Preview: Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider

30 Sep 2022

How do you feel about classic action games from the 16-bit era? Because that’s going to inform a lot about how you feel when it comes to Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider.

The 16-bit era of console gaming had a slightly disjointed start, with the Sega Genesis having launched a solid two years before the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, but we’re not really here to have a detailed discussion of the history of the hardware and respective pros and cons of both systems. What’s far more relevant is the fact that the jump in power meant games that were graphically far more powerful, but especially early on were very similar in play and style to 8-bit games. They looked better, but they played largely the same.

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is very much made in the vein of those titles during the changeover, a game that is trying very eagerly to recreate the feeling of picking up a new game from the store (or, more likely, the local rental shop) and popping it in with no more knowledge about it than the fact that it looks cool. How well does it capture that feel? Well, I got to play through a demo, so I can give you at least a passing impression.

Run, Jump, Slash, Repeat

There’s not much story in this particular demo to comment on; it’s clear that there is a story, but this playthrough (perhaps wisely) focuses almost entirely upon the actual play mechanics of your cyborg ninja protagonist (the eponymous Vengeful Guardian named Moonrider, naturally). And considering what this title is meant as an homage to, old-school hack-and-slash platformers, any other focus would be frankly unnecessary.

Rather than adhering to any particular existing game and trying to mirror its moveset, the goal here is clearly to create something of a modern version of what could have been an old-school game. Moonrider can jump and slash with abandon, but that’s only the start of his particular skillset. He can run so long as you hold a button down (or you double-tap a direction, but that’s less reliable), opening up dash slashes. He can hang from wires and jump off walls. There’s a dedicated button for your special weapons, slaved to an energy meter alongside your health bar. He’s got diving kicks that let you bounce off enemies and set up repeated aerial assaults.

What’s indisputably good about all of this is that the controls are tight and enemy placement sharp. Rather than throwing hordes at you, the game opts for a handful of enemies with attacks that can consistently throw off your timing, both because a few hits can end your life and it’s more interesting when you’re dealing with the patterns and then moving forward. Enemies die quickly, but not so quick you can ignore what you’re fighting, nor do they tend to park themselves somewhere and let you avoid their attacks effortlessly before idly leaping to attack. I repeatedly had to remind myself that some particular flame-spewing heads could hit me when I thought I was out of range, and the very first enemy is set up to remind you of that.

All that’s not to say that the game is quite pure wine and roses, however. Enemies have attack patterns that can hit you where you aren’t expecting, but you’re unlikely to fall for that more than once; similarly, the attack patterns are all clear and predictable. This is all part of the game playing fair, which is very important, but it also means that it’s pretty easy to avoid damage once you know what you’re looking for. This is further reinforced by the fact that health pickups, at least in the demo, are abundant and frequent; you have to consistently fail to dodge a lot of attacks to really wind up in a dangerous situation.

But none of that is to say it doesn’t work. The bosses are suitably large and at least one of the two on display has extra destroyable segments if you want to alter the fight somewhat, and it’s a game that plays fair and doesn’t require perfect reactions to dodge damage reliably. It’s definitely a fun, solid action platformer at this stage, even though a lot will depend on the rest of the stages beyond the two on display in the demo.

All Dark, Some Light

Graphically, the game felt a little more Sega Genesis than Super Nintendo to me – a somewhat more muted palette, fewer colors for individual sprites, and a generally more “chunky” layout with fewer moving pieces. That’s not really germane to whether the game is any good or not; it was just a personal association. It’s a lovely game all the same, with intricate and careful sprite work everywhere and a well-designed aesthetic that feels reminiscent of many games while being distinctly its own thing.

Individual enemies as well as Moonrider are well-animated, and while the tutorial’s blocky wireframe enemies might lead you to think they were planning to cheap out on how things move, it’s a stylistic choice through and through. Once you get past the tutorial you can count on everything looking and flowing wonderfully, even if I think keeping everything so bland in the tutorial is a minor mistake. (It makes sense from a story sense, but it doesn’t give the best first impression.)

Music and sound, on the other hand, are… serviceable, but not great. Enemies have noises, but they’re muddled and indistinct, and while the air stage has some solid music most of the music just washes into a very comfortable-but-forgettable chiptune experience. It feels era-appropriate but I can’t say any of it really caught me in the way that so many 16-bit soundtracks did from the first level.

A Retro to Keep an Eye On

Obviously, a demo doesn’t give you the full context of a game to judge it on. I don’t know if Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is the sort of game that will turn into a regular favorite for people who enjoy retro hack-and-slash platformers or if it’s going to be consigned to the same fate as many of the games it was inspired by, where it gets played once until you hit a difficult bit and then is forgotten about forever. A lot depends on how fun the boss fights are, how precise your movement has to be, and how many things there are to unlock in the full game to be used over time.

The demo, though, does demonstrate clearly that the game has the core down. The core moment-to-moment play of slashing through enemies, running and jumping, and even doing a tiny bit of exploration is solid and rewarding. I felt like the demo was a bit too brief, but then, it’s sort of intentional in that regard.

So keep an eye on this one. It might not be your new favorite, but if you have some affection for the genre it’s emulating, you should be watching for the demo’s public release and see how the full game performs past that.

Demo provided by The Arcade Crew for evaluation purposes. All screenshots are courtesy of The Arcade Crew.