Review – Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider
Not every game needs to reinvent the wheel in order to make a great impact. I’m thrilled that you think this particular title is a bold new take on deck-building, plant life simulation, and erotic exercises, but I’m seriously looking for a way to just lock in and turn off my brain today. It’s been a hell of a time at work, the world seems dreadfully unstable, and the idea of needing to get eyeballs deep in lore, mechanics, and nuance in order to play a god damn game is unsettlingly deplorable. Sometimes you want to escape into a dystopian landscape that really needs no further explanation than “they are bad, you are good”, and then commence to slashin’ baddies to pieces. Thankfully, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider asks nothing more of you than “enjoy the ride,” and I certainly did.
The year is sometime horrible, and the world is controlled by bad people. Regular people are oppressed by cyborg overlords, and, for some reason, the bad people thought they needed one more cyborg to really grind down any thoughts of uprising. Luckily, rebels managed to hack into the cyborg before it went online, because of course they did and don’t ask how.
Moonrider came online with the Communist Manifesto suddenly in its ROM, and a powerful sense of righteousness at its fingertips. Also, this robot is significantly stronger than all existing robots, which in hindsight, was a terrible choice by the evil overlords. Determined to bring back democracy, restore humanity, raise minimum wage, install universal healthcare, and do everything else you could possibly want, Moonrider is an android for the people!
All joking aside, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is a side-scrolling action game, with heavy influence from Mega Man X and V for Vendetta. You play the titular Moonrider, who will slash his way through multiple areas, each controlled by some kind of robotic entity, and then you get to steal their powers if you win the fight. Along with the general fighting abilities you gain, each stage has a couple of hidden chips that you can find that will unlock swappable abilities, with a max of two chips per run.
These abilities range from double jump, to health stealing, to one time respawning with half health. Feel free to play around and experiment with what works for you: I personally thought Bloodsucker (HP sap) and Soulsucker (MP sap) were a magical combination, but you do what works for you.
Fixed in the 16-bit aesthetic, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider fully committed to capturing the SNES feeling, with equal parts success and failure. Visibly, the game plays the role down to the bone, with amazingly detailed mobs and viscera, pixelated landscapes, and chunky portraits for between-stage expositions.
Using the technology of today, the team of JoyMasher went above and beyond to ensure that small aspects were featured prominently, such as the steam release when Moonrider idles for a couple of seconds. This attention to the minute bits of the characters also helps to give players a good sense of the hitboxes, which make items like the Long Sword chip important, and also make the multiple vehicle sections quite frustrating. I know that I clipped into the other motorcycle, I just wish the game had better controls to prevent that from happening.
Yes, much as there was a certain learning curve when playing Super Metroid or Actraiser, you need to get a feeling for Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider before you can really immerse yourself in the game. The tutorial level (which is just long enough and totally optional) gives you a heads up for the slightly sluggish movements, and also lets you practice seeing where aerial attacks will land when executed properly. Since this is a game that thinks it should be on a D-pad, but also needs a joystick, you’ll quickly figure out that down and down/diagonal right are only separated by a couple degrees, and one of these will land you either on the enemy you’re aiming for, or send you straight into hell. Which is which? That’s the great part- you won’t know till it happens!
Once you get a hang of the controls, you then get to experience the full fury of Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider, and the bobbling difficulty that comes with it. On the one hand, the level layouts are incredible. Capturing different elements of a variety of games – Contra, Mega Man, even Outrun – is a difficult task, but the developers have done an amazing pastiche of worlds within the worlds. Whether you’re on a motorcycle, leaping through platforms in the sky, or slogging through an underwater maze, you get a real sense of planning and design for each of the zones. There’s a brilliance in how everything meshes together while being so dissimilar, like the throughline is apparent, even as I transition from dodging missiles in a jungle, to fighting my way up a space elevator.
Additionally, the path to each boss for each stage is a seriously arduous one, and the challenges are no joke. Trying to find the hidden chips throughout each stage is an important exploration, but you either need to be incredibly patient or be lucky and unlock the Detective chip early on, and then sacrifice one of your slots just to have this little helper available. Enemies have different attack patterns and stylings, so you need to adapt and adjust to quick and dirty fighting versus timing and parrying, sometimes in the same breath.
As mini bosses are a frequent staple, you also find yourself dying multiple times to discover the patterns needed to get through the fight with no chance to heal. One particular submarine bastard actually had me use continues to try again and again because the multiple stages, paired with the slogging water effects, left me grasping for the final hit in order to proceed.
Wildly, on the other hand, most of the boss fights are far, far too simple. With Mega Man, it was almost vital to figure out the order in which you should fight, so that you can pit weaknesses against future robots to come out victorious. Only insane people would fight Wood Man before dealing with Metal Man. With Moonrider, there wasn’t really a purpose to getting any of the items in any order, and I generally didn’t want or need any of the power-ups. For all bosses, save one, the most effective form of combat was dashing at them and wailing until the fight was over.
This sounds very crass and simplistic, and that’s because it is. Trying to be cute with using ranged attacks, like the Stormshot or the Darkportal, ended up wasting time and would create more problems than the old tried-and-true smashing them in the face. Being able to see health bars told me this was the right way to do it: I could see, unequivocally, that Hydromancer was seconds from death shortly after I started fighting.
Which, frankly, I didn’t mind. All the language of the storyline in Moonrider tells us that the titular hero is supposed to be the strongest of them all, and goddamn if that isn’t right. Instead of feeling like I survived by the skin of my teeth, I walked into each and every boss room like the fifth Horseman, ready to deliver vengeance for the people and the populace as a whole.
This is something that I think far too many games don’t realize: you can’t prop up the hero to be some kind of demigod and then have them get destroyed by the first obstacle they encounter. This is, inexplicably, a power fantasy without being overpowered. I didn’t get to equip each and every chip and turn into a typhoon of pain, I still had to pick, choose and work with what I had to be the best. Then, when the time came, I proved it without needing to over exert myself. This isn’t Dark Souls, this is Streets of Rage, and you can and will be the best without flaying yourself alive.
Lastly, I need to nod to the stellar soundtrack of Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider. This could have just had the same chiptune music that I expected, but it went above and beyond, with an amazing mixture of synthwave, darksynth, electrovibe, and several other flavors for each track. Riding in the space elevator gave me some serious Moon level of Ducktales vibe, and the music captured that so very well without being a direct homage. More and more, it seems that composers are making sure that indie games get the love they deserve in the soundscape area, and I see and appreciate that. I’m hoping they make the soundtrack available on Bandcamp in the future, because I don’t listen to music on Steam, and the DLC seems to be the only legal way to obtain it.
This game was just the greatest cup of coffee for me to help start the new year. Last year started with a bang when I had the pleasure of playing Infernax, and 2023 got off to a great start as well with Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider. It’s not terribly involved, the storyline is a bit heavy handed, and you need to figure out how it handles, but it’s exactly what it needs to be. I can and will return to this game in the future when I want to burn through a great action platformer with excellent progression. Oh, and you can bet your ass I’ll be looking forward to future content, though this game needs none. Fans of the 16 bit era should absolutely give this a try, and see for themselves what being vengeance really feels like.
Brilliant design for characters and portraits, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider fully commits to the SNES era without making things too blurry or foggy, allowing for crispness even with the CRT filter in place.
Perfect level and story length, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider lets players enjoy just enough of each world before moving you onto the next. Slightly disappointed how easy the bosses are in comparison to the mini bosses.
Gorgeous soundtrack full of electric dreams and evocative styles. I can and will buy this music if I can get it anywhere besides Steam.
Needing to replay levels for higher grades aren’t my thing, but wanting to challenge yourself and see what you can do in this fantastic dystopia tempts me to try, try again. I’ll be back, with bigger weapons.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PC, and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider was provided by the publisher.