Moon Diver Review
By James O'Neill - 19 Apr, 2011
Originally titled Necromachina, the anticipation for the release of Moon Diver grew steadily until its PSN launch on 30th March 2011, largely because its feelplus development team included Kouichi Yotsui, who many retro gamers deem to be a legend due to his involvement as co-creator of the revered 1989 arcade game Strider.
However, opinions change rapidly in the world of video games and now that it is available there has been a backlash against Moon Diver, as some have claimed it is a disappointment because it does not deliver upon the potential of its heritage, to the point that it currently holds a Metacritic mixed-aggregate score of 62.
However, after spending more than thirty hours with this game, we're happy to counter this argument and we suggest that it has simply been terribly misunderstood. It may be repetitive and chaotic, but it encourages strategy as players are rewarded for investing time to experiment with MoonSault Combinations, learn level routes and master boss patterns. The controls make the game feel like a button masher, but they are varied and responsive, with acrobatic intricacies that a skilled player will practise to their advantage. The side-scrolling frantic action is designed as rigidly old-school, four-player co-op is fun, but the abrasive challenge of single-player becomes compulsively addictive, far beyond a 62 Metacritic score.
With Square Enix in the publishing chair, Yotsui consciously expressed an intention for Moon Diver to create an impression of the Capcom classic and it becomes obvious that Strider Hiryu’s nimble legacy has been inherited when you take control of one of four protagonists (five if you download Silence as a new super-powerful character for an extra 79p).
The feelplus team have nailed the feel of Strider as you cling from the ceiling, charge upside down around arches and bound upwards from wall-to-wall up a vertical tunnel. There are even direct set-piece nods to Strider throughout the twelve stages (split into three acts): during Stage 2 you sprint down a steep descent and somersault across a huge gap, the ship at the start of Stage 5 is reminiscent of the Battleship Balrog and a sentry fires lasers which rebound around the room, just like Novo. Even the final boss battle against the power-crazed Demon King, Faust, has orbs which rotate around him and you dispose of them in a similar manner to the satellites which spin around Strider’s Battleship Balrog Core in the anti-gravity chamber. It is clear that Yotsui has left his fingerprint on Moon Diver, its challenge and hectic gameplay also link back to Cannon Dancer (another of his earlier works) but there is a definite feel of Strider to this game.
The four original characters are colour-coded to represent their specific personalities; for example, we favoured Tolby from Naples and his yellow duds represent his youthful energy. There are also background story quirks to each character; Hitori may be a kick-ass femme fatale ninja by moonlight, but she is a shy retiring accountant by day.
Gameplay is firmly set as a fast paced hack-and-slash game with an abundance of platforming, although it becomes even more diverse when you scour each level for secret areas that conceal special-ability MoonSault Combinations (MCs). The MCs bestow you with attack and defensive powers, the opportunity to replenish your health bar, plus projectiles like Cassus’s Revolution and Thor’s Arc Army which change the game’s dynamics into a run-and-gun game, as you unleash reinforced bullets or piercing shots.
Your MCs only last as long as your Magic Points bar (MP) and in-between levels the player has to strategise whether to build up their MP, Hit Points (HP) or their overall Power meter, depending upon each player’s personal priority. The Square Enix influence is also apparent in this title as you can purchase any of these three each time you level-up, by building experience points from grinding by killing masses of enemies.
Levelling-up also earns combos, our level 67 character could dish out a multiple of seven combos, but when we reached level 90 that increased to a multiple of eight. Moon Diver differs to Strider in that it is not one continuous journey, instead the game stops at opportune moments to frame the screen in a purple border and unleashes a wave of enemies at you to defeat before you can move ahead. This serves two purposes: first of all it gives you a focussed opportunity to build your experience meter and secondly it encourages the player to learn the exact weak point of each enemy.
There is a specific strategy to defeating each of the game’s adversaries, from freezing enemies using Niltor’s Chorus to stop a potent blue laser dead in its tracks, through to repeated skirmishes with Silence who is a Gunstar Heroes Green-style nemesis with abilities that mimic your own. There are yellow grunt enemies which can be used to your advantage, as a few slices turns them into a timebomb which erupts in a cross-shape across the screen and you can chain their explosions like a smart bomb.
A large part of the gameplay is dedicated to four-player co-op, however it is the multiplayer portion of the game that has led some to dismiss Moon Diver as a repetitive, confusing button masher. The trouble is that some players have jumped straight into multiplayer and have not spent any time to learn level layouts, boss patterns or enemy weak spots. They can get away with this because as soon as they die a more skilled player can revive them and even if this is unsuccessful they only have a ten second time-out before they can re-join the game. Therefore, they can randomly leap their way into foggy pits and button bash through the game and even pull in completely different directions to other players, to slow down progression.
Platforming suffers, especially on levels like Stage 10’s Skyscraper Barrage because inexperienced team mates get lost and drop off the screen. In one instance we noticed that a player refused to follow three others to a secret room, so everyone was forced to stand still, and on numerous occasions players unwittingly murdered all of their comrades during a Planet Blaster Cannon boss battle by destroying vital concrete block defence points.
This is easily fixed by playing local co-op, or organising a game with a voice chat microphone, so that you can communicate your strategy with each other. When some semblance of organisation is applied to co-op it is a huge amount of fun, there are a large number of Moon Diver players who are highly skilled and holding down the circle button to combine a MoonSault Combination with three other players is an explosive demonstration of team play.
Alternatively, single-player Story Mode plays completely different, there is a choice of Easy and Normal difficulties, but Normal is punishingly hard. It demands that the player becomes skilful, through perseverance in repeatedly playing the levels to learn MoonSault Combination techniques, find secret routes and concentrate on boss attacks.
As soon as you reach Stage 6 you are introduced to a large amount of life-zapping blue lasers and the difficulty spikes from Stages 7 to 9, you get a short respite on Stage 10 and 11, but then Stage 12 slams players in the face. A mixture of the aforementioned blue lasers and blobby bullet firing red guns ensure that only the most determined survive. Bosses like the Planet Blaster Cannon have one-hit kill attacks and you have to experiment with MCs. On the last level we found ourselves counting seconds out loud to time dodging boss attacks, you constantly must replenish your health with Ceno’s Revival and choose wisely whether or not you build HP, MP or Power points.
However, it is possible to beat single-player Moon Diver on Normal, we succeeded with a level 90 Tolby and although your feelings towards the game will transition through peaks and troughs, each frustrating moment becomes insignificant to the feeling of empowerment when you master a tough section. The final twelfth stage is like a game in its own right.
Strider introduced a boss rush and huge difficulty spike in its final level and Moon Diver is the same with a Revenge of Shinobi-style maze which guides you through five of the game’s previous bosses, who are far stronger this time around. You need to fill a Divine Door with each of the boss’s blood before you have access to climb the Grand Stairs to face Faust. An entire run through of the game by an experienced player takes 2 hours 45 minutes, but if you die on any level you are sent back to the beginning of the stage - even after you have spent an hour reaching the end of Stage 12. We advise that you invest a considerable amount into conquering it, there is a lot of game packed into the 398MB, and you will receive value for money for your £9.99.
We have corresponded through Twitter with Kouichi Yotsui (@ifours) and he has noted that the single-player challenge is a subject for his attention and he is looking into adjusting the game. However, we believe that single-player is great as it is. We did not complain that Mega Drive Alien Soldier or Contra: Hard Corps were too tough and we can beat one-player Moon Diver. If you pay 79p for the over-powered Silence character you do not even have to level up to finish the game, although it was frustrating as our Level 90 Tolby worked hard for a 29th position in the online leaderboard to find out we were knocked out of place by gamers who simply paid for the more powerful Silence. Beating one player Moon Diver is an incredibly rewarding journey, yet once it is completed you still unlock Insane difficulty to test your skills to the utmost limit.
Strider was first developed as a three-way collaboration between the arcade game, an NES title and a Manga release and the Manga/Anime influence has also been brought to Moon Diver, with bright colourful characters that make them easier to distinguish on the screen. The boss design is also visually exciting and bosses appear repeatedly to taunt you, in a similar way to how Mischief Makers portrayed its line-up of huge adversaries.
Its visual style also has nods to Square Enix and mixes this with occasional gothic details similar to later 2D Castlevania games. The visuals are strongest at conveying coherent story details; in a similar way to how Hiryu travelled the world, your ninja embarks on a journey which starts at Barcelona in 2081, travels across the sea, transports into space and returns to earth with a war ravaged America.
The world is at the brink of destruction, so backgrounds often convey ruined buildings or apocalyptic scenes, the opening levels resemble a combination of Contra III: The Alien Wars’ war torn scenes and Castlevania: Rondo of Blood’s fiery opening. Each act has a graphical theme based upon its setting and there are pleasing background details such as the spaceship which you journey through during Act 2 lying destroyed in the background of Stage 12. Strider’s music was stunning and while Moon Diver’s tracks are not quite as memorable, the tunes drive each scene and there is a pleasing bass heavy track in Stage 9 which feels similar to the funky forest level in Double Dragon.
There is an element of hammering the buttons, but the controls are too intricate to describe this game as a button masher. Timing is the key to the controls; the speed at which you press buttons, combined with holding up on the stick results in higher jumps. You can time mid-air slashes to dispose of awkward hovering red claw enemies and even repeatedly swipe your sword to slow-down the speed of a large fall to avoid attacks and navigate a Stage 6 waterfall.
You control characters with the left stick and have four slots for MoonSault Combinations on the D-pad, but it is the way in which each movement inter-relates that makes the controls so satisfying. For example you can combine a double jump into a mid-air slide to dodge trouble, and turn it into an offensive with a quick-down dive kick attack and then hold square to charge a potent sword strike. It is frantic, but there is a lot of skill beyond button mashing which goes into chaining 100 kills.
Moon Diver rewards the player for investing time to learn its intricacies. There is depth to the gameplay, it is far more enjoyable if the player approaches it strategically to identify level routes to tame its stages, perfect boss patterns and develop specific skills or techniques to progress. As with the most memorable retro games: the more you play it, the better it becomes.
swerd - 28 Apr 2011, 20:41 GMT
nice review...been eyeing this one for a while and I think it's time to buy--I'm loving this resurgence of 4-player local co-op games!