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Vengeful Guardian Moonrider is a fine example of retro done right

Contra band.

Some 35 years on from when the Mega Drive first launched there’s no real shortage of action games inspired by the greats of the 16-bit era. Not that I’m complaining, of course - my Switch is stacked with gems like Katana Zero, Huntdown and Blazing Chrome still getting regular play.

It’s always a thrill switching between something like Contra: Hard Corps on the Switch Online’s Mega Drive service (an offering that’s honestly worth the price of a subscription alone) and a game like Blazing Chrome, seeing how faithful Brazilian developer JoyMasher is to its inspiration while also seeing all the areas they’ve pushed the action further and further still.

There’s that same thrill when playing JoyMasher’s latest, the delightfully titled Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider. The references are once again explicit, from the enjoyable absurdity of its name (inspired by and almost besting the all-timer that is Raizing’s Armed Police Batrider) to action that once again takes some heavy hints from Contra. There’s more here besides, though, with some inspired lifts from other games of the time.

Structurally it’s Capcom’s Mega Man that provides the main inspiration, with a selection of levels available once you’ve seen through the opener, and with each presided over by a unique boss. There’s a healthy dose of Strider, too, in your cyborg ninja’s movement with the same delicate sense of momentum enabled by a satisfying double-tap dash, and supported by a leaping strike that ensures you’re always pushing forward. It feels fantastic, frankly.

There's a neat CRT filter that's one of the better implementations around, and it helps sell the impeccable vibe of Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider.Watch on YouTube

Much like Blazing Chrome, what makes Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider stand out is the variety. Each level has its own theme, yes, but each boasts setpieces that range from skybound platforming to speeder bike chases through urban highways, and there’s something of vintage Treasure in the way that JoyMasher is always bringing new elements into play. It might only take a couple of hours to see through it all, but they’re a couple of hours stuffed with well-crafted delights, and the execution across the board is exemplary. This is 16-bit action, and it’s 16-bit action done right.

The scoring system is rudimentary but it's still enough to encourage a few repeat runs once your initial playthrough is up.

There are some touches that add a little depth; you’ve two slots that can be filled with perks and boosts you find out on the field, while there are specials tied to an SP gauge that introduce another crinkle to the combat. There are other aspects, though, that remind you how brutal the 16-bit era could be; like Blazing Chrome before it this is a challenging game, with a couple of difficulty spikes a little too spiky for my liking (and maybe that’s something to do with a wall-jump I found as fiddly as Super Metroid’s own sticky example, though I’ll concede this is a fault that could well be down to my own lack of skill).

It’s those blunter edges in a package that’s otherwise expertly considered that hold back Vengeful Guardian Moonrider from reaching the same heights of a modern classic like Katana Zero, but as a facsimile of classics past JoyMasher’s latest is more than effective. This is a sumptuous, spirited thing, and a welcome reminder of how entertaining the hard-edged action of the 16-bit era can be.