Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider Review

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By Paul Hunter

As much as I enjoy modern big-budget AAA experiences, I'll always have a soft spot for retro classics that helped shape the robust industry we have today. Few genres showcased the greatness of retro gaming as well as side-scrolling action platformers like Mega Man, Shinobi and Contra.

Channelling the spirit of these quintessential 16-bit classics comes Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider, the latest title from the retro experts at JoyMasher (Blazing Chrome) and publisher The Arcade Crew. Moonrider is a thrilling action platformer that mixes gameplay elements from Hagane: The Final Conflict and Strider with the iconic mission structure from Mega Man and exciting boss battles from Contra III: The Alien War. The result is a must-play retro classic that instantly kickstarts 2023 into high gear. Let's get into it: Here are three things I liked about Moonrider...and one I didn't.

Liked: Tight Gameplay

Exceptional controls can separate a decent action platformer from a truly great one, and in the case of Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider, the developers absolutely nailed it. Anyone who's played a few retro action platformers will instantly feel right at home diving into this game.

The controls are really simple, yet effective. As Moonrider, a state-of-the-art cybernetic ninja, your main offensive ability is a fast blade strike reminiscent of Hagane and Strider, which you can turn into a lightning-fast three-hit combo. You can also perform a precision jumping kick that lets you adjust the angle to avoid enemy fire and strike at just the right moment. By double-tapping the stick forward or by holding down the right trigger you can run, primarily used to jump larger gaps, or can be used for a devastating dashing strike that destroys most weaker enemies in a single hit. Out of the gate, you can also wall jump, a move that is critical for navigating the platform-heavy levels and discovering off-the-beaten-path hidden areas.

Over the game's nine levels, there's a tremendous number of enemies that'll test your combat skills in different ways. There are shielded enemies that you can only damage after they unleash their ninja star or sword, there are flying drones that can unleash bullet hell if you don't destroy them fast enough, plus plenty of fodder foes that'll furiously run at you guns blazing. Each mission contains a few sub-bosses that more often than not are big machines covering most of the screen, whether that's heavily-armoured vehicles with plenty of firepower or alien-like robot monstrosities that look straight out of Contra.

Seven of the nine levels end in dramatic boss battles against villains that visually reminded me a lot of Mega Man's Robot Masters and they all even possess unique elemental abilities like water-, fire- or earth-based attacks. The battles all take place in enclosed single-screen arenas, much like Mega Man as well. Even better, once you defeat one of these bosses you can steal their powers—and these massively expand your offensive capabilities. At any point in levels, you can call open a weapon wheel to swap between boss power, which includes a searing flamerang, an earth-shattering geocrash and a sonic wave stormshot. Some boss powers can even bolster your defensive powers, like the hydroshuriken protection shield or the photondash hyper-fast shadow dash. I found myself having increasing fun the more powers I unlocked, and by the end, I felt like a total badass cyborg ninja that could destroy anything in my path.

Liked: Modifier Chips

Hidden in each level are one or two Modifier Chips that can significantly help your game progress. The chips range from ones that can auto-restore HP or MP at a slow rate to one that increases your attack range or one that can even give you the ability to double jump. You're able to equip up to two chips per level, and it becomes quite a tough decision once you start unlocking a good chunk of them. Do you equip the Armor chip to enhance your defence or the Reborn chip that lets you revive at half health once per stage? Or do you sacrifice these beneficial powers to equip that Detective chip that enables you to locate hidden areas in stages? Decisions like these are crucial to make before starting each level.

I was happy to discover the game includes a neat Chameleon chip that lets you change Moonrider's colours and that's it. While equipping it does sacrifice a crucial chip slot, I thought it was cool that I could modify the visual look of my Moonrider. Perhaps the most interesting chip, though, is the Glass Canon which makes you die if you take a single hit. I thought I had misread the description at first, but nope, this is a chip intended for extreme players that enjoy an impossible difficulty. I didn't bother equipping the chip (no way I could beat this game without getting hit!), but I am excited to hopefully watch a speedrunner crush the game using this masochistic Modifier Chip.

Liked: Glorious Retro 16-Bit Graphics

The graphics in Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider are pixel perfection. Inspired by the 16-bit era, the pixel art paints a gorgeous-yet-bleak game world that's very striking.

While the bulk of the visuals has a distinctive dark dystopian vibe to it, there is a healthy amount of environment variety to keep your eyes glued to the game. You'll visit a fallen city full of rubble, ascend high into the sky for a battle with Asura's fleet, venture deep into the heavily-guarded research fortress, and have a blast sliding down the many water slides in the city's Desalination facility. The game culminates in a dramatic infiltration of the futuristic Penralese Space Station that looks straight out of Metroid.

As nice on the eyes as all those stages are, my absolute favourite is your invasion of Iwondonilo City where the majority of the level takes place on your bike and gives off serious Space Harrier vibes. It reminded me of Super Nintendo's Mode 7 graphics chip that creates a distinctive and impressive faux 3D effect. This bike level is so unique and it made me wish a handful of other levels had at least mini-segments where you hop on your bike (or other vehicles!).

What I particularly enjoyed about this game is how most levels have distinct phases, such as beginning with platforming then transitioning into a hectic and deadly auto-scroll portion and then ending in a series of sub-boss battles. No two levels have the same flow, which gives each one a fresh, original feel. I haven't had this much fun playing a retro action platforming game in quite some time.

Didn't Like: Too Easy, Too Short

Let's get one thing straight: For its $16.99 price point, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider easily offers enough to land it squarely in must-buy territory. Still, at nine levels that can be cleared for the first time in about three hours, I couldn't help but pine for more content. It doesn't help that the game leans towards the easy side too—while I died a few times during my playthrough, I never died enough to have to use a continue. I always had a few lives to spare.

To add replayability, each level gives you a letter grade that oddly enough seems mostly determined by your completion time even though the game does have a scoring system. I don't know if getting an S-rank in every level unlocks something new in the game, but it's something I intend to find out. Plus, of course, it's fun to replay levels after you've acquired new boss powers and Modifier Chips to complete them in new or faster ways. But I do think unfortunately that after a few run-throughs, most players will get everything they can out of the game. The good news is for its modest price point you'll get a truly exceptional game that every retro action fan simply needs to experience.

The Verdict

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider kicks off 2023 in the best way possible with an immaculate retro platforming title delivering tight gameplay, gorgeous visuals, great enemy variety and intense boss fights. Anyone who enjoys classics like Contra or Shinobi should have this game on their radar. Moonrider is a masterful tribute to retro action.

Final Score: 9/10 - Amazing

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider details

Platform: PS5, PS4, Nintendo Switch, PC
Developer: JoyMasher
Publisher: The Arcade Crew
Genre: Side-scrolling Action Platformer
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

A key was provided by the publisher.