you thought were linear. Now, you can use special gates throughout the world to travel back and forth through time.
One version of a level might have a blocked off passage, but 500 years in the future, you can get through. Another level might have a secret exit that you’ll only notice once you’ve picked up a special ability elsewhere.
It elevates The Messenger from an ok platformer to an excellent one, especially when you go for all the collectibles—45 green medallions that you can acquire through increasingly difficult platforming challenges that are sprinkled across the game’s world. The reward for getting all of these medallions is underwhelming, but the satisfaction of solving each puzzle is reward enough on its own.
It took me around 25 hours to finish The Messenger (on Switch, as the lord intended), and I really enjoyed it. The vibe, the backtracking, and the humour are all top-notch. Grammar aficionados might get irritated at the comma splices that gunk up every line of dialogue in the game, but the NPCs are always charming, especially the ever-present shopkeeper, who’s full of snarky quips and fourth-wall-shattering clues.
Even dying can be entertaining in The Messenger. When you lose all of your health or fall into a pit, you’ll be haunted by a little red demon who will follow you for a couple of minutes, sucking up Time Shards (The Messenger’s version of Mario coins) and making fun of you.
“If someone was watching, you can pretend that was input lag,” he helpfully offers during one death screen.
It might be tempting to give up on The Messenger after a couple of hours, but stick with it. Over time, it’ll transform from an OK game to a really, really good one. And we all know the Switch needed more Metroidvanias.