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Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider asks: When are retro games too retro?

Some great visuals can't disguise the fact that it's easy for indie-retro games to ape the games of yesteryear too faithfully

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Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider
Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider
Image: The Arcade Crew

Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?


Do you ever have that moment when you realize that a game is achieving its goals perfectly … and that the oncoming, overwhelming feeling of boredom you’re getting while playing it is because those goals are, well, kind of dull?

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It’s an experience I had this week as I played through the last leg of new retro-indie action-platformer (phew!) Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider. I actually enjoyed large chunks of the game, which attempts to take the old Sega Genesis Shinobi games and splice them, very explicitly, with Capcom’s absolutely classic Mega Man X. (It’s not subtle; there’s a bit where a flying boss blows the background off of his arena and starts blasting you with cylindrical tornadoes.)

Moonrider, developed by small studio Joysmasher, looks great, for a particularly blocky value of “great”: The sprites for enemies are all lovingly detailed, and it’s got a taste for big, gnarly background-style bosses that are clearly pulling from the same H.R. Giger scrapbook that powered the art design of the Super Nintendo-era Contra games. And the base gameplay is solid enough, sending your cyborg robot ninja running through a futuristic dystopia, using your energy blade to slash down protectors of a corrupt state. Levels are relatively short, and have a smattering of secrets to make exploration worthwhile.

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider - Launch Trailer | PS5 & PS4 Games

But the thing that the developers don’t seem to have grasped—and which creators working in retro gaming spaces ignore at their own peril—is that there is, in fact, a reason we moved on from many of the trends they’re revisiting with such determined dedication. Moonrider slams hard into this in its gameplay, which fails to evolve beyond simple running and slashing even as the game’s run time extends; you’ll be using the same basic set of tricks, with slightly harder hits from enemies, and slightly fewer health pickups, for the whole run of the game. (And the less said about the interminable bits where you race a motorcycle through the urban hellscape, blasting away at the same six enemies for what feels like hours in a cheap imitation of the Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 3D graphics the better.) Old games used simpler controls and movesets mostly because they had to; the ones that persist are the ones that made genius levels and worlds out of those simpler parts. Which is a hell of a lot harder than it might initially look.

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It’s worth comparing Moonrider, then, to some of the other retro games and demakes that have flooded the market in recent years, and which have achieved their overall impact mostly in so far as they’ve embraced modern gaming trends while embodying the spirit of the classics. Take Shovel Knight—an entire franchise predicated on the idea that the old pogo-jumping mechanic from Capcom’s two DuckTales games had life in it yet. Or both of the Bloodstained retro games, which take the character-swapping mechanic from Castlevania III and blow it out to ludicrous and delightful proportions.

But the game I kept going back to while playing Moonrider—and maybe this is just me falling prey to the ninja aesthetic—was Sabotage’s great 2018 game The Messenger. Like Moonrider, The Messenger sticks you with the basic moveset of a retro platformer hero. But it not only layers mechanics onto that basic structure—it then blows the structure itself up, transforming a linear stage-based game into something more akin to an exploration-focused Metroidvania. It is, in other words, a game with ideas about the material it’s referencing, rather than just a series of winking nods to the past.

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All of which is, admittedly, a lot to hang on Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider, which is a genuinely fun game at times, especially if you’re not looking for anything serious. But it did provoke a moment when I thought to myself “God, this is as boring as games used to be” … and realized that that was, unfortunately, the point.