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Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Genre: Platformer
Publisher: The Arcade Crew
Developer: JoyMasher
Release Date: Jan. 12, 2023


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PS5 Review - 'Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Jan. 11, 2023 @ 8:00 a.m. PST

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is a side-scrolling action platformer channeling the golden age of classic 16-bit action games in a refined, full-throttle quest for revenge.

Old-school platformers were built differently. It's easy to write them off as "simplistic," but that wasn't always the case. They just had different priorities. Sometimes, that was to drag as many quarters out of your pockets as they could, and other times, they were just about working within the technology limitations of the time to make the best possible experience. Sometimes I miss those days, no matter how amazing some modern games are. Blazing Chrome was a wonderful way to revisit the Contra series without technically being a Contra game, and Joymasher's new game, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is a delightful take on classic games like Strider.

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider tells the story of a distant future where an evil government rules over its people with the aid of robotic warriors. One such warrior, Moonrider, is brought online and promptly rejects the idea of being a jerk, so he sets out to defeat his fellow super soldier robots and bring peace to the world. That's the plot. Moonrider adheres to the designs of old-school platformers, and that means you get a handful of text cut scenes and a straightforward story. Sometimes you don't need anything more to justify a game than "rogue cyborg samurai fights evil cyborg samurais."

Moonrider's a platformer, and you can pick up and play it without much trouble. You move right (or rarely left), jump, and slash with your laser sword. While it doesn't entirely feel like it, the strongest inspiration for the game seems to be the original Strider. Getting up close and attacking rapidly with your sword will deal tons of damage, but the same goes for enemies, and it's a game of kill or be killed. This is an old-school game, so you have limited lives, but the game is generous, and if you run out of lives, you can restart from a checkpoint, many of which aren't far from actual bosses.

While your sword is important, the star of the show is your dive kick. Moonrider can dive-kick in any downward direction, and holy cow, is it a good dive kick. It hits like a truck, allows you to bounce off foes' heads to reach greater heights, and is a combination mobility and damage tool that eclipses others in your arsenal. Once you get the hang of it, you can bounce from foe to foe and move through stages with great ease, including skipping large segments of levels if you kick off the right enemy. This is a tool I can't wait to see used in speed-running.

Moonrider can also power himself up in two ways: chips and special attacks. Special attacks follow Mega Man rules. Beat a boss, and you'll get one of their weapons to use. These weapons use up the MP bar, which is shared between all weapons but are incredibly powerful. Early on, I found the limitations to be restrictive, since you'll only get a handful of uses. The game is generous about throwing refills at you. More importantly, you get items that change how you refill MP, including a slow regeneration over time and a much better "gain MP back every time you kill an enemy" chip, which completely changes the gameplay. Once you have one of those chips, you can toss out skills until the cows come home, but you might need to be more careful in boss battles.

Power-up chips can be found throughout stages, with each stage having at least one — in addition to  a special cheat chip if you get a game over. You can equip two chips at a time, and the skills include making your sword longer, regenerating health and MP, giving you a double-jump, or pointing out where chips are hidden. Some chips can change your entire approach to the game. My only real issue with this is that the two-chip limit hurts customization. Some chips are absurdly powerful and game-changing, and others are just a nice utility. It's difficult to justify a slightly longer sword over your blade getting stronger with every foe you defeat.

The level design is quite fun. Stages are large and sometimes contain multiple routes or minor puzzles, but at heart, they are mostly straightforward platformers. The game feels immensely fair. Sometimes you'll see enemy configurations that you can't imagine getting past, but a dive-kick or use of a special move usually solves the issue. There's only one case of insta-death that I can remember, and that was while we were escaping from a fire. It isn't going to feel "Nintendo hard" at any point, but you need to pay attention. A few hits can take you down, but it goes both ways. Bosses can go down quickly if you get their patterns down; I chunked several boss' health in under 30 seconds.

The most impressive thing about Moonrider is how well it captures the feeling of a 16-bit title. It's very easy to trace its influences, with Strider being at the front of the list, but it doesn't feel quite as tied to Strider as Blazing Chrome did to Contra. This is something I could have imagined grabbing from Blockbuster and absolutely falling in love with back in the ye olden days. The graphics have a delightful chunky feeling that I associate with the era, and the soundtrack likely feels right at home. Even the goofy and slightly weird cut scenes are only some '90s-era censorship away from feeling right at home.

Moonrider's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It looks, feels and plays like a 16-bit game, right down to a short running time. It's a lot of fun and masterfully evokes the nostalgia of the era, but it's exactly what you get on the tin, and without that nostalgia, it might not necessarily stand out as anything but a fun platformer that you can finish in one or two sittings. You can locate hidden chips to power up your character or go for S-ranks, but that's the entire game. It's about knowing what you're in for.

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is a game that stepped right out of the '90s. It's a fun little platformer that controls well and is a delight to play, and it evokes a remarkable amount of nostalgia for a game that is coming out in 2023. Much like Blazing Chrome, it's the closest you'll come to a new Strider game that plays like the old-school Strider. If that is what you're looking for, you'll be delighted, and if you love old-school platforming action, Moonrider offers it in spades, without the quarter-munching or rental fees.

Score: 8.0/10

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