It’s no secret that I enjoy playing sidescrollers with retro aesthetics. I’ve always been fond of pixel art – as long as the art is halfway decent the game will catch my eye, and Moon Raider is no exception. Co-developed by Cascadia Games, Crescent Moon Games and published by Drageus Games, Moon Raider has the look and feel of a classic 2D action platformer from the 16-bit era. It seems like every week there are a few new, retro-inspired games that get released onto the Xbox platform, can Moon Raider shine bright next to so many others?
The story in Moon Raider is very bare-bones and is explained in a series of still images when you load up the game. The protagonist’s father traveled to the moon and found a green alien species living there. The males look like your stereotypical “little green men” aliens with bald heads and big black oval eyes. But they have a queen who has luscious, flowing red hair. For some unexplained reason, the other aliens turn against the queen (I’m guessing they were jealous of her hair). She escapes with the scientist father and returns to earth and they shack up, which produces the main character who has green skin and red hair just like her mother. Eventually, the former queen becomes gravely ill and the father says that the only way to cure her is to return to the moon and collect special crystals, the explanation doesn’t go further than that, but that’s enough to get the game rolling. The story could do with a tad more exposition, but at this point, most people want to get into the game. Perhaps they could have dispersed some story elements into the gameplay – the main character does get some message transmissions from her father as you play, but they are mostly tutorials. Maybe I’m just biased but I think the artwork depicting all this would look much better if it was done as pixel art, to match the game art.
One reason I like 2D platformers is that the controls usually feel familiar. In this age of gaming I’m always jumping around from game to game and going back to a game I started months earlier and the biggest downside to that is reacquainting yourself to each game, but games like this pretty much always follow the basic jump and attack combo. The only problem with that basic combo in Moon Raider is that attack is assigned to the B button, which to me is sort of awkward, and there’s no way to remap the controls in-game. Fortunately however, you can reassign buttons using the Accessories app on your Xbox. I told myself I was going to just stick with the B to attack but the final boss forced me to remap attack to X using the app because defeating him required fast attacks followed by quickly timed jumps. The A button makes the character jump and you can do a double jump by pressing the button again. Double jumping causes the character to do a somersault until they land and you can’t attack during that animation. You have the same attack throughout the entire game, which is some sort of space gun that fires most of the way across the screen. The movement, jumping, and firing all feel pretty good, even with the atypical button layout you are given.
After beating the first area’s boss, you gain the ability to dash by pressing the X button. You can dash in any direction and can even change directions in midair. Dashing uses up gems that are picked up throughout the levels by destroying crates and certain other objects, killing enemies, or by finding one of the bonus rooms which are packed with them. A gauge at the top of the screen below your health bar tells you the amount of gems you have left, it’s more like a percentage and maxes out at 99. The dash ability is incredibly useful, you can reach high-up ledges and pick up crystals hovering over large pools of lava. The dash can also be used to kill regular enemies in one hit. It took me a while to realize that when you kill an enemy with a dash you regain a health point, which is super useful since the health pods in the levels are scarce and they only heal one point. Overall the dash is very fun to use, but it uses a lot of gems so you have to stay well-stocked. One annoying aspect is that all but one of the bosses steal your current gem supply from you when you start their fights, preventing you from using dash. I guess I can understand this because it does do a lot of damage, but it would have been nice if they could have incorporated the dash ability into more than just one of the boss fights.
As I mentioned earlier the point of the game is to collect at least 200 crystals from the moon. These are different from the ever-abundant gems and can usually be seen floating in the air encased inside squares, circles, or other basic shapes. Sometimes they are hidden behind breakable objects. The crystals are spread throughout all the levels, and there’s usually at least one of them in each level, sometimes more. I think I collected most of the crystals as I was playing but I was not that close to my goal of 200 by the time I reached the final boss; however, there’s no need to worry as you get a lot for beating him.
There are ten areas made up of five or more levels each. Each area has a unique look, with its own color palette, environmental art, and hazards. There’s a lot of what you’d typically see in games, like spikes, lava, and lasers. New enemies get introduced as you play and most make recurring appearances in later levels. Overall the pixel art is pretty good. The environments and character sprites are all nicely done and match each other well. It’s not out of this world good, but it reminds me of the pixel art you might find in a 16-bit Sega Genesis game. A lot of the areas are some sort of cave system. A few areas have more of an industrial look, like a space station or an alien base. There’s an ice area with the typical slippery movement mechanic, and some of the areas have underwater sections. If you stay underwater too long you eventually start to lose health, but I couldn’t figure out if there was any on-screen indication for when this would happen, which was sort of frustrating.
Each area has a hidden upgrade, for either max health, weapon power, or energy capacity. There is no level select, which I found to be somewhat archaic, and kind of unacceptable in a modern game, but you can move back and forth between each level. If you think you missed something you can go back, but going back more than one or two levels would be a huge pain in the butt. For achievement purposes just remember that there is one bonus room and one upgrade for each area. One aspect of the level design that was both helpful and frustrating was the door opener buttons. A major gameplay element in the game are the many locked doors throughout each level and the buttons you must press to open these doors. Fortunately, each door has a green tube leading to the mechanism that opens it, and when you press one of the buttons the camera moves to show you the door that opens; unfortunately, the action in the level doesn’t always stop when this happens. There’s one place in particular where you have to shoot a button while on a conveyor belt and when the camera pans to the newly opened door, the conveyor belt might move you right into a one-hit kill laser before the camera comes back. When you die you return to the door from which you entered into that level. The levels are fairly short though so you don’t lose much time by dying.
The audio design is decent. The music fits well in each stage; unfortunately, it’s not chiptune, but instead more of a regular electronic soundtrack. No track really stood out, but I enjoyed listening to it as I played. The sound effects are pretty basic, but get the job done.
One of the more unique aspects included in the game is the drop-in/drop-out local co-op that unlocks after the first stage. The second character doesn’t get any story explanation, but it was fun playing a few levels in co-op. The second player doesn’t have the dash ability but has infinite jump, which is sort of clunky, but they can be used to reach areas the main character gets to using her dash. The game was easier in co-op, except for the boss fights. When the second player joins the game the main character loses some of their gems as a sort of compensation since the game becomes a bit easier. Just like the main character the second player’s character has a gun attack and they have their own health bar at the top right of the screen. Another fun aspect of the game is the cute little aliens that you can find and save as you play, they’re always happy to see you; however, just like a lot of the other aspects, no explanation is given as to why they are imprisoned or why you should rescue them. I would understand if they gave you a crystal, but all you get for freeing them is a basic gem.
Moon Raider is a decent throwback to the pixelated games of the 90’s. It is lacking in some departments like the story, but the pixel art is nicely done and the action is familiar and fun for the duration of the experience. The bosses could have been a little more inspired. It took me about 4 hours to play through the game and my recommendation really comes down to the price; if it’s over $10 then I’d say to wait for a sale. If you’re looking for a short distraction with a local co-op option then this might be a game for you.Become a Patron!
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.