Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is a side-scrolling action platformer from JoyMasher set in a futuristic dystopian society under the oppressive control of an autocratic government. You play as the Moonrider, a cybernetic enforcer of the state who has somehow broken free of their mind conditioning. Now with control of your actions and the memories of your horrific acts against a swelling revolution, you decide to hunt down the rest of the establishment’s agents and free the people.

The narrative is light on details; outside of boss characters, no one featured in its brief cutscenes is even named. It appears to have the trappings of early ‘90s action games like Mega Man or Strider but with a far less compelling setting or main character to tie it all together. You are free to take on its seven stages in any order you choose, but the story beats and the fact that bosses drop power-ups when defeated like in Mega Man suggest there may be a preferred play order. Boss encounters feature heavily distorted Japanese voice lines like you’d get near the tail end of the 16-bit era; it’s a clear appeal to that generation of gaming.

Gameplay is fast-paced; Moonrider has an unlimited sprint, a variable height jump, and a wall jump. You’re also armed with a slashing attack that can block incoming projectiles, a dive kick that can hit directly below or at a slight forward angle, and several interchangeable special attacks from defeated bosses. You can additionally equip up to two passive abilities found in secret locations on each stage, which can range from revealing secrets to granting a double jump. Your kit is formidable and most enemies won’t take more than a few swipes or kicks to deal with as the challenge is more squarely placed on their positioning and movement patterns in relation to other hazards.

You will take a ton more damage from enemies just standing in the way of your intended path than you ever will from an actual attack; it makes for a slightly frustrating trek to mid-and-end-boss scenarios that actually make use of pattern recognition and reflexive skill. A few rail-shooter motorcycle sections break up the platforming with Mode 7-inspired action racing and were quite a bit of fun.

The short campaign features a good variety of enemy types, but I’d struggle to explain many of their distinguishable features. The variety of ninjas, soldiers, and robots all kind of blend together. This is also true of the stage-ending bosses, which represent elements like earth, water, and fire but failed to leave any lasting impression. Mid-stage bosses were an exception. They often encompassed an entire room and required some of the most interesting pattern recognition and timing-based challenges in the game, as opposed to end bosses that mostly teleport and rush down your position.

The stages themselves feature distinct challenges and some cool set pieces like the Air Fleet stage, which has you hopping across the backs of planes, or the Lost Ruins stage, which includes a decent switch puzzle and maze you must navigate through. I didn’t find them visually distinct enough from one another, and many lack some of the really cool detailed backgrounds that other outdoor stages can show off.

I generally dislike the grungy pixel art aesthetic used here, but it looks authentic to something you may have played back on the Sega Genesis. The sound design carries its weight with punchy effects for attacks and item pickups. The soundtrack is also a major highlight that foregoes the theme of recreating old-school sensations for a full-bodied electronica score boasting guitars, shamisens, and techno thumps.

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider would have been a beloved classic had it released in the early ‘90s. It’s a very faithful recreation of that era of action arcade games. But in a genre full of innovative competitors, it may leave you wanting more. If you’re instead longing for a simpler time, then you’ll have a great 3-to-5 hours ahead of you. The game is out January 12 for $16.99 on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Amazon Luna.

Watch the Review in 3 Minutes for Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider.

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