Saturday, 23 April 2011

Moon Diver

Those gamers old enough to remember the Strider series of side-scrolling action platformers will be heartened to learn that Moon Diver isn’t merely an affectionate tribute to Capcom’s half-forgotten classics, but is actually the work of Koichi Yotsui himself, the creator of Strider. Which is just as well, because Moon Diver does more than just liberally borrow some of its predecessor’s more notable elements; Moon Diver is, as the game’s producer has said, very much the “21st century version” of Strider. This is no bad thing.

Much like its forebear, Moon Diver is a 2D platformer where the emphasis is on nimble acrobatics, speedy combat and an almost unrestrained engagement with the environment. Most surfaces can be climbed upon, as well as hung under and jumped over. Once you’ve got used to these properties many playthroughs become delightful demonstrations of momentum, as you elegantly swing and slide through the linear levels whilst despatching enemies with time-honoured furious button-mashing.

The controls, much like the rest of Moon Diver, are ostensibly very simple. One button is jump, the other is your basic sword attack, with the two shoulder triggers enabling your character to duck or slide (we found the former was hardly used, our more common method of evading projectiles being the athletic double-jump). But beneath these minimal commands is a system of upgrades that transforms the game into a gratifying experience.

Firstly, each kill will gain you experience points – gain enough EXP and your character (there are a choice of four, each with minor differences) will move up a level. Each time you gain a level you receive a customize point, which can then be used to enhance one of three variables: your health, magic capacity or power. There’s little here that’s even remotely radical, but the masterstroke is in ensuring that this structure of levelling-up is persistent, regardless of whether you complete the stage or not. It’s also the sensible option, given the game’s old-school method of making you start a stage from the beginning, regardless of how many of its chapters you may have completed before dying. As a result you always feel like the trickier sections can eventually be tamed, the game constantly rewarding your efforts in a manner that doesn’t seem overly generous, but is instead fair and measured.

The other notable part to Moon Diver’s system of combat is the range of MoonSault Combinations, special powers that are slowly accumulated as you progress through the game. You can hold up to four at a time, with their effects ranging from health replenishment to invisibility. They can sometimes make the difference in single-player, but these MS powers really come into their own when used within the game’s frantic multiplayer. Playable in co-op with up to three other people, it alters the Moon Diver experience: what has the tendency to become repetitive and a little tedious when played solo becomes enjoyably manic, despite the essentially limited nature of the gameplay. You can revive your fellow battlers, as well as combining with them to unleash more powerful attacks.

By invoking the spirit of Strider, albeit with some careful considerations for contemporary values Moon Diver is generally a success. Its biggest accomplishment is not the good use of online, but perhaps its use of those parameters – compact structures, delineated mechanics - that downloadable games are assumed to work best within. It’s a game whose RPG-stylings will lend themselves well to super-powered speed runs many months from now, whose light touch and hidden depths could well create something of a cult following. Much like Strider, in fact.

- Strider II (otherwise known as Strider Returns) was one of my favourite games on Master System, but chances are I remember it far more fondly than it's probably worth. It was only while researching this review that I found out it was in fact a US-developed sequel under license from Capcom, and that the true Strider sequel - Strider 2, as opposed to, er, Strider Returns - was released in 2000 for the Playstation in Capcom. For the latter there's eBay; here's a reminder - if only to myself - of the box art for the 1990 'imposter':

- You can also read this Moon Diver review over at D+PAD Magazine.

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