If you owned a Sega Genesis in 1990, Strider was a Big Damn Deal.
21 years later, it can be said with no great amount of equivocation that the quietly-released Moon Diver is about as far as one can get from a Big Damn Deal. What Moon Diver is, however, is as close to "Strider for the 21st century" as we may ever see. It looks like Strider, it plays like Strider, it even features a production credit from none other than Kouichi Yotsui, Strider's director. While it never explicitly references the 20-and-change-year-old classic, it is quite obviously cut from its cloth. Moon Diver's prime target audience, then, is those who do remember Strider as a Big Damn Deal.
Given that Strider was exclusively a single-player experience, then, the inclination is to play Moon Diver alone. This works for a while. Whichever avatar you select will be able to blast through the first level, and maybe even get through the second without too much trouble. Even if the first two levels prove difficult, the RPG-style elements of the game kick in relatively quickly to give the player a boost. Spells (here given the perfectly nonsensical label "Moonsault Combinations") are found in hidden and not-so-hidden spots throughout each level, and slicing up piles of enemy ninjas and robot wasps will yield quick level gains at the outset, allowing for more life, more magic and stronger attacks.
Around the fifth of twelve stages, a shift happens. You might not go up a single experience level in a game. You spend all of your magic points on healing spells. And you meet your new friend for life, Mr. Laser.
Moon Diver is not a hidden classic.
Every other enemy takes a backseat to the lasers. Running into a laser means an almost immediate death, and once you spot one, it's often extremely difficult to take it out before it's turned its attention on you. Amidst the chaos, you learn to hear those lasers, and even then, they're difficult to avoid without using precious magic points on a freeze spell that short circuits them for just about long enough to take them out. Run out of magic and run into a laser, and it's back to the beginning of the level for you -- there's not a checkpoint to be found; not when you run into a boss who'll one-hit kill you into oblivion; not when you're 45 minutes into the hour-plus final level. This is a game that delights in your pain.
That's where the multiplayer comes in. Moon Diver's approach to multiplayer is perfect for the sort of age-old side-scrolling action that defines the gameplay. Essentially, you start a game alone and wait for people to join in, almost like standing at an arcade cabinet and welcoming walk-ups. Or, you could jump in on someone else's game, regardless of whether they're far beyond anywhere you've ever been on your own. Find a good four-person team, and suddenly the insane challenge of the game is minimized; in a four-player game, all four players have to die almost simultaneously for any progress to be lost. All it takes is one or two players who know the patterns of the extremely limited stable of enemies, and you'll get to see a lot of this game in a very short time.
Granted, your tolerance for a four-player session depends on your tolerance for barely-controlled chaos, punctuated by spell-casting that takes you out of the game for seconds at a time. It's extremely repetitive, honestly, and the strategy from front to back rarely changes.
Moon Diver is not a hidden classic. It's a repetitive, punishing side-scroller with some nifty bosses and a story that veers into so-bad-it's-good territory. With three or four players, though -- even players you don't personally know -- it's weirdly exhilarating. The modest crowd playing the game isn't going to last forever, and it's only going to be more difficult as time passes to pull a random group of four to play the game.
Moon Diver is a hell of a single-player challenge, which should only be taken on by the sort of sadist who one-credit-clears Cave shooters. For the time being, however, even as Moon Diver hardly feels like a modern-day Big Damn Deal, it is at its best when posing as the over-serious side-scrolling equivalent of a party game.
This review is based on the PSN version of Moon Diver, provided by Square-Enix.
Mike Schiller is a Buffalo-area software engineer and wannabe game journalist who is currently writing for PopMatters and the Raleigh News & Observer. His three kids think it's neat that one of his "jobs" involves playing lots of video games.