Making any video game is exceptionally hard work. But creating a retro-style experience that feels 100% authentic to the source of inspiration adds a whole extra layer of difficulty. Implementing pixel art visuals and calling it a day just doesn’t cut it, but what developer JoyMasher has done with Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is truly remarkable. Much like its previous effort with Blazing Chrome, the team has successfully created a 2D action title that looks, sounds, and plays like it came straight from the early ’90s, down to the exceptional environmental detail and enemy design.
Inspired by the likes of Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master and Strider, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is a sci-fi action platformer in which you take on the role of the titular Moonrider, a cybernetic ninja who rejects his intended purpose as a tool to preserve a totalitarian state and instead wages war against its creators. After making your way through the opening level (we recommend playing through the excellent tutorial section, too), you’ll have a choice of six additional stages to tackle in whichever order you see fit, followed by two final stages to round out the experience . Each stage houses its own boss character and beating each of these will grant you a new ability. Very similar to Mega Man in many ways, then.
Navigating through the stages feels fluid and intuitive; Moonrider will walk by default, but holding down ‘ZR’ causes it to run, which enables the performance of a pretty powerful swooping attack that can cut down enemies in an instant if executed at the right time, resulting in a fountain of pixelated blood that never gets old. Otherwise, you can stand still and unleash a series of basic sword attacks, which is generally enough to dispatch most standard enemies. Additionally, you have special attacks which are slightly more powerful but come with limited availability; each use of your special attack will deplete a blue gauge in the top corner, which you’ll need to replenish with pick-ups as you make your way through the environment.
Along with your basic moveset, you’ll also gain new abilities as you progress. These can be obtained by beating the boss characters and by collecting modifier chips hidden throughout the levels. These grant skills like the double jump, but also provide more passive upgrades such as enhanced armor and the ability to detect hidden areas in the environment. You can only equip two modifier chips at any one time, so choosing which to use depending on your situation is key to getting through the levels in the fastest and most efficient manner.
It’s a good job Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider gives you these options, too, because the game not only feels retro in its audio-visual design, but it’s also pretty challenging at frequent intervals. We wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s quite as difficult as some of the SNES’s most notorious titles (looking at you, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts), but there’s enough here to keep you on your toes, particularly if you’ re unfamiliar with 2D action games like Shinobi III. That said, it never feels unfair, and the level of challenge is entirely reliant on your own ability to master Moonrider’s skills and learn your enemies’ attack patterns. If you happen to die, then chances are you’ll know exactly where you went wrong and be able to rectify it on a subsequent try.
In terms of its visuals, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is absolutely stunning. The 16-bit pixel art style here is reminiscent of classic side-scrolling games like Castlevania: Bloodlines and has a timeless quality we can’t get enough of. There’s plenty of visual variety on offer, including cyberpunk cities, murky underwater passageways, and digital spaces that remind us of the VR missions in Metal Gear Solid. It’s all implemented beautifully, although if we’re being picky, there’s a “3D” motorbike section that doesn’t quite have the same impact as the 2D environments, lacking detail that otherwise permeates the experience from start to finish. On the plus side, a CRT filter can be applied at any point, one of the most successful uses of the effect we’ve seen in quite some time.
The same level of care and attention has also gone into the music and audio design. Each level boasts a stirring ’80s-inspired score filled with synth melodies and quick-tempo beats that will get your heart pumping in no time. The sound effects are varied and effective throughout, including the aggressive swish of your sword, the anguished cry of your fallen enemies, and the comforting bleep of health pickups. Authentically, voice acting is very limited in this throwback, but each boss enemy gives a short, robotic statement in Japanese when you encounter them, lending each character an additional layer of depth and building tension effectively ahead of each fight.
A single playthrough of Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider will likely take you around 2-3 hours, depending on your willingness to hunt for optional items and hidden areas. Thanks to the ability to replay each mission, however, there’s an undeniable urge to beat your previous rank and completion time; the potential for speedruns is strong, and we can’t wait to see what kind of crazy feats players manage to come up with in the months ahead. That said, if you’re the kind of person who plays through a game once and moves onto the next thing, you might find Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider to be a bit lacking in content.
Ultimately, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is a no-brainer if you’re a fan of old-school 2D action titles. Like Blazing Chrome before it, Joymasher has once again proven itself to be an exceptionally talented team that’s able to create highly authentic retro experiences in the modern age. If this were released in the early ’90s, we wouldn’t bat an eyelid except to be dazzled by its brilliance, and that’s testament to the game’s excellent design.
Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is an absolute triumph in ‘neo-retro’ game design. It boasts fluid combat with plenty of variety in environmental and enemy design and an art style that looks like it beamed straight over from the early ’90s. While its overall short length might be a bit of a sticking point for some, those looking for an action title that is not only a fantastic experience but also feels like an authentically retro one will find this to be an absolute no-brainer. It’s straight up one of the the coolest games to kickstart 2023.