Review: Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider
I’d really like to be able to say that when we got the full review build for this particular title, my experience of playing through the demo for Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider had already slipped through my memory and faded into half-remembered ephemera. Because that’s exactly what this game feels like it’s emulating right down to the graphical aesthetic. The gritty, weird textures and slightly nightmarish feel of some Sega Genesis game you barely remember renting but comes rushing back to you in a sudden wave when you see a screenshot. That moment of “oh, wow, that game really existed! I didn’t just imagine it!”
For our younger readers: Yes, this was actually a thing that happened a fair bit. Video games have changed a lot since then.
Now, none of what I said above was an insult. It is entirely a valid approach for a game to take, to try its best to emulate those weird and ephemeral-seeming rental titles of days past and see if there is merit to be had in a reconstruction of same. But does the reconstruction work? Is this something that was, in fact, a valid approach?
Well, that’s what the review is for. Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is out on January 12th for PC via Steam, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch. The PC version was played for this review.
The plot of Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is absolutely the sort of thing that feels like a throwback to the era that this game is inspired by. I wasn’t just being silly talking about old video game rentals; this feels like exactly the sort of game that you would find in a video store that you rent because the cover art looks cool and it has a plot entirely running on the logic of half-remembered games and movies that seemed neat when you were a kid.
What’s different is that instead of having to figure everything out from context clues, here the game explicitly spells the plot out. An oppressive totalitarian government is punishing its people and holding people under a bootheel, but one of its supersoldiers breaks free of their control and sets off on a roaring rampage of revenge to take out his fellow supersoldiers, destroy the government, and… oh, you’ve heard this one before.
This is technically all spelled out in brief cutscenes, character dialogue, and so forth, but a lot of things aren’t set up ahead of time or really filled out aside from retroactively. To use an obvious example, a boss makes a point that the government now is a response to a specific rebellion in the past. When did this rebellion take place? I don’t know, it’s not mentioned before, it’s just something where you’re expected to fill in the blanks. “Oh, okay, government took power after a rebellion and justified harsh actions based on what led to the rebellion, cool, I’ve seen this kind of fiction before.”
And you know what? That’s all fine. I am not going to ding this game one whit for having a half-finished plot of vague innuendo because its clear inspirations had exactly the same style, and that’s what it wants to be. That’s not to say the plot is bad or anything, it’s just a slight, serviceable thing that is basically there to say “what if we could overthrow an oppressive government with totally rad cyborg ninjas on motorcycles?” It does not need to be more than that.
Here’s the thing that basically any game of Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider’s overall style has to contend with: The games that it is based upon are games that were meant to be rented once or twice and then hopefully remembered enough that someone sought them out again. They were cavalcades of weird ideas and almost insanely fertile imaginations being unleashed on the world, and it’s potentially difficult to recreate the feeling of gameplay. How do you make the game feel authentic?
Well, in this game’s case, you make that happen by making the game gleefully kill you over and over.
I noted the game’s basic mechanics in my preview of the title, but now that I have the full game in front of me (including the demo stages much expanded and fleshed out), I can confirm that the game’s overall ethos is to recreate the games of my youth by mirroring their fierce eagerness to murder me as fast as possible. Health pickups are still frequent, but damage comes quickly, and unfortunately it is often difficult to be altogether sure what will or will not kill you until it hits you and leaves you dying.
What does bother me about this setup is that the game feels a bit… overly cruel in that regard. Some stuff is just geared toward having certain special weapons and there were many spots where it felt like your only options were to take damage until you learned how to do this section by muscle memory. I never felt like I had reactive options or like I was getting good feedback about how much damage any given hit was doing.
Again, this is all intentional. The game is trying to split the difference between being a game you are playing now on modern hardware and still paying homage to its roots, and I am willing to bet several of the more frustrating sections were me trying to brute-force the game instead of learn its intricacies. This is a game that will be fun to see people speedrun, because it has all of the hype moments necessary for high-precision play. And if you like games that will deplete your lives eagerly, hey, here you go.
I can’t say that every part of the mechanics delighted me in actual play, but I did feel like the game was striking a balance between its inspirations and the modern reality of video games. That’s a hard split to manage, to give a game that feels like it’s worth the asking price in terms of content while also being not overstuffed and also being hard in a fair way. It doesn’t entirely get there, but it gets darn close.
The graphics of the game look absolutely gorgeous. I keep mentioning the Sega Genesis because the designers have even cited that console’s particular aesthetics, and it’s an apt comparison; there’s that same gritty feel, the same limited color selection on any given screen, and a general darker and rougher vibe to the graphical presentation. But it also feels like a classic Sega game in the sense that you are repeatedly looking at new enemies and being curious as to what the heck that thing is.
Seriously, every time a given portion of the game started feeling normal, I’d meet another room-filling boss that felt like some fusion of muscle sinew and art deco statuary that now wanted me dead, which feels like it should be repetitive but somehow wasn’t. Or an enemy that seemed to have my character’s face on top of kangaroo legs. The other super-soldiers were in some ways just refreshing because it meant this was a point where I recognized a human design again, even if they could frequently be brutally hard.
Sound effects are sharp and appropriate for the game as well, although the lo-fi music is something that feels like it went a step too far. Maybe it’s just me, but my memory of many of these games is visual and mechanical rather than aural, but I found the tracks felt a little too similar to their inspirations to stand out. Have you ever been listening to a song that feels just familiar enough that you’re waiting for it to get to the part of the song you know, only to realize about halfway through that you don’t actually know this song? That’s how it felt.
My first impression of Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider on playing the full game was actually kind of negative. While I can understand what the game was trying to do, this sort of “blow up the player every few minutes to bulk out the run time with repeated deaths” is something that I still put up with for Mega Man games and basically nowhere else. But the more I thought about the game, the more I found my memories turning warmer, because that’s me being cranky about what I want the game to be and not what it tries to be or what it puts forth.
This is a game that wants to take you back to being one of those games you only ever distantly saw and were curious about, the video game equivalent of a B-movie years after those went out of style. We have no shortage of amazing games now, but this is trying to capture a feeling while still being a solid game. And it… does that.
I can’t recommend the game to everyone, and maybe not even to most people. But I think it’s commendable in what it’s trying to do. And if you, like me, have fond memories of picking up games you knew nothing about based on weird art and a love of cyborg ninjas on motorcycles for no reason… this is the modern descendant of those, and it’s having a good go at it.
Review copy provided by The Arcade Crew for PC. All screenshots courtesy of The Arcade Crew.