I’ve played around in retro action-platformers since the first Strider and Mega Man and I like to think I know a good one when I see one. Heck, I played the bejeezus out of previous JoyMasher title Blazing Chrome and have now completed their latest work, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider. This game takes all sorts of good lessons from some of the best games that came before, and it even manages to have its own unique flavors that make it stand out if you want a fun, stylish, and somewhat visually brutal action-platformer to enjoy.
The weight of tyranny
Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider takes players to a dystopian future where a cruel machine has harnessed the apex of military biotechnology to craft super soldiers to subjugate the people. One such being was Moonrider, but when this samurai-themed super android awakens, he throws off his yolk and instead fights for the resistance against the government. This results in a journey through all sorts of levels as players fight against the powers that be and the super soldiers that are still obedient to them.
Moonrider’s story isn’t much more than the same old bit of rising up against tyranny as a weapon turned hero, but it’s the visuals that really sell it. It’s a pixelated, side-scrolling action platformer, and the characters, enemies, and backgrounds are an excellent, if not creatively disgusting blend of technology and flesh.
Moonrider and the super soldiers he encounters are probably the best of this art style and its visuals. Whether in cutscenes or action, Moonrider looks cool as heck with his samurai-inspired silver armor and energy blade attacks. The enemy bosses look about as cool as Moonrider as well, themed around various elements like fire, earth, light, and dark. They’re as grimy as they are sleek and cool. There are also some set piece mid-bosses that look like something right out of the alien levels of the Contra series in all the best ways. Everything in this game is futuristic, grimy, and has a tendency to shatter into blood, bone, and metal when you destroy it. It’s pretty visceral and satisfying.
The music ties it all together nicely. Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider’s soundtrack is an eclectic mix of traditional Japanese instrumental sounds mixed with pulse-pounding techno and electric guitar. One of my favorites was an intense track set to a Mode 7-like highway chase in which Moonrider rides a motorbike through a city battling enemy soldiers and machines on the road. The mix of synth, bass, and the plucking of stringed instruments throughout this game keeps the mood going strong no matter what you’re doing.
Slay, as to become stronger
I think the most immediate thing players will feel right out of the gate as they get through a couple levels of Moonrider is that it’s almost entirely like Mega Man X if you were playing Zero. As mentioned previously, this is a side-scrolling action platformer. Players traverse levels and their gimmicks, usually defeating a mid-boss along the way. You clear the level by defeating a real boss at the end, which are mostly other cyber super soldiers. After the introductory mission, players are even presented with a city map level select, allowing them to pursue different bosses in any order they choose.
At his most basic, Moonrider is a melee fighter with quite some agility. He can do a three-hit combo, crouching energy slash, and jumping slash. He also starts with a dive kick that goes straight down or can be angled diagonally left or right to damage enemies and bounce off of them. He even has special weapons with a shared energy meter and starts with a Moonspear he thrusts out directly in front of him. By defeating bosses in the levels, players can earn new special weapons, such as the Dark Portal, which shoots out a persisting tendril of dark energy that damages foes it passes through. I couldn’t entirely tell if bosses are weak to certain weapons, but they certainly assist in killing them quickly.
Beating levels isn’t everything, either. You can explore them to find special items that boost your abilities. There’s a chip that increases your attack power as you slay foes, another that allows you to double jump, and even a chip that makes you take more damage at the trade of making your attacks much stronger all-around. More than anything, these chips serve to cushion the difficulty of the game, although you are also graded on how many enemies you destroy and how fast you complete levels, so utilizing some of these chips may feel key to earning S Ranks on one mission or another.
I only have a few qualms about Moonrider overall. I think its structure plays just a little bit too close to games like Mega Man X. Don’t get me wrong. Its levels are fun, but it follows a very familiar formula with only a little deviation from it. It’s also not a long game. If you’re any good at action platformers, I’d say you can wrap this one up in around two hours if you don’t go back to replay missions for higher ranks. It feels like it offsets this with some strange difficulty spikes at certain points. There were definitely some enemies where if I didn’t have certain special weapons from previous bosses, I might not have gotten through so smoothly. Nonetheless, these are hardly issues that hamper it from being a solidly arranged retro action experience.
Reduce the oppressors to ash
Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is great in a lot of ways. Even if it stays almost too close to the Mega Man X formula, it still utilizes it well. The visuals and music are definite highlights that put this game apart, but it also just feels satisfying to play. The ride is over all-too-soon, but I’m happy to have taken it. It was another good challenge and we cut up tons of machines, fascists, and fascist machines along the way. More than that, I’d love to see some speedruns of this game because it looks ripe for excellent players to learn and master. If you want a decent action platformer to kick 2023 off with, you can’t go wrong with Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider.
This review is based on a digital PC copy supplied by the publisher. Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider comes out on January 12, 2023, on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Amazon Luna where available.
Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider
- Solid use of the formula from which it's derived
- Retro pixel visuals are gorgeous and gross
- Enjoyable challenge throughout
- Plenty of rewarding secrets to discover
- Gimmick levels like the highway chase are fun
- Excellent soundtrack
- Slicing enemies to gibs never gets old
- A little too close to its inspirations
- Short main campaign at about two hours
- Occasional uneven spikes in difficulty