Sometime in the early months of 1989, an immensely satisfying and fairly innovative platformer by the name of Strider began to make its way into arcades and the hearts of button-mashing patrons across the world. It remains the kind of game that inevitably sparks wistful conversations among those old enough to remember it, and so it perhaps comes as no surprise that Strider's creator, Koichi Yotsui, has at last made an attempt to revitalize the game's winning formula for contemporary audiences. The result of that effort is a downloadable game called Moon Diver. It's an admirable endeavor armed with a strong concept based on some lightweight role-playing elements and an enjoyable four-player mode, but its repetitive combat and some lackluster presentation values keep it from being anything other than a merely passable homage to past glories.
Much like Strider, Moon Diver is an action-heavy 2D side-scroller in which you hack and slash your way through countless hordes of foes while scrambling up walls and hanging from ceilings. The considerable differences lie in the details. The emphasis here is on multiplayer combat and on leveling up the four different characters, each of which has his own characteristics, like increased attack power or magic regeneration. Gaining a level lets you place points in health, magic, or attack power at the end of every stage, and you can hotkey four of the many unlockable MoonSault combinations (that is, spells) you find along the way to your directional pad. If this sounds like a recipe for complex combat, it really isn't. Most battles require nothing more than mashing the attack button over and over and jumping out of the way of incoming attacks since there's no option to block (and even some jump combinations cause damage). That's not to say that Moon Diver isn't without a fair dose of strategy, but it's primarily centered on choosing the best time to use your offensive and defensive spells.
And that's where the problems start to creep in. Even though you can theoretically play Moon Diver as a single-player game, it's all but impossible to get through the higher levels without some help from other players and their cache of spells. Not only are you subjected to arenas that throw dozens of enemies at you at once, but you also have to contend with an alarming array of pivoting lasers that can cut down even a high-level character in a fraction of a second. This wouldn't be such a bad thing if it weren't for Moon Diver's old-school progression mechanics, which boot you back to the main menu or the beginning of the game's otherwise agreeably long levels if you die. It's frustrating enough in the early phases, but it's outright maddening when you're slogging through the seemingly endless final level (which includes the final boss along with reappearances from former ones). You can mitigate the damage by bringing a wise selection of spells or grinding out several levels by replaying the early stages, but the lasers alone render Moon Diver a single-player experience to be reckoned with.
Thankfully, this chaos is infinitely more manageable in the local and online cooperative mode. When you fall in battle here, you're simply wrapped up in glowing chains that one of your three companions can easily break, which means you're whisked back to the menu only if every player dies. The dreaded lasers also lose much of their potency with four players in action, since this means more chances to use a handy freezing spell that disables them for a number of seconds. And since the online mode allows players to drop in, you can usually count on random players to show up and transform each level into an occasionally exciting frenzy of competing for kills, finding secret rooms, and defeating the game's tolerably challenging bosses as quickly as possible.
While the multiplayer mode is undeniably the game's strong point, it isn't without its issues. Since other players can join a game using the same character you're playing, it's easy to lose track of your own avatar in the nonstop commotion. It's even possible to briefly lose yourself among the enemies because Moon Diver throws so many at you simultaneously and insists on robing them in minor variations of the same handful of models. Also, since the default option for multiplayer sessions lets characters of any level drop in anywhere by selecting Quick Match, it's quite possible for a level 1 avatar to get stuck battling toward the final boss alongside three level 46 players. Perhaps worst of all, your online multiplayer session automatically ends if the host suddenly quits playing. That means that any levels or rare spells you acquired since the stage began are lost forever.
There's a story under all this somewhere, but understanding it occasionally presents a greater challenge than playing the game itself. What little narrative you encounter appears through a series of bizarre, unskippable cinematics that seem at odds with the otherwise crisp and tasteful visuals of the rest of the game. Most feature the same illustrations of the villain and the game's four heroes pasted over outrageously pixelated and oversized graphics of ships and planets, complete with a host of textual non sequiturs that raise more questions than they answer. Only by carefully analyzing this confusing heap of broken images could anyone deduce that Moon Diver centers on the story of a boy with elf blood who has to contend with four superpowered ninjas intent on thwarting his plan to wipe out all human life.
Yet story is never so important as gameplay in Moon Diver, and the latter is smooth and often enjoyable despite a heavy tendency toward mindless repetition and an overreliance on equating difficulty with the number of enemies onscreen. A few minor screen tears shake up the presentation from time to time, and the sound effects grow monotonous, but the backgrounds provide a few aesthetic surprises, and the club-style music is appropriate but seldom memorable. Despite its bouts of fun, Moon Diver feels like a game that merely borrows a winning gameplay formula from an earlier, greater title. As it stands, it provides a moderately entertaining experience for players seeking mildly addictive old-school combat with some twists, but its fleeting claims to fun rest largely on its cooperative strengths and the masochistic challenges provided by its single-player mode.