While some games nowadays seem jam-packed full of features to keep players busy, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider appears to take the opposite approach with a “less is more” mentality. Developed by JoyMasher and published by Dotemu’s indie label The Arcade Crew, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is a reminder that a short, focused experience can be just as fun as a sprawling adventure. As a side-scrolling action platformer, with a gorgeous 16-bit era aesthetic, it succeeds in instilling a sense of nostalgia, for better and worse.
Players take the role of the titular Moonrider, who is tasked with defeating a variety of their fellow robotic super soldiers to overthrow a dictator. As is the fashion, these boss enemies are found at the end of winding corridor-like stages, full of enemies, traps, and other pitfalls, with each level boasting its own gimmick and identity. Combat and exploration go hand in hand. Equipped with a blade, special weapons (acquired from defeated bosses,) and up to two ability chips (found in secret areas), you’ll mow down enemies and bosses alike. Each boss and miniboss feels distinct, and learning their patterns to defeat them and take their weapon is one of the most satisfying feelings in this genre.
It’s even more fun using a special weapon a boss is susceptible to, to completely demolish them. Some special weapons are even better utilized exclusively for traversal, and with replayable levels, you can make use of all your tools to ensure you find every secret. Completing each level also ranks you based on your score, from defeating enemies and having a quick time, giving speedrunners an extra goal.
The detailed pixel art, pulsing music, and gameplay all work together to recreate the feeling of older titles while still feeling responsive and fresh. The Moonrider’s appearance and even his attacks inspire memories of characters like Zero or Strider, with a striking silhouette and a flash of pixels to indicate your sword attacks – no cool ponytail though. As a super soldier fighting an oppressive regime, the world is appropriately expressed in its artstyle, with an array of environments ranging from dark, atmospheric tunnels to neon-lit futuristic highways.
One stage had me making the water level rise and fall to progress, another saw the Moonrider jumping from plane to plane flying high above an airbase. These levels all feel unique, which is great, because they make up the bulk of the game. Additionally, they almost feel like they’re pulled straight out of the 90s. Despite the variety, they all feel like they belong to the same hopeless world. The beautiful retro art style is further enhanced with the in-game optional CRT effect, blending the pixels to further cement the homage to earlier action platformers.
While the game looks and handles very well, I would hesitate to call it perfect. Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider seems to draw inspiration in many respects from action platformers of the past, including the oftentimes forgettable story. From the intro scenes to the short interstitials between levels, and even in the dialogue before boss fights, the game delivered the light premise of a story about a revolution, but it never resonated with me. Every part of the story felt like it was included for the sake of having a story, and I walked away like they didn’t know what to do with any of it.
Even the Moonrider’s motivations fell short, and their relationship with the bosses left me drawing my own conclusions, none of which satisfied me. The sparse dialogue was written oddly and contributed to the story feeling awkward and stilted. I’ve never played a 90s-era action platformer for the story—the gameplay was always the main attraction—and that trend continued with Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider.
My other issues with the game came near the end. The final encounter felt dramatically more difficult than everything else in the game, which makes sense, but losing repeatedly to the final boss highlighted and magnified some smaller issues. The first was the ability chip mechanic. These chips are hidden throughout the game’s normal levels. Players who enjoy exploring every little side area would probably find them without much difficulty, and when they did, the game would explain the ability and ask if players wanted to swap it out for a current ability.
Outside of this interaction, players can only change their chips when starting a level. They seem best for complementing certain playstyles or covering a player’s weakness, but they’re not catch-all solutions. This makes it hard to know what to bring into a completely new level, and leaving to change your chips after reaching the boss feels like a massive interruption to the flow of the game.
Additionally, while the levels can be taken at the player’s preferred pace, there are a pair of gameplay segments where players ride down a highway, shooting at oncoming enemies and obstacles while racing to their objective. These seem to go on forever, with no clear indicator of where or when the segment will end. A progress bar would go a long way to mitigating the feeling, as these areas simply wear out their welcome very quickly.
Ultimately, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider succeeds more than it stumbles, providing a short but enjoyable experience. Much like the games that inspired it, the tight, responsive action is the focus, but if you were hoping to find a better story, you’ll have to keep looking. Despite the narrative shortcomings, I think Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is a worthwhile ride.
Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is available January 12th on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Amazon Luna.
Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider
- Rating - 7.5/107.5/10
Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider succeeds more than it stumbles, providing a short but enjoyable experience.