Sometimes it feels like I became a games journalist just so I could beg, plead, and demand Capcom make a proper sequel to Strider. Although the name doesn't command much attention these days, this arcade gem (the first must-own game for the Sega Genesis) is one of my all-time favorite games. While it's likely we've seen the last of Strider Hiryu, that isn't stopping series creator Koichi Yotsui from continuing on the legacy ... sort of.
Moon Diver is, by all accounts, a next generation version of Strider. While it's not connected in any way to the Capcom series, there are enough similar gameplay elements to confidently draw a line from one game to the other. You play one of several anime-inspired characters, each with their own lightning-fast swords and starting specialty. The idea is to run from left to right (and sometimes vertically) hacking, slashing and using your many special abilities to take down gigantic bosses. Even with a few brief cut-scenes sprinkled throughout the levels, Moon Diver is the type of arcade-style experience that would have felt right at home on my shelf of Genesis games.
But don't write Moon Diver as a relic of the past, there are a surprising amount of modern ideas keeping this game fresh. For one thing there's a big emphasis on multiplayer cooperation. While some action games let you bring along a friend, Moon Diver offers four-player support online and off. There is also an RPG-style leveling up system, which allows players a chance to customize their favorite character in one of three ways (strength, magic and health).
Leveling up your character is both a good and bad thing. On one hand, it's always fun getting credit for killing enemies. Then again, I found myself repeating levels far too many times in order to level up my character enough to battle the next big challenge. The levels go from easy to painfully difficult in no time, making the single-player experience a frustrating one. This is made worse by the lack of checkpoints or extra lives. When the player's health reaches zero it's game over and back to the stage select. This can be incredibly annoying when you've spent ten minutes fighting to a boss that can beat you in one hit.
In order to even stand a chance, players will have to repeat stages multiple times to collect the experience points. This is a little easier with friends helping you, but there are times when the added chaos makes things even more frustrating. The fact that players start so weak takes away a big chunk of what made the original Strider so cool in the first place. Hiryu's sword was able to cut through his enemies in a single swing, while everybody in this game takes multiple hits. Eventually you'll level up to the point where large crowds of baddies is no problem, but that certainly isn't the case in the first few hours of the game.
With only a few regular attacks and not much else, the gameplay in Moon Diver is fairly pedestrian. Players have a choice between quickly mashing the sword button, or holding it down for a more powerful (and considerably longer) strike. Each character has a few kick attacks, including a speedy slide and an aimed air kick. There is also double jump that can quickly take out weaker enemies. In a curious move, the developers have decided to equip Moon Diver with a crouch button.
Beyond the traditional hacking and slashing, there are a stunning amount of special abilities hidden around the game's numerous levels. These abilities offer the player a chance to become more powerful, deflect damage, earn back health, kill everybody on the screen and more. The good news is that all players can use these abilities, making the choice of character that much easier. Better still, some abilities allow the four players to team up for one super, mega, ultra attack. These abilities are definitely worth tracking down, even if that means playing each level multiple times.
There's certainly something to be said the replay in Moon Diver, though a lot of it feels a lot more forced that it needs to be. When you're not tracking down hidden abilities, you'll be replaying stages just to earn enough points to level up. Some levels have multiple paths; however a majority of the stages run on a linear track. Even though I enjoyed the action overall, I still found myself dreading the repetition of grinding these levels.
Even if I only had to play each level once, I still wouldn't be a fan of the dark and dingy art design. While there are a few brief moments of creative spark, I found most of the levels to be dreadfully dull. You'll see a lot of repeated themes and ideas, none of which are especially attractive. By the time you eventually dive to the moon you'll be happy to see something brand new. Then again, there's usually so much action going on that you'll barely notice how disappointing the level designs are. It's not until you've played them three or four times when you start picking the game apart.
I was impressed by the length of Moon Diver. Even though some of the time is padded by level grinding, the game manages to over a solid number of levels. Best of all, some of these bosses feature huge boss battles. In true 1980s style, these boss battles involve players memorizing patterns and going in for the kill. Unfortunately too many levels end with nothing more than a whimper. Many stages offer waves of easy enemies as the final challenge, not the most exciting way to end an otherwise middling stage.
A lot of these criticisms go right out the window when you have friends around. With four players you'll be far too busy paying attention to the action than you will crummy stage designs, ugly backgrounds and repetitive enemies. Plus, the bosses are even better when four players are around. Even if some of it is repetitive, there's more than enough gameplay in Moon Diver to warrant the fifteen dollar price point.
Moon Diver doesn't quite reach the lofty heights of Strider, but you shouldn't hold that against it. The simple 2D gameplay and fast-pace action more than make up for some of the game's shortcomings. Whether you're playing solo or with a group of friends, there's a lot to like in Moon Diver for the Xbox Live Arcade.
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