Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider has everything you’d want from an indie tribute to 16-bit action platformers: there’s detailed industrial pixel art, crunchy death animations, and plenty of spike pits. It’s brief but explosive, and would be right at home in any ‘90s arcade cabinet hidden in the back corner of the pizza parlor or bowling alley.
Out January 12 on PS5, Xbox Series X/S, Switch, and PC, Vengeful Guardian is the latest retro homage from JoyMasher, a Brazilian studio founded by Danilo Dias and Thais Weiller. The indie duo’s last game, Blazing Chrome, was an impressive love letter to run-and-gun side-scrollers like Contra and Metal Slug. Vengeful Guardian is a similarly painstaking but celebratory nod to the past, this time borrowing heavily from games like Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden with a hint of Mega Man X thrown in. It’s not so much a revelatory reimagining of those classics as a reverent replica that sits comfortably alongside them.
You play as one of the products of a despotic regime that uses robots to keep an iron grip on a futuristic metropolis. For whatever reason, you’re wired to have a conscience, and instead of protecting those in power you decide to assassinate your fellow guardians one by one until the people can rise up and overthrow the government. The world building, minimal as it is, combines the exhilarating brutality of Robo Cop with the unsettling dread and grimey presentation of a David Cronenberg body horror flick. The revolution, meanwhile, is fueled by an energetic techno soundtrack from composer Dominic Ninmark that adds urgency to the horror.
The result is close to a dozen sci-fi side-scrolling levels with light backtracking where you dodge hazards, slash through opposing enemy forces, and take on a slew of big and small bosses with the help of a laser sword, double-tap dash, and wall jumping. While there are a handful of branching paths and challenging platforming set pieces, Vengeful Guardian is more focused on showcasing its dystopian designs and lavish pixel art than hitting you over the head with quarter-eating difficulty.
On one stage a giant robot stalks you through a forest in the background, knocking down trees and throwing fists from afar until you confront it in a mini-boss battle later on. On another level, parasites unleashed in a mining effort take over your cyborg foes and make their heads explode as they transform into gnarly masses of antagonistic flesh. The cherry on top is how rewarding it feels to slash through each one, with visual effects and unique death animations that make the otherwise straightforward levels feel vibrant and dynamic. Vehicle levels, including ones that have you racing through the city with mode 7-style 3D effects, also spice things up a bit and are gorgeous to boot.
And unlike many of the games Vengeful Guardian borrows from, it’s generous with checkpoints and health containers. You’re also treated to a varied arsenal of special abilities and upgrades. Similar to Mega Man, defeating each boss grants you one of their powers. My personal favorites were a hyper-dash attack and a dark portal that unleashes a Cthulhu-like tentacle, though on the whole none of them feel like big game changers. More transformative are the upgrades which range from things like getting health back from each enemy you kill to a scanner that alerts you to hidden locations of other power-ups. There’s about a dozen total, including a double jump and extra armor that slashes the damage you take in half.
That last one essentially lets you bruteforce your way through most bosses, letting you aggressively body them without worrying about learning their attack patterns or fine-tuning your twitch reflexes. The only consequence is that it limits the score you can get on each level to a B, incentivizing you to go back and eventually perfect each level to potentially unlock something extra, which I haven’t yet done in my roughly two hours with the game.
That runtime left me wanting more from Vengeful Guardian than just perfecting the levels I’d already completed, but I’ll take it over games overstaying their welcome or running out of ideas but going on for another five hours anyway. Like Shinobi III or the other ‘90s hack-and-slash platformers its channeling, Vengeful Guardian lets you get in, have fun, and put the controller back down before you start getting tempted to chuck it across the room. There aren’t any new ideas here, but it delivers on the old ones with polish and flare.