Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider hits a very precise retro target

Joymasher’s new retro action game Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider feels ripped from the Big Sprite era of video games, back when Sega boasted that its 16-bit Genesis did what Nintendon’t. It’s built on the early-’90s promise that bigger was better, where the bad guys you fought were more interesting because their rich, pixelated vastness couldn’t be contained on an old tube television screen.

More specifically, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is an homage to side-scrolling character-action games of the era; think Sega’s Shinobi 3: Return of the Ninja Master or Capcom’s Strider — games full of platforms, rails to hang from, and the occasional stage gimmick. There’s homage layered upon homage here, for just as the 16-bit arcade games (and their home port equivalents) blatantly ripped off ’80s Hollywood action cinema like RoboCop and The Running Man, so too does Joymasher’s new throwback.

Like many classic 16-bit Genesis games, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider’s story is paper-thin. The game’s robotic protagonist, Moonrider, rebels against its programming as a forcible peacekeeper amid a rebel uprising. Moonrider is a robot run amok, awakened to the oppression he has been complicit in, and on the hunt for his fellow robot guardians who have been tasked with silencing him.

Moonrider sprints through a wooded level on a platform sandwiched by spikes, facing an enemy ninja and being targeted by a flying humanoid robot in the background
Stages range from destroyed city streets, to industrial complexes, to remote forests
Image: Joymasher/The Arcade Crew

Moonrider’s mission — and the structure of Vengeful Guardian— is similar to that of Mega Man games. Players can hunt down the other guardians in virtually any order, picking locations and a robot master guardian to take down from a simple, but stylishly retro map. Like Mega Man, dispatching a rival guardian will grant Moonrider their special ability. These include weapons like Hydroshurikens, a whirling quartet of throwing stars, or the Darkportal, which can summon deadly tentacles from, well, dark portals. Moonrider can also discover upgrade chips that grant extra armor, a double jump, or a “bloodlust” that restores HP for every kill. Chips range from the hardcore — the Glass Cannon chip makes Moonrider stronger but he dies from one hit — to the cosmetic — the Chameleon chip lets you edit Moonrider’s color scheme.

Like the 16-bit games it references, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider moves fluidly but simplistically. Moonrider’s attacks are limited to sword slashes and dive kicks, and he can jump — and wall jump — platform to platform. These moves are bolstered by a sprint button that makes Moonrider go from stiff robot to speedy ninja machine, slicing through most enemy grunts with a single slash. There are spike pits and bottomless pits to avoid, electrified walls too, but none of these environmental hazards are the instant kills they would be in older games. Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is surprisingly modern and forgiving, considering its influences.

Cyborg ninja Moonrider rides on a motorcycle in third-person, behind the back view, while a flying robotic enemy shoots flames at him on a futuristic city highway
Some stages have gimmicks that evoke other Sega classics, like Super Hang-On and Space Harrier
Image: Joymasher/The Arcade Crew

It’s a shame, then, that Joymasher hasn’t modernized Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider in several frustrating ways. For one, the game’s interface is clunky; picking the upgrade chips for a particular mission is confusingly designed, and revisiting levels to grab any remaining power-ups is a frustrating guessing game. Rather than displaying leftover power-ups in missions you’ve beaten, Vengeful Guardian merely denotes your mission ranking.

Scoring also feels antiquated and simplistic. Your ranking on a stage appears to be based primarily on score — seemingly the number of enemies you’ve killed — and how long it took to complete a stage. There are no apparent combos or score streaks to keep things interesting for subsequent playthroughs, making the prospect of trying to S-rank each level all that less enticing.

That’s where Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider evokes its inspiration once more. After beating the game, there’s little left to do but challenge yourself to do it again, faster and better. Like some of the Sega Genesis classics it aims to recreate, it’s an enjoyable escape for a weekend, but not much longer.

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider will be released on Jan. 13 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by The Arcade Crew. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.