You could spend an entire year playing all of Xbox’s Metroidvanias. We’re absolutely swimming in them: the Oris, Hollow Knight, Guacamelees, Axiom Verge, Dead Cells, Symphony of the Night, Bloodstained, Steamworld Digs, Shantaes, etc etc. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and it means that any new entry has a huge task to make themselves stand out. In 2021 alone, we’ve seen Olija manage it with a thick Lovecraftian atmosphere, and Narita Boy have a go with its unhinged Tron-a-like.
You can see where this is going. Moon Raider is a Metroidvania in the deepest, purest sense, since it feels and looks like an old-school Metroid. It’s chunky and colourful, using the full range of its palette, and it’s set off world, although not too far off world, as you’re taking on the Moon. Plus, it has you moving from room to room in a 2D environment, avoiding alien beasties. So, it’s landing in the most crowded genre on the Xbox, and it’s sidling up to perhaps the most well-known example in Metroid.
It starts off promising enough. Decades ago, a human, Dr Cavor, explored the Moon and found the Selenites, a race of greys led by their Moon Queen. He seduced said Moon Queen and persuaded her to elope to Earth, where they had a child – you – before the Moon Queen fell ill. There’s only one cure, and it’s back on the Moon. So off you go to get it, but rather than welcome you as a descendant of their Queen, the Selenites are peeved and immediately start attacking you. So you do what anyone in her situation would do, and kill them all.
Questionable genocide aside, it’s an emotive plot. But Moon Raider promptly ditches it until the final cutscenes, so easy come, easy go. Still, there’s an Amiga-like vibrancy and chunkiness to the pixel graphics that’s appealing, even if the character design – outside of the main character – is yawn-some. By making the Selenites simple bug-eyed greys, it saps Moon Raider of a little originality.
Controlling the unnamed moon raider, you begin to notice that something is off. You can’t crouch, let alone crouch and fire, but many of the enemies are shin-high. It’s not too much of an issue, as Moon Raider assumes you shot the creature even though you clearly fired over it. Okay, now there are enemies firing at you from higher platforms. But you can’t fire diagonally. You can double-jump, but you can’t fire when double-jumping, and firing when shooting is erratic, occasionally not bothering to send out a projectile at all. So you jump up to kill them, but the game has issues with attacking anything that you’re standing on. There’s no melee attack to address the issue, either.
You can immediately tell that not all’s right with Moon Raider. We wondered whether these limitations were purposeful, that, in true Metroid-style, the main character would come across power-ups that would proffer the power of melee, crouching and firing while jumping. Alas, no. Moon Raider has one single improvement of note, giving you a dash-attack that at least helps with the melee issue. But that’s it: your bog-standard Samus will remain bog-standard, albeit with the occasional health or energy boost.
The levels are okay, but they don’t save Moon Raider, either. There are ten of them, and there’s a running theme of locked doors connected by long pipes to their switches. It’s not exactly revelatory, but the pattern of hitting up against a locked door and then tracing its pipe is a nice little carrot, giving you an incentive to explore the level properly. The levels are varied in the sense that one introduces swimmy bits, while others might add a new enemy or two, and the walls will switch from cave-looking to industrial-looking, or somewhere along that spectrum. Generally though, the level design is similar, and you won’t be doing anything more than jumping, shooting and occasionally dashing.
There’s no map, which is a big miss. Moon Raider isn’t exactly a labyrinth, but it does want you to explore its crannies, with secret rooms, collectible gems and little aliens that – for reasons that we never figured – could be fired off in mini-rockets. Without a map, finding these bits and bobs becomes less satisfying than it could have been.
Enjoyment takes a hit from the obstacles you come across. There are one-hitting hazards like lava, lasers and crushing pillars, and they will send you back to the start of the entire room, with all progress reset. It’s more of a punishment than we would have liked, especially in larger rooms. More damning is how the game treats that reset: you will respawn with the same energy and health that you had when you first entered the room. This caused us to get stuck in unwinnable situations, and we even had to restart the entire game at one point. We entered a boss room with one health bar and zero energy, and restarting would keep us at one health bar and zero energy. But, to retreat and stock up, we needed to dash across a chasm which needed energy, so – sorry matey – we were forced to start again. No manual saves are available.
The bosses are mostly fine, if wildly different in difficulty (we still don’t know how to defeat a space-hedgehog without sacrificing chunks of health to it), and there’s one per level, so there’s no shortage of them. Very generally, Moon Raider’s a breeze to play through, and there’s barely a speed bump on the way to completion.
The big-money question is whether you would want to. Moon Raider on Xbox is so simplistic that it can’t even hold a candle to the original Metroids on the NES, let alone the modern examples we play on a monthly basis.
It’s an adventure where you don’t improve or gain any additional moves, where the levels don’t change meaningfully, and everything is linear with no map to speak of. Without a fun world to explore, Moon Raider can’t fall back on its charm or style, as it only has a limited pool of it, and it doesn’t feel good enough to play. Moon Raider has been stripped back too far, and what’s left is a pencil outline of a Metroid game, and that’s not enough.