We talk ninja flips, metroidvanias, and the 25-year journey of The Messenger with creator Thierry Boulanger

The last great game of August?

Thierry Boulanger wears a lot of hats at Sabotage Studio. He’s the co-founder, creative lead, writer, designer, team cheerleader; basically, he’s “the guy.” He’s the guy that’s there to make sure the developer’s first title, The Messenger, is everything Sabotage Studio expects it to be. It needs to be as good as it can be. It needs to be smooth, inviting, and polished. It needs to be able to stand out in the sea of weekly Switch releases. It needs to be something Boulanger is satisfied with because this isn’t just a game to him. It’s the last 25 years of his life.

The Messenger, slated for a worldwide release on August 30 on Switch and Steam, is a metroidvania/platformer mash-up inspired by the ninja games of the NES era. It debuted at PAX earlier this year to rave reviews. Our own Rich Meister is so in love with it I’m sure he’d marry the game if he could. All year, it’s been in the ever-growing conversation about indie metroidvanias, usually at the tail end of it. This year has given us some of the greatest the genre has ever seen with titles like Yoku’s Island Express and Dead Cells establishing themselves as legitimate game of the year contenders. From my short time with the game, I think The Messenger has a chance at standing side-by-side with those titles as some of the best games of 2018.

Everything I’ve heard about the game up to this point is true. The graphics? An almost historical representation of the third and fourth generations of console gaming. The music? Criminally catchy. The controls? Tighter than a nun’s anus. Boulanger brought a Switch build for me to try out with stages from the game spliced together with dialogue written specifically for the demo. Extremely self-aware dialogue I should say. The shopkeeper — gunning for the role of “2018’s Best New Character” — is a riot who continually breaks the fourth wall for a solid joke.

The writing is indicative of the rest of the game. It’s absolutely solid all around. Traversal puzzles are organically implemented into the 8-bit/16-bit graphics switch mechanic. Cloud stepping, which gives me the ability to double jump if I hit an enemy or object with my sword, will make this game a speedrunner’s wet dream. I’ve haven’t been this impressed with a throwback title since I first downloaded Shovel Knight four years ago. That title’s been a bell cow for indie platformers over the years and its success gave Boulanger the validation to chase this two-decade-old dream.

“I’ve been wanting to make this game since I was eight years old,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about the stories and the characters since I was a kid. It’s been a long time coming. 25 years of my life.”

Boulanger created his first demo of the title in 2015. At the beginning of 2017, he and his team at Sabotage Studio entered full production, a dream come true for a guy who just loved playing ninja games growing up.

“I’ve always had a thing for ninjas,” Boulanger tells me. “Ninja Gaiden obviously rocked my world when I was young. It’s just – and this is going to sound silly – but I had a thing for what I called jumping into a ball. I just like games where you did front flips when you jumped. I kept looking for these games. If your game has a front flip in it I would play it even if it were terrible. Ninja Gaiden had the coolest front flip when you jumped so I was just all over that.”

Ninja Gaiden comes up a lot in our discussion and how can it not. The 8-bit portions of The Messenger feel like levels taken from a never-released Ninja Gaiden IV or a Ninja Gaiden…gaiden. The details I find show a true appreciation for the era, with enemies that respawn if I backtrack to the music that’s a more infectious earworm than a Carly Rae Jepsen hit. The soundtrack is being produced by Rainbowdragoneyes who, as you’re about to find out, takes what he does quite seriously.

“Inauthentic music in a self-proclaimed authentic retro game is the nail in the coffin of authenticity,” he explains in a statement made after my hands-on. “One of them. There’s a few nails actually. The music nail is in particular, a rather large nail. Which is why I thought it important to NAIL the music on the first try, and use tracker programs that are built around the limitations of the NES and Genesis sound chips to create The Messenger’s soundtrack as true to form as possible. It’s not as simple as slapping a 16-bit skin on an “EiGhT bIt MiDi lol” track, nay, each song was programmed in hexadecimal from the ground up, twice. Before you ask me why I like torturing myself, quite honestly the only challenge comes with composing something I’m happy with, which is a struggle no matter what program I use, so if I already wrote it once it’s only a matter of a few (hundred? thousand?) keystrokes to create a second version in a different program. No sweat.”

It’s clearly a lot of effort but the end result is amazing. Switching from 8-bit to 16-bit graphics means a change in music and sound effects as well. The seamless transition is spectacular, even more so when I dive underwater and the music becomes distorted. That’s been a favorite feature of mine since I first heard it in a Mario title and it’s something that will immediately enamor me to a game, much like Boulanger and his love of front flips.

My demo of The Messenger ends with a brief but clever boss battle against a short skeleton sorcerer who, like the shopkeeper, manages to elicit a few chuckles before our big bout. It takes me two tries, but I’m able to finish him off and get a quick glimpse at the many levels that await me in the final product. After 25 years of planning and roughly 18 months of development, The Messenger is closer than it’s ever been to finally becoming a reality for Boulanger.

“I don’t really know how to feel right now,” he says. “I have to shift to a point of view where I owe it to the team to see it through. I’m looking at the game and I’m in this fortunate position where I’m happy with it. I’m not sitting here wishing we had a bigger budget or anything. I’m one-hundred percent satisfied with what every single team member did. I’m playing the game and it’s genuinely the best we can do. So at this point, we just need to put it out and let the public decide if it’s good enough to let us work on our next game, which obviously would be a second dream come true.”

Sabotage isn’t alone in its effort to spread The Messenger to as many fans as possible. After a favorable showing at PAX earlier this year, the game got on the radar of bespoke indie publisher Devolver Digital. With its help, this retro ninja is going global.

“They’re amazing,” Boulanger says. “They’re taking us worldwide. We knew we could launch the game in North America and some parts of Europe, but with Devolver, you’re talking Japan, Russia, and other areas where we don’t really understand the markets. They have the means we’re looking for and they really respect us. Devolver has been happy with everything we’ve done and they just want to see what we come up with next.”

That next will only come to fruition if The Messenger finds an audience. In my conversation with Boulanger, he explains to me the game that launches at the end of the month is the “leanest” version of the game. The past year and a half has been spent perfecting the campaign and that’s what players will get when it hits digital storefronts. That’s eight to ten hours of game, a solid chunk for the genre.

I ask about additional modes, such as time attack or boss rush, as well as the possibility of a physical edition. Boulanger says he’d like all of those to become a reality, but it’ll all depend on how the game is received. For many games, success is a matter of timing and on Switch, it can be difficult to predict when is the correct time to launch given the average week sees roughly two dozen titles hit the platform. I ask Boulanger if he’s at all worried about competition on the eShop.

“Worried? A bit. It’s not like we won’t do it, but it’s certainly a lot more crowded than it used to be. When we put out the trailer we were fortunate enough to get a lot of views on it and basically, every second comment was ‘Can we get this on Switch?’ It’s a meme now, but the demand is there. We think it feels right. It’s what they want to see, what they want to play on Switch. From my dim point of view, you always have people asking ‘Do zombie games do well? Do mobile games do well? Do AAA games do well?‘ I think the only thing that consistently does well is a game with high polish. That’s what we’re shooting for.”

Polish this game has in spades. It’s one of the more sophisticated and fine-tuned experiences I’ve had the pleasure of previewing. As a semi-professional games blogger, I can’t wait to see the public reaction to it. As a 20-year fan of the genre, I can’t wait to explore every nook and cranny of The Messenger. Metroidvanias may be ubiquitous among indie developers, but there’s a reason for that; a reason that will change depending on whom you ask.

“I don’t know if it’ll make sense, but my personal take on it is there is a drive to set the world straight. With metroidvanias, it’s not just traversing areas and killing monsters. It’s really about restoring balance. There’s trouble here so I set it straight and now I can go back to this other area where there was trouble and fix it. It think it’s like by playing the game, you intrinsically feel like you’re doing something right, something good, something that has an impact and is rewarding. You’re not just yourself surviving but you’re fixing something that’s bigger than you.”

The Messenger will launch worldwide on August 30. Pre-loading is available right now in North America and will become an option for European Switch owners next week. The game will retail for $19.99. For a more detailed hands-on, check out Rich Meister’s recent preview of the game.

CJ Andriessen
Just what the internet needs: yet another white guy writing about video games.