Date: January 11, 2023
Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider isn’t the only game that seeks to emulate 90s platformers. They are, in fact, a dime-a-dozen, even if we only count those that strictly adhere to the 90s design ethos (spike traps, speed, and turning everything up to 11). Shovel Knight, Rogue Legacy, Metroid Dread, and countless others are working from the same cloth. What Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider might bring to the table, though, is grit. The 90s had more than just Sonic and Megaman, after all; they also had such grungy classics as Contra III, Quake, and Castlevania.
By mixing these inspirations, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider could’ve easily ended up as an incoherent mash-up of ideas. Instead, it expertly stirs them together into a complete package that takes just the right bits from each property. It takes a dash of Contra’s game feel, a pinch of Robocop’s themes, and a heavy dose of Megaman’s structure and progression, and coats it all in the bombastic biomechanics of Metroid and Quake. And then it adds something special to finish it off, some Chemical X that the team at JoyMasher adds that makes it its own, despite its similarities.
That isn’t to say the game is perfect. it inherits many flaws from its predecessors and has a few unique to itself. But, while these flaws do keep it from becoming the pinnacle of modern retro platformers, what it does right is enough to easily earn it a spot alongside other greats of its genre, and it is unique enough that it is worth experiencing in its own right. If you miss the bombast and grit of the 90s, this game is for you, an ideal blend of every game (and a few other things) that made the 90s what they were.
Gameplay – Contra Gaiden
Let’s start with the true highlight of the game: combat. In Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider, you play as a robot samurai created to be a killing machine by the government in order to oppress the population. Of course, then, the combat is ludicrously fun and bloody, centering primarily around slicing up enemies with your katana.
Not only is this incredibly satisfying, but the developers found a way to take a single melee weapon and give it a lot of variety. There is a standing combo, a running slash attack, a downward kick, and a crouching attack, all useful in different circumstances, and all coming naturally. And this is before getting into your Special Attacks and other modifiers, all of which create a surprisingly robust combat system.
The only real issue with the combat is that it is too easy. Nearly all non-boss enemies are destroyed with a single sprint attack, and those that aren’t usually only require an extra slash or two. On one hand, this works with the theming — you are the elite samurai warrior, designed to kill, and so regular enemies shouldn’t pose much. Plus, this game is meant to be sped through, with the rankings at the end of each level being largely determined by time. Even still, I do find myself wishing that more regular enemies were tougher.
Bosses, at least, are genuinely challenging. Every boss and miniboss in the game has a unique, clear gimmick, special moves, and amazing designs. While I do think they are too easy as well (especially if you use Special Attacks), they at least often took three or four tries for me to beat, and it was fun to learn their patterns. I think they could be slightly improved with greater move variety (since each boss only has a few moves, which makes them very easy to learn), but otherwise, the boss combat is exactly where this game shines, both in a gameplay sense and aesthetically. And the game is packed full of them, having about three boss/mini-boss fights in each short level.
What’s also in each level is lots of platforming. And this is where some more issues start to crop up. I’ll start by saying that the platforming in this game is fun, fluid, and precise. Moonrider moves responsively, and you will quickly learn when to sprint, how long to jump, and where to aim for while you are bouncing from platform to platform. It is a solid, dependable system, and an improvement from many other classic games (and retro-clones) in that respect.
If only that was what most of the platforming consisted of. Instead, most of it consists of waiting and repetition, and so goes from being fast and precise straight into being slow and boring. There were many times when I was waiting for lasers to finish firing, for platforms to come back my way, or for level-specific obstacles to pass.
What’s more, the checkpoints all have a nasty habit of dropping you right back to the very beginning of a platforming segment, if you fall into the bottomless pits that are often placed below them. Keep in mind, these pits do not kill you, but you are punished by having to restart the entire segment again anyway, rather than restarting partway through them. In a game about speed and precision, where the levels are ranked primarily based on your speed, these slowdowns are surprisingly frustrating.
Progression – Megaman Called
Let’s move on to how you move through the game. If you’ve played Megaman 2 or 3, you know how Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is structured. After the first level, which doubles as a kind of tutorial, you will be allowed to pick from several maps, each with a different Guardian boss that you will have to take out in order to liberate the planet. In this case, there are only six levels to Megaman’s nine, but the concept is the same. You will battle through each themed level (with names like “Fallen City” and “Desalination Facility”), get a ranking after beating it, and then can either replay it to find secrets or improve your rank, or move on to the next level.
As far as “inspiration” goes, this is the closest Moonrider gets to straight-up copying from the homework of other games. But not without reason. This is, in my opinion, the best way for a speed-obsessed retro platformer to be structured. It gives the player plenty of choice, opening up tons of speedrunning strategies (since this game seems hungry for runners to play through it), and also encourages replayability. It still locks the last few levels behind the completion of those first seven for the sake of the story, but otherwise gives the player freedom and trusts that they can handle any challenge from the onset, which is refreshing compared to other retro games which are so keen on linearity and scaling difficulty.
At least, that is true in theory. In practice, since each level gives you a new Special Attack and some specific Hidden Chips, there is an ideal order to run the game in, and that would be to start with the Lost Ruins in order to get both the most powerful Special Attack (Darkportal, which summons a tentacle that acts as a Damage-over-Time beam)) and to get the most useful Chip (which enables double-jumping). Not to mention that it will pit you against one of the easiest Guardians in the game, Darkchaser. While it isn’t terrible that there is an ideal route through the game, it is a bit disappointing that it was so easy for me — anything but an expert on speedrunning — to pick up on it.
Also worth mentioning is that the upgrades, especially the Special Attacks, range from “incredibly useful” to “no one would use this in a million years.” The aforementioned Darkportal, for instance, can clear out bosses incredibly easily. Meanwhile, the Hyrdoshuriken is terrible, with virtually no practical use in the game. The Hidden Chips (of which there are one or two on each level, none of which being very difficult to find) fare slightly better, with each one providing some kind of benefit, though still some are better than others.
Worth rounding this section out is a mention of game length. Even if you hunt for A or S-ranks (which I did), this game is very short. I was able to beat every single level, find all the secrets, and get an S-rank on each (itself far too easy to accomplish) in about 5 hours. If I was just playing through to beat the game, I’d suspect it would’ve taken me about 2 hours, and I would be surprised if speedrunners didn’t whittle that down to maybe twenty to thirty minutes. While that kind of length might’ve been acceptable in the 90s, in the 2020’s it does make for a somewhat lackluster experience, leaving me craving much more.
If this very short game length was what was required to make the game work as well as it does, then so be it, but if it was an intentional choice in order to provide some more 90s nostalgia or to appeal to speedrunners, then I think the developers took it too far since it now provides so much less content then other retro throwbacks.
Aesthetics – Metroid, Meet Doom
Earlier, I said that the combat was the true highlight of the game. But I lied. In actuality, the true reason to play Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider, by my approximation, is the incredible art. It was the first thing that appealed to me about the game, and the thing that really stands out about Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider. Maybe it just appeals to my weird sensibilities, but I can’t help but fawn over the art.
Let me describe the art objectively as best I can: biomechanical, dystopian grit with a hearty dose of heavy metal flair, both in terms of intensity and darkness. Like the rest of the game, the art is derivative of a dozen other influences. It has the intrigue and level design of Metroid, the Japanese inspirations of Ninja Gaiden, the biomechanical grit of Doom, the enemy design of an H.R. Giger sketchbook or the recent game Scorn, and a lot of cutscenes that could’ve been ripped straight from ultra-pixelated versions of Robocop and Demolition Man (or from 90s Doom Metal album covers). And it all blends together beautifully (or grotesquely) into an overall aesthetic that is as much nostalgic throwback as it is a refreshing revival.
We are living in an age of nostalgia for grunge-era aesthetics, and Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider might be at the top of that grimy pyramid. I really can’t stress enough how excellent all the art is, and how seamlessly it plays into the game. You’d think that making your artistic inspirations be a mixture of the filthy, industrial grit of the 90s and the over-the-top bombast of the 80s would leave the screen cluttered and confusing, but instead the animations and styling keeps everything on-screen clear and readable.
The only thing that doesn’t work for me, aesthetically, is the music. It isn’t bad, and it does evoke some iconic soundtracks from the games that inspired it, but it also doesn’t particularly stand out. Moonrider clearly wants its soundtrack to be as iconic as Metroid’s, but that just doesn’t quite pan out. Similarly, the sound design is a bit basic (aside from the boss alarm, which is perfect), leaving much to be desired on the audio front.
Story – Robocop, Anyone?
For a game primarily about gamefeel and aesthetics, the story is shockingly earnest, to the point of near pastiche. I can’t decide if the story it is telling is meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek, or is entirely genuine in its presentation. And I think that is by design.
Let me describe it. As mentioned before, you play as a robot samurai called a Guardian, created by the government in order to keep the population oppressed. However, you realize immediately that the kind of government oppression that you would be enforcing would be wrong, and so you set out to topple the government and destroy your fellow Guardians so that the people can rise up, eventually culminating in a final boss fight which… well, I won’t spoil it, but it will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched any sci-fi movie from the 80s.
And you’d think that would be all aesthetic. Window dressing, meant to further deepen the game’s connection to its inspirations. But, in playing it, I’m not so sure. After all, if it was window dressing, meant to poke fun at the over-serious themes of 80s action movies (which never matched the tones of the movies themselves), then it wouldn’t be so deeply interwoven into the game.
Let me elaborate. Before every single level, you are told how conquering the level will help the people. Every single Guardian boss at the end of each level (and several of the minibosses within those levels) has a lengthy conversation with you about the nature of oppression. All the cutscenes signify, in a very hamfisted way, how the government is oppressing the people, and the game continuously reminds you what you are fighting for (rather than reveling is just how cool its protagonist is, ironically making him even cooler). In other words, everything in the game points, very earnestly, to one theme. And yet, that theme is so hamfisted, and so overstated, that it borders on ridiculous.
I just cannot decide if the game — featuring mecha-robot samurai fighting each other in biomechanical sets — really wants to be taken that seriously, or if it is all a bit of a joke. And I just can’t imagine a more perfect way to send up the 80s and 90s than that.
The story and tone are, of course, too over-the-top to take fully seriously, and its moral messages a bit too hokey and simple to be really revolutionary, but damn if it doesn’t give the game an absurd amount of charm, in the same way, that any story that has too much heart for its own good has charm. I just can’t help but smile every time Moonrider delivers a lecture on governmental overreach right before slicing a teleporting robot samurai in half.
Overall, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider remembers a very specific version of the 90s (and, to a lesser extent, the 80s) which makes its nostalgia different from other, similar retro games. It remembers an intense, gritty, grungey past that is full of bombast and heart. It remembers the obsession with industrial beings, Splatterhouse gore, and over-sincere, entirely unsubtle storytelling. It remembers unorthodox game structure, precise platforming, and just a tiny bit of jank that makes the game feel like an imperfect piece of art rather than a corporate product. In short, it idealizes a part of the past that has been otherwise forgotten, and it is all the better for it, especially because it does also add just enough fresh ideas into the mix to keep from being only 90s nostalgia-bait.
There is some polish it could use, and it could do with taking a few more leaps with its story and gameplay, but overall this is an extremely solid game that knows exactly what it is. If you are, like me, nostalgic for when games embraced grunge and industrial aesthetics, this is a must-play. If you are anyone else, this quick, satisfying romp is still worth checking out. You can check out Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider on Steam now.