Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider Review – Nocturne in the Moonlight

    Title: Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider
    Developer: JoyMasher
    Release Date: January 12, 2023
    Reviewed On: Switch
    Publisher: The Arcade Crew
    Genre: Action Adventure

They haven’t been around for that long, but developer JoyMasher has knocked it out of the park time and time again with their releases. Of course, indie developers creating some retro-inspired games isn’t exactly new. Still, this indie studio from Brazil went above and beyond just a mere imitation, as they feel like modern games which belong in this era.

They started with an excellent pair of titles called Oniken and Odallus before creating the perfect Contra-style title imaginable in Blazing Chrome. And they now started 2023 in style with their latest title, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider. Blazing Chrome was close to being the perfect 2D action game of the modern era. And while that title was primarily built upon Konami’s Contra franchise, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider essentially takes after SEGA’s Shinobi franchise, particularly Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master.

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is meticulously and thoughtfully designed. Any resemblance to SEGA’s ninja action series is only spiritual, as it takes foundational gameplay design concepts and executes them with complete originality. Had SEGA picked up the studio and then a swap of graphics, it could easily have passed as a next-generation Shinobi game, but instead, we have something far better thanks to its unbridled creative freedom.

The game stars a cyborg ninja warrior, a weapon turned against its creator and chose to fight for the greater good instead. This anti-hero is the Moonrider himself, and he’s out for vengeance. Not the most narrative-focused game, but within moments the game does an excellent job of building its unique sci-fi setting and uses detailed pixel art to deliver cut-scenes at opportune moments.

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It needs to be emphasized just how stunning this game looks. The pixel artwork is intricately detailed; everything from the character sprites to the artistic backdrops all blend seamlessly to bring a vibrant sci-fi setting to life—the dark aesthetic contrasts with bright color effects to create a sensory delight. In motion, the game looks and feels surreal. JoyMasher has outdone themselves once again, creating something that feels right at home on a SEGA Genesis and even feels relevant on modern gaming platforms. The excellent visual style is backed by a powerful soundtrack that features fast-paced sci-fi techno music but with an oriental flair about it.

Control is the most crucial aspect of a game like this that can make or break the entire experience. Fortunately, they feel sublime, and they hardwire into your brain so that you almost become one with the Moonrider himself. It’s responsive and precise, far better than any other ninja action game in recent memory.

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Our cyborg ninja has a primary attack and a sub-weapon and is versatile in his various jumping maneuvers, including a wall jump. These abilities and attacks become second nature almost instantaneously, making engaging with the level design rewarding. The level design variety is substantial here, with unexpected variety in set pieces and things to do.

There’s no horse riding here as our anti-hero rides in style with his futuristic motorcycle. With this variety comes challenge, but the game does allow you to tackle its main stages in any order before initiating the end game. The stages differ significantly in their theme, design, and boss encounters. You’ll be jumping between jets in the air, navigating traffic, and even being chased by a mech as you navigate some tricky platforming sequences.

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Surprisingly, the game focuses more on ingenious level design than it does on combat. Too often, with ninja action games these days, the enemies serve as fodder and a suffocating distraction. On the other end of the spectrum, we see players engaging more with clever platforming and exploration, with enemy encounters thoughtfully placed throughout the stage. The game allows players to get the most out of controlling the Moonrider and the execution of attacks feels strategic and meaningful. The epic set pieces take center stage in the game’s level design, and enemy encounters are seamlessly embedded to add substance and intensity to various stage segments.

Being able to tackle stages in any order adds another dimension to the game design, which is exploring for secrets. They’re usually collectible chips, each serving as a unique modifier for the Moonrider. These chips grant certain perks, such as an improved shield or even the ability to detect secrets more easily. Finding these chips can go a long way to make the rest of the adventure less daunting.

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Additional combat abilities are also learned after clearing each major stage, which adds a subtle nuance to the already robust play mechanics. But, adding new abilities is more effective if there is a strong gameplay foundation. So even the new tricks and modifications become second nature thanks to the already excellent control. In a way, the intuitive upgrade system makes the game almost feel like Super Metroid.

Admittedly, as enjoyable as these upgrades are, they hamper the consistency and difficulty balancing of the experience a little. It’s nice to choose the order of stages and find helpful modifiers at your own pace. Although these features interrupt the difficulty progression, and unlike, say, Mega Man X, it’s not apparent as to the ideal order for tackling the stages. This is a minor complaint at best, and it’s still fun to explore and experiment, regardless.

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Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is an excellent experience. It’s challenging yet rewarding, and the core gameplay and solid design fundamentals make it an absolute blast to play. This ninja action platformer takes one of gaming’s most legendary action sub-genres and makes it relevant again for 2023. Blazing Chrome has a slight edge over it in overall consistency and glorious ambition, but if you’re a fan of JoyMasher’s previous work, you should pick this up immediately.

Score:
9/10
A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Jahanzeb Khan

Old SEGA games will go up in value... you'll see!