Retro refined | the making of Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider

Vengeful Guardian Moonrider

Brazilian developer JoyMasher take us behind the scenes on their 2D hack-and-slash, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider.

Back in the age of the SNES and Mega Drive, independent video game stores often devoted multiple shelves to imported titles that were steeped in Japanese design and culture; titles like Hagane: The Final Conflict, Ghost Sweeper Mikami or Shadow Dancer. From its eye-catchingly long title to its nimble hack-and-slash action, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider looks, sounds and plays like the kind of game that felt so exotic in the early 1990s. Putting the player in control of a robot ninja set on waging a war against its own despotic creators, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is a side-scrolling hack-and-slash that’s as fluid and challenging as the games it pays homage to. Within minutes of play, you can see slivers of classic 2D games here and there: the dynamic attacks of Shinobi III, the precise platforming and wall jumps of SNES-era Mega Man, and the baroque sci-fi style of the aforementioned Hagane.

It goes without saying, then, that Brazilian indie studio JoyMasher certainly knows a thing or two about Japanese culture of the 1980s and 90s. Co-founded in 2012 by artist-designer Danilo Dias and producer-designer partner Thais Weiller, JoyMasher has produced a series of games steeped in the design cues of classic console titles, each building on the last in terms of scope and stylistic flair. Oniken (2012) riffed on NES-age action titles like Ninja Gaiden and Kabuki Quantum Fighter, albeit with a hint of post-apocalyptic imagery that recalled the ultra-violent manga and anime, Fist of the North Star. Odallus: The Dark Call (2015) played like a Castlevania sequel filtered through the lore of Conan creator Robert E Howard. (Brilliantly, it also featured a hero named Haggis.)

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider.

JoyMasher spent many weeks refining Moonrider’s movement physics, and the results are pleasingly sharp and precise. Credit: JoyMasher.

Their bigger breakthrough, perhaps, was 2019’s Blazing Chrome – an explosive run-and-gun in the vein of 16-bit Contra games. Awash with striking enemies and set-pieces, it felt like an action game beamed in from an alternate dimension where Konami still made 2D games with crisp pixel art.

It was during Blazing Chrome’s development that Dias, unexpectedly finding himself at a loose end, began to experiment with a new project. “The programmer for Blazing Chrome, Iuri [Nery], was having a bit of trouble trying to make the third stage. It was supposed to take a month, [but instead] it took about three or four months. And then I got really antsy and started making a prototype.”

Working in the HTML5-based game engine Construct 2, Dias began to put together what would become Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider, serving as both programmer and sprite designer. “I remember it took six months while I was working on Blazing Chrome, just to create Moonrider and the enemies – the prototype. It was two stages and two bosses… it was like my side job, you know?”

Contra meets Metal Slug in JoyMasher's corking run-and-gun, Blazing Chrome. Credit: JoyMasher.

Contra meets Metal Slug in JoyMasher’s corking run-and-gun, Blazing Chrome. Credit: JoyMasher.

Once Blazing Chrome launched in 2019, JoyMasher went into full production on Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider, with Dias and Weiller spending about a year working on the first three stages before going back to the beginning to assess how the experience plays from beginning to end. “We generally do a thing here [at JoymMasher], where after three or four stages, we play everything to see if it matches,” Weiller explains. “And that’s when we set the tone for the whole game. But for Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider, it was much worse than for Blazing Chrome, because we decided we needed to change a lot more…”

“At first, Moonrider was going to be like Dracula X,” continues Dias, referring to Konami’s reworking of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood for the SNES. Like that seminal platformer, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider would have had branching paths that took the player to different bosses depending on which route they chose. “It was a little bit like Star Fox 64,” Weiller adds, “with a hard path and an easier path… but it wasn’t working.”

“The game would be very short if it was like that,” Dias says. “And even with the replay value [of having branching paths], it would be a very simple game. That was when I came to the idea of making it like Mega Man Zero, with power chips and new weapons, and you can select the bosses… that’s when the game became more complex – and better, in my opinion.”

Read more: Blazing Chrome review: a hard corps 2D run-and-gun

Much of Moonrider’s development went on during the pandemic, which meant that JoyMasher didn’t have ready access to the kind of playtesting they’d used to refine Blazing Chrome. It wasn’t until 2022 that the studio got to show the game off in public – at the gigantic Gamescom expo in Cologne. “I watched everyone play the game and have problems with particular stuff,” Dias recalls. “I was taking notes: ‘Okay, I need to fix that. I need to fix that.’ And yeah, it was horrible.”

JoyMasher therefore spent the next six months tweaking the game’s physics and fine-tuning its augmentation system, which allows the player to collect modifier chips and exchange them for upgrades such as superior armour or the ability to perform higher jumps. “I remember that, one month before the release of the game, we were still messing with the physics,” Dias says. “So it’s never done – you’re always trying to fix stuff.”

Ultimately, the team’s dedication to honing and refining Moonrider more than worked out; released in January 2023, it’s arguably JoyMasher’s most accomplished title yet, with tight, pleasingly responsive controls, imaginative level designs, and a thumping soundtrack courtesy of Dominic Ninmark. Moonrider marks another step forward for Dias as a pixel artist, too, with the game featuring some of his finest animation and character designs to date. Indeed, what’s impressive about Dias’s sprite work is how quickly he creates it; by his reckoning, each end-of-level boss took about a week to design and animate, with roughly two days spent drafting the initial concept, and the remaining time devoted to animation. “I have to be fast,” Dias notes.

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider boss

Moonrider’s bosses are a true highlight. Remarkably, Dias devoted around a week to designing and animating each one. Credit: JoyMasher.

Like the best studios producing retro games – see also Yacht Club and WayForward, to name but two – JoyMasher knows when to recreate the feel of 8-bit and 16-bit games, and when to depart from them, with Moonrider’s tough yet forgiving difficulty level being a marked contrast to the cheap deaths of some games from thirty-or-so years ago. “A lot of things we now understand as consensus in game design weren’t so obvious in the 80s and 90s,” Weiller says. “So in a game filled with bottomless pits, you shouldn’t make the player jump to [a platform] they can’t see. Thanks to time, and all the people that came before us, we can make [game] design that is more interesting to people playing today.”

Focused, 2D experiences like Blazing Chrome and Moonrider also provide a refreshing contrast to the vast, 80-hour-plus open-world games that typify the triple-A side of the games industry. Which begs the question: is there more to the success of retro-style indie games than mere nostalgia? Do they satisfy a craving for gamers looking for shorter, more compact experiences? “I have a whole speech about that,” says Weiller – which makes sense, given she also teaches game design at PUCPR, a university in Curtiba.

Danilo Dias

JoyMasher co-founder, designer and artist Danilo Dias.

“When you’re a big company that spends millions and millions of dollars on one game, you’ve got to ensure you’re going to be able to sell it to the biggest amount of people. So you need to put in the most features in it to be sure a lot of people are at least interested… you need to have something for players that like to build. You need to have something for players that like time challenges, or are more trigger happy. You need to have something for the people that like lore. You need to have something for all those different types of players because you need to sell at least three million copies.”

And while Weiller adds that there are plenty of enjoyable, worthwhile games made by mainstream studios, the all-things-to-all-people approach can often threaten to make their output homogenous and bland, she argues. “They’re standard on everything,” she says. “They do everything okay, but they’re not great in any aspect, you know?”

By contrast, indie developers’ lack of resources means they’re frequently required to take a completely different approach to game design. “What I tell my students is, you have limited resources – you only have yourself or you and two or three friends – and you have limited money, and therefore limited time. So you need to pick a core idea and develop that idea from beginning to end, and really focus on the maximum amount of interesting stuff you can take out of that idea. Because otherwise, if everything’s mediocre, you’re just going to disappear in an ocean of nothingness. You have to do something very well and push out from the middle of that.”

Unfortunately, even truly great indie games still wind up in that “ocean of nothingness”, with smaller developers struggling to make an impression in a crowded marketplace. “We’ve been very fortunate so far, selling our games, especially since we’ve got this partnership with [publisher] Arcade Crew,” says Weiller. “We got on Steam at a time when it was a little less crowded, which I think helped us a lot. For [developers] arriving today, it’s really difficult.”

Thais Weiller

JoyMasher co-founder, producer, and academic Thais Weiller.

That success means that, for the first time in early a decade, JoyMasher plans to take a few months off. “We started Oniken in 2012,” says Weiller, “and since then, [Danilo] has never stopped. Even when he stops for two weeks, because a programmer has a bit of trouble, he starts a new fucking prototype. So I’ve convinced him to take six months off work, and I hope that this time – this time – he’s going to listen.”

“I still have five months,” says Dias with a sigh. “My god, I’ll die. I can’t stand so much time without working.”

Not that Dias has stepped away from his workstation entirely; he’s currently “experimenting” with low-poly 3D, but quickly adds that his tests aren’t going to become another JoyMasher prototype. “I’m making some low-poly 3D stuff for my friends,” says Dias. “I’m making things for other people.”

“For now, it’s not work,” Weiller adds, a note of mock suspicion in her voice. “That’s what he keeps telling me. I pretend to believe it…”

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