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Amidst football games this Sunday, I watched the credits roll on The Messenger, a charming action game that hides a surprising gameplay twist a few hours in: Not only are there parallel 8-bit and 16-bit worlds, but a Metroid-style game is hiding underneath, too. This twist, in which the game world opened up and became as much about exploration as it was about action, is where The Messenger clicked for me:
The response took me by surprise; there were lots of people who had the opposite reaction to The Messenger. They dug the Ninja Gaiden-style game in the first few hours, and felt tricked when the game revealed that wasn’t what was really going on.
"The opposite happened to me. I loved the simplicity at the beginning. The gimmick killed the game for me."
"Played the shit out of this and then really slowed down at the metroidvania part."
The Messenger took me...15 hours? Maybe a little less? The clock attached to my save on the Switch seems glitched—it’s only reading six hours—but more importantly, the vast majority of that time was spent post-twist The Ninja Gaiden section takes a few hours to complete, with the bulk in the Metroid portion.
And that focus on exploration and timeline-switching, puzzle solving really is the bulk of The Messenger, so if you preferred the intro, only to watch the game pull a substantive bait-and-switch into something you care less about... well, that sucks? It’s common for games to pull the rug out from under players in the narrative, but the style of game you’re playing in the opening hours tends to stay pretty consistent. This is different!
You still do lots of Ninja Gaiden-influenced stuff the rest of the game, but it’s a component in a larger structure, as opposed to the primary element. The flow of the gameplay is fundamentally changed. It's not just adding a new mechanic.
As someone with very little affinity for old school Ninja Gaiden and games of its ilk, these opening hours did little for me—I was bored. The Messenger is not an especially difficult game, so absent nostalgia, there wasn’t much. Friends had told me to hang on, saying it got more interesting. This proved true! And while I still wish there was more substance to the combat, the sheer joy of moving around, combined with some truly excellent platforming sequences for my fingers to dance with, kept me playing.
(There’s way too much backtracking, a primary criticism of the folks I heard from who stalled on the game post-twist, but I settled on using a walkthrough, so I could focus on the parts I liked. I even tracked down the secret items, because they demanded the most of my platforming skills. It’s too bad the reward was a total bust and not worth it.)
Anyway, back to the tweet and its surprising response. I’m trying to think of a game that’s done something similar—a gameplay bait-and-switch—but I’m only pulling blanks? Anyone?