Ninja…gaiDEN!! HAI!!!

When The Messenger was first revealed as an upcoming indie game for the Nintendo Switch, at one of Nintendo’s indie showcases earlier this year, it immediately reminded me of Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden. A game made popular in modern age by James Rolfe’s Angry Video Game Nerd persona, and infamous for sending you back 3 whole stages if you succumbed to any of the final boss’ three fases.

Even without that kick in the groins though, the game was still infamous for being hard. Everything from respawning enemies with annoying placements, to tricky platforming that put your skills to the ultimate test, all led to the game’s infamy, and caused many a gamer to put down their sword in defeat.

I first played the game on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console, because… well, it was a platform game with a ninja, and I have always loved both, so I didn’t really need another reason. I too, was in for a grim surprise though, as the game, after it’s first decievingly easy stage, started to rear its ugly face and reveal its true persona. I don’t remember when exactly I gave up, but especially in games, I have never been the type to just ”give up”, so I pressed on until I decided that a tactical retreat was for the best.

It then wouldn’t be until I got my own NES a couple years later, and imported a physical copy of the game, that I picked up my sword yet again, and decided now was the time. I was going to BEAT it! It took me about a week of dying over and over again, learning and memorizing enemy patterns, but I finally succeeded. I beat Ninja Gaiden.

What pushed me to beat it though, you might ask? Was it solely a matter of pride? Was it purely because I had something to prove to myself? No. The answer to that is quite simple… I had fun! Yes. For as infamously difficult as the game was, and believe me, it WAS, I actually had fun every step of the way. Replaying the same stages over and over again to learn and better myself was one factor, but it helped that the gameplay was actually fun too. The controls were tight, I never felt a death was unfair, and the game was full of cool ninja tools for me to use at my leizure to seize the enemy, as long as I had the stamina for it of course, but as I grew better at the game, and thus better at gathering and holding on to my mana, that was soon a none issue. Add to that, that especially for a game of the 8-bit era, the graphics were great, the backgrounds gorgeous, and the music legendary! Who can forget Ryu’s Determination? That track is almost as iconic as the character himself!

So yes, while nail bitingly difficult, there actually laid a good game, a classic even, underneath the exterior, that I find myself returning to every now and then. I would even go as far as calling it my favorite NES game of all time!

Let teachings of old pass on to a new generation

Sabotage Studios‘ new retro platformer, is clearly an homage and spiritual successor, to Tecmo’s classic, and after playing through The Messenger, I think I can comfortably say, that this is what Ninja Gaiden would have been like, if it had been made today. Though this game never gets as ”old-school” hard as that game, it still poses you with plenty of platforming challenges and a bunch of ”think fast” situations to keep you on your ninja toes. It follows a standard stage to stage formular, like its predecessor, for the first half of the game, ending each with a cool and superbly animated boss encounter, that clearly demonstrates how far we have come since the humble 80s, in terms of graphical power and gameplay. The bosses in Ninja Gaiden were very one-note, whereas these ones are sometimes much bigger in scale, has more interesting designs, and often change up their strategies when close to death.
The Messenger however, isn’t satisfied with just treading in its mentor’s footsteps. Where Ninja Gaiden ended in an epic boss encounter after the 6th world, The Messenger continues its story, breaking into a more non-linear metroidvania style.

Ninja Gaiden, once it had beaten you to a pulp and you rose from its ashes, now knowing exactly how the clock ticked, was a very short game, beatable in about 1 hour, as were the case with a lot of games back in the 80s, the games were brutally hard to artifically extend the gameplay, but once you had mastered them, they weren’t very long.
The Messenger however, does two things; it makes the difficulty easier, but also makes the stages much longer. So even though you can now plow through the enemies, thanks to an early ability that makes you able to cut through most enemy projectiles, and the fact that you can now attack while running. The game keeps a steady pace, without feeling short.

The Messenger Screenshot
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Do I think the game is too easy though? No. EasiER, yes, but not too easy. Ninja Gaiden was a beast, partly because you were forced to stop when attacking, but even though this limitation has been eliminated in The Messenger, and even though I rarely stood still but just kept going and plowed through the enemies, I was still fairly often presented with obstacles and platforming challenges, that made my path a difficult one. So while I did at times laugh maniacally if no one was going to try and stop me, at no point did I feel the game was going soft on me. Look at my 100+ deaths if you want proof.

The Messenger can be difficult for the unwary – yes, difficult, but never unfair!
Whereas Ninja Gaiden, as much as I love that game, could be rather bull at times.

One thing I did miss from Ninja Gaiden though, were all my cool weapons, such as the boomerang-shuriken, the firewheel of invincibility, the… the… okay there weren’t that many, but I still missed some variety in The Messenger. The skill tree was a nice addition though.

A ninja must be master of mind and body

What ultimately made Ninja Gaiden a bearable experience at the end of the day, and didn’t make me want to throw my controller out the window, was the, all things considered, very solid controls. The game certainly didn’t pull any punches, but it also made you feel in control, like you had the maneuvrebility to get around its challenges, as long as you reacted fast enough and with the appropriate weapon. Unlike a game like Castlevania that I never beat, because it was hard AND had heavy/clunky controls.

The Messenger Screenshot 2
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This is an art The Messenger excells at as well, it has very solid controls, that always makes you feel… well… in control, and makes you feel that if you DO die, you got no one to blame but yourself.

I loved what Ninja Gaiden brought to the table back on the NES, but I am also glad that the infamous 80s difficulty is a practice we have mostly put behind us, and now instead focus on actually making our games challenging, instead of making them BS hard, and using that to artifically extend what is otherwise a very short experience.

Most games today, made in the image of by gone days, are hard but in a fair way, making it fun to go back to them. They take what worked, and leave behind what didn’t. Making them a more comfortable experience, and overall, just more enjoyable in general.

So get this game, and follow your ninja way!