Getting a lot of fun and thrill with Moon Cresta

Nichibutsu’s 1980 shoot ’em up Moon Cresta is not an arcade game I have a ton of familiarity with, having never really come across it while I was growing up gaming. The closest I came was what I have come to learn was an Atari 8-bit clone of the format known as Space Eggs, developed by Sirius Software.

With the unexpected PlatinumGames-developed third game in the “Cresta” series, Sol Cresta, set to release at some point in the near future, I figured it was high time I educated myself on this part of gaming history — and so, urged on by the title screen’s promise that I could “get a lot of fun and thrill” with Moon Cresta, I fired up the Arcade Archives version for Nintendo Switch and signed on for some blasting action.

Moon Cresta

If you didn’t know better, you’d be forgiven for writing off Moon Cresta as something of a Galaga clone — but Namco’s much more well-known classic actually came out a year later. It’s probably more accurate to compare it to SNK’s 1979 title Ozma Wars, but even then both games have their own distinct features, and are well worth playing in their own right.

At heart, Moon Cresta is a fixed shooter in which rather than fending off a static formation of enemies as in Space Invaders, you’re forced to contend with foes that dive and swoop at your position — though interestingly, none of them actually fire back as in many similar games of the era. There was a modification kit known as Super Moon Cresta released by Gremlin Industries that introduced enemies which shot back — but to be honest, Moon Cresta is already challenging enough without having to deal with a barrage of shots as well as kamikaze aliens!

Moon Cresta’s main distinguishing factor is its three-part player ship. You initially start the game with the small “Stage I” craft, which can only fire a single shot at a time, but which presents the smallest target to the enemies. If Stage I is destroyed, Stage II enters the fray; this presents a slightly larger target but makes up for this by being able to fire twin shots that are relatively close together, thereby requiring less accuracy. And if Stage II is destroyed, Stage III jumps in; this is an even wider ship that still fires two shots, but with a larger gap between them.

Moon Cresta

There’s an obvious “sweet spot” with the second ship; this is by far the easiest ship with which to down enemies, but the intense desire you’ll find yourself feeling to hold on to this precious vessel at all costs really adds to the game’s challenge factor. The adrenaline rush you get from near-misses with enemies will make you prone to mistakes — and it feels awful when you’re reduced to the awkward, cumbersome Stage III ship. With no means of earning extra lives, you know that the arrival of Stage III means the end is near.

Well, not quite. Another interesting part of Moon Cresta is the fact that every few levels, you have the opportunity to “dock” your current ship with the next stage down, assuming it still exists. This is executed as a simple Lunar Lender-esque sequence in which you must control the horizontal drift and vertical velocity of your current ship as it descends towards the next stage; successfully docking rewards you with a big score bonus and attaches the two ships together to combine their firepower, allowing you to shoot more bullets at once.

If you can hold on to Stage I and Stage II joined together, you can even attach Stage III at the bottom a few levels later for maximum firepower — but also the largest possible target you can present to the enemy forces. It’s classic arcade-style risk versus reward at its finest.

Moon Cresta

The game proceeds through eight levels, which come in palette-swapped pairs. Initially, you’ll be fighting enemies that move erratically and split in half when you shoot them for two waves, then move on to two formations of insect-like enemies similar to those seen in Galaxian and the later Galaga. Following this, there are a series of swooping… things that are a little harder to see than the previous enemies thanks to the black stripes their sprites feature, then a meteor shower in which pairs of rocks fly at you at high speed, Finally, you face small foes which are fond of flinging themselves at high speed vertically down the screen, sometimes attaching themselves to long, pointy missiles.

Once you clear all eight waves, your ship splits apart again and the game simply loops around. Your aim is, of course, to survive for as long as possible while racking up as high a score as you can. You’ll score a decent amount of points for blasting enemies, but the biggest increases to your score will come from successfully completing the docking sequences — so as pitiful as that Stage I ship might seem in terms of firepower, you’ll want to hold on to it for as long as possible for maximum scoring potential. Easier said than done, of course.

Moon Cresta’s structure is quite interesting in that the design of its levels and mechanics mean that the overall feeling of difficulty ebbs and flows somewhat. The splitting enemies combined with the pea-shooter firepower of the Stage I ship make the opening of the game feel very difficult, for example, and things get a lot easier once Stage II enters the fray. Likewise, the insectoid and semi-invisible “things” are easy to deal with, but followed up by the high-speed meteors which seemingly come out of nowhere if you aren’t prepared for them!

Moon Cresta
This fun little graphical glitch, which replaces the enemies with inverted “RUB” and “END” characters from the high score entry screen, occasionally occurs when the wave 7 and 8 enemies are spawning.

This ebbing and flowing means that you’re constantly on your toes until you really get into the rhythm of the game — and it keeps things consistently interesting. You can never be complacent in Moon Cresta; you’re never just “going through the motions”, even if you’re a master player.

Those more accustomed to later shoot ’em ups may find themselves craving a little more from the experience after a while — but one must always remember that this came out back in 1980, and consequently played a significant role in helping to define what was to come later.

The “docking ships” idea would be reused in Galaga, for example — albeit in a slightly different form — and the varied abilities of the different ships would become a fixture of more complex shoot ’em ups.

Moon Cresta

Moon Cresta was a big success for Nichibutsu, and played a big part in making them a respected player in the arcade gaming space. In its native Japan, it was the fourth most successful arcade game of 1980, with only Namco’s Pac-Man and Galaxian and Nichibutsu’s own Crazy Climber outperforming it. Today, you can nab it for just over six quid on your Nintendo Switch and play it as much as you want. Seems like a decent deal to me!

Moon Cresta is available now for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4.

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