The unfortunate thing about the impeccably named Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is that it never quite reaches the dizzying heights of its audacious name. Moonrider is, to be entirely clear, a great little game with a clear sense of style and a vision it follows to the very end. That end though is just something altogether familiar and pedestrian, though that doesn’t mean there aren’t flashes of brilliance scattered throughout.
Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is an inspired tribute to sidescrollers of old. In particular, it seems to genuflect before the greatness of classic Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man. The former lends it an aesthetic and tone, while the latter gives the game its structure and mechanics. Luckily for anyone not familiar with just how difficult those games used to be, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is decidedly more approachable than either, or other modern homages like 2020’s Cyber Shadow. The thing is that Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider aims for so little above being these games that it rarely feels like it accomplishes much more than honoring the past.
The story of Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider plays out in exceptionally retro violence over the course of eight stages. Moonrider is a rogue unit who defects from the cause they were engineered to fight for and begins laying waste to the robot mast— erm, I mean other Guardians, who uphold a vague sort of totalitarian regime. In order to do so, you must deftly platform and hack n’ slash your way through them and their robot armies. Obviously some details are its own, but Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider sticks pretty close to tried-and-true formulas in its worldbuilding. It’s inoffensive, but because it’s so familiar, it just became noise that I tuned out.
In action, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is admittedly more exciting. Despite looking like Alphonse from Fullmetal Alchemist, Moonrider has moves! You are after all a cybernetic ninja of sorts, meaning you can jump (eventually even double jump!) and divekick enemies from the air, and you can dash jump to great lengths. You’ll bounce grenades back at turrets, leap over shielded enemies to get ‘em from behind and scour levels in search of upgrades in very familiar looking tanks. Those upgrades can be equipped two at a time, which I found can lead to an interesting bit of push as players consider what might best work for an upcoming level. Due to the relative ease of the game though, I think I only swapped abilities once in order to reduce incoming damage, which felt outsized throughout my time with Moonrider. Bosses that you slay will drop new abilities that drain an MP bar right next to your health, though they disappointingly don’t change your color pattern. Very little of what you’ll find here is unexpected, but I think Moonrider deserves a shout for handling its influences deftly enough to skirt being overwhelmingly plain and predictable. Combat lands satisfyingly and enemies either blow up or get sliced to chunks pretty sleekly. Platforming seems like a bit of an afterthought at times, with few segments that stand out, but at least what’s there is functional and never holds the player back.
Where I really appreciate Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider’s deviations, and where it seems to more or less come into its own, are its stages and their direction. Each level has multiple phases, typically broken up by the occasional mini bosses, but the best of these stages dynamically evolve in these transitions. One of them, called Iwondonilo City, starts as a 3D level where you’re zooming down a long stretch of highway on your cool motorcycle blasting enemies off the road or out of the sky before turning into a traditional 2D level atop trucks where you need to duck and dodge around signs. Another highlight makes you balance taking out foot soldiers in a forest while an aerial unit in the game’s background targets you, forcing you to consider how to use the stage as cover without remaining completely still. It is unfortunate that not every level reaches these heights, but the ones that do really show the promise of a more fleshed out vision for this game.
In so many areas, I feel the game Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider could be. It’s not so easy as merely unshackling itself from its influences. In fact, in some ways, it could actually stand to hew more closely to them, especially when it comes to exploration and difficulty. Taken as it is though, Vengeful Guardian is an approachable, stylish retro platformer that I can see many falling for once they give it a chance, and I encourage anyone curious enough to do so. I think much like myself, you’ll find a surprising amount to appreciate here, even if you’ll be left wanting more.
Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is developed by JoyMasher and published by The Arcade Crew and DotEmu. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch.
Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.