Release Date: April 23, 2021
Rating: E 10+
Platform: Switch, PlayStation 4, Android, Windows, macOS, Xbox One
A game key for Moon Raider was provided by Drageus Games.
Moon Raider is a fast-paced, 2D, action platformer. Over the course of this game, you blast your way through enemies while dodging traps and collecting all the gems you can carry. The whole game is oozing with retro charm. It's got a fantastic pixel-art aesthetic, chip-tune soundtrack, and the ability to play co-op throughout. The story is questionable but the gameplay is pretty dang fun, but a few issues leave the full package feeling just a bit janky.
The Main Thrust of the Game
This is a run and gun platformer at it's core, so the story really isn't the main thrust of things. I get that, but the story that the game does tell seems really problematic. A few short scenes in an intro cinematic set the backdrop. Your character's father went to the moon where he made first contact with an alien species who didn't want him on their land. He then married the queen of these people and brought her back to Earth, where you were born. Now that banished queen, your mother, is sick and dying, and the only way you can save her is by going to the moon to steal 200 gems.
There are a few creatures that you encounter throughout the game, but most of your enemies are clearly sentient members of this alien race, whose home you are invading.
So, yeah. I kind of hate it. The implication that you are slaughtering these people in order to steal their resources is awful.
Spoilers for the end of the game here, but the final boss that you fight is labeled as the King which, like, does that mean the Queen was married to him before your dad showed up and eloped with her? Because that makes things even worse!
Like I said, I know that the plot isn't really the drive in a game like this, but yikes!
Moment to Moment Gameplay
Once you get past the short intro, you get right into gameplay that really feels pretty good overall. Compared to Smelter, the other 2D action-platformer I was playing alongside Moon Raider, this game is super fast paced. The gameplay and the way the camera moves are both fast, reminding me more of Sonic than Megaman. I mean, it's not quite as fast as Sonic, but it's in that realm. Thankfully, the controls are pretty precise, so even when you unlock the ability to boost across the screen using gem energy, I never felt terribly out of control.
Each of the game's ten regions are broken up into pretty sizable rooms full of collectible gems. Small gems are used to power your boost ability while getting 200 big gems is the ultimate goal you need to achieve to save your mom. Each room is filled with enemies and traps that you have to navigate, along with switches you use to unlock doors. You can almost think of each room as a teeny, tiny Metroidvania map, in that you'll often have to backtrack a bit to find all the switches you need to make your way through.
If you die while you explore, which you will do a lot because of cleverly disguised traps catching you by surprise, you just restart in the room you are in. The gems you've collected, enemies you've killed, and switches you've opened all reset. Since the rooms generally only take a few minutes to clear, this isn't punishing at all.
Ultimately, this almost makes the game feel puzzle-ish. A lot of the more devious rooms come down to memorizing which traps are where to get through them.
Each area ends with a boss fight. These are pretty straightforward. I don't think it took me more than three tries to learn the patterns needed to beat any of them, but they were still fun. Oddly, the game takes away your gem-powered boost ability in these boss fights. Since that ability is part of what makes the game feel unique, that seems like a strange design choice.
The Camera is Not Your Friend
The most persistant issue I ran into in this game was the camera. Me and that thing just did not get along at all.
From the very first moment I started moving around, the camera just moves to fast. Whenever your character jumps or you even hit up or down on the d-pad to look around, the camera just goes flying to try to keep up with where the game thinks you need to look. It's doing a good job of helping you see your surroundings, but the way it moves feels so frenetic that it almost made me dizzy at times.
The camera also tries to help you out by showing you which door opens whenever you hit a switch. This helps you see where you should head next, which is helpful. The problem is that the game doesn't pause when this happens, it just takes away control from you. I died at least three times because I jumped towards a new platform after hitting a switch, and then the game snapped control away from me and dropped me into a pit while it showed a door opening.
Some Other Issues
The gameplay manages to be fun despite the camera, but there are some other issues, too. From design choices like losing your coolest ability in boss fights to some weird glitches, Moon Raider feels like it's lacking a bit of polish.
When you first boot up the game it shows you that intro cinematic establishing the story before the title screen. You don't see it when you actually start a new game, so I had to reboot the game to see what the plot was after missing it the first time. And even then, the very first slide of that story flashes on the screen for only a moment. Seriously, it was barely enough time to read the text when I knew to watch for it.
The absolute weirdest design choice came at the very, very end of the game. If you don't want spoilers, just skip past the rest of this section.
Remember how the main thrust of the game is to collect 200 big gems in order to cure your mom? When I got to the final boss of the game I had only collected 133. I figured that this meant that I had missed some along the way and that I'd probably have to go backtrack through tons of rooms in order to find them. Well, when I committed regicide it gave me 67 more gems to put my counter at 200. Now, it could be that I actually did collect every big gem in the game, and, for some reason, there were only 133. That is technically possible, I suppose. It seems far more likely, however, that the game just gives you however many you are missing at the end. If that's the case, then what was the point of collecting those big gems before!?
Obviously, I had some issues with this game, but I did still have enough fun to beat it. The uncomfortable story, weird design choices, and erratic camera all pushed against a pretty satisfying core gameplay loop. The final package felt a bit rough, but I still had a good time with it.
Moon Raider reminds me of how it felt to be a SNES kid playing Genesis games at a friend's house. Sure, it's fun, but it's missing that extra bit of shine.