Retro Action Game Asks What If Ninja Gaiden But Body Horror
Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider has everything you could want from an indie tribute to 16-bit action platformers: there’s detailed industrial pixel art, crunchy death animations and spike holes galore. It’s short but explosive, and would be at home in any 90s arcade cabinet tucked away 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 tribute from JoyMasher, a Brazilian studio founded by Danilo Dias and Thais Weiller. The indie duo’s last fight, Burning chromewas an impressive love letter to run-and-gun side-scrollers that Versus and Metal slug. Vengeful Guardian is an equally painstaking but celebrated nod to the past, this time borrowing heavily from games like Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden with a touch of Mega Man X thrown in. It’s not so much a revelatory reimagining of these 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 maintain an iron grip on a futuristic metropolis. For whatever reason, you are wired to have a conscience, and instead of protecting those in power, you decide to murder 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 thrilling brutality of RoboCop with the unsettling horror and grimey presentation of a horror film from David Cronenberg. The revolution, meanwhile, is fueled by an energetic techno soundtrack from composer Dominic Ninmark that adds eeriness.
The result is close to a dozen sci-fi side-scrolling levels with light backtracking where you avoid hazards, cut your way through enemy forces and take on a variety of big and small bosses using a laser sword, double tap dash, and wall jumping. While there are a handful of branching paths and challenging platforming, Vengeful Guardian is more focused on showing off its dystopian designs and sumptuous pixel art than hitting you over the head with every eating disorder.
In one scene, a giant robot stalks you through a forest in the background, knocking over trees and throwing punches from afar until you confront it in a mini-boss fight later. On another level, parasites unleashed in a mining operation on your cyborg enemies cause their heads to explode as they transform into gnarled masses of antagonistic flesh. The cherry on top is how rewarding it feels to cut through each one, with visual effects and unique death animations that make the otherwise simple levels feel alive and dynamic. Vehicle levels, including those that have you racing through town with Mode 7-style 3D effects, spice it up a bit too and are gorgeous to boot.
And unlike many of the games Vengeful Guardian borrow from, it is generous with checkpoints and health containers. You’re also treated to a varied arsenal of special abilities and upgrades. Equal Mega man, defeating each boss gives you one of their powers. My personal favorites were a hyper-dash attack and a dark portal that unleashes a Cthulhu-like tentacle, but overall neither feel like huge game changers. More transformative are the upgrades that range from things like getting health back from every enemy you kill to a scanner that alerts you to hidden locations for other power-ups. There are about a dozen in total, including a double jump and extra armor that halves the damage you take.
The latter essentially lets you force your way through most bosses, allowing you to aggressively body them without worrying about learning their attack patterns or fine-tuning your jerk reflexes. The only consequence is that it limits the score you can get on each level to a B, encouraging you to go back and eventually perfect each level to potentially unlock something extra, which I have yet to do in the roughly two hours mine 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 continuing for another five hours anyway. As Shinobi III or the other hack-and-slash platformers of the 90s its channeling, Vengeful Guardian allowing you to come in, have fun, and put the controller down before you’re tempted to throw it across the room. There are no new ideas here, but it delivers on the old ones with polish and flare.