Sometime before Johnny Cage knuckle-dusted his first ball sack, or Scorpion immolated his first foe into a pile of bony twigs, there was another brawler for Amiga and PC systems that was riding the ultraviolence train prior to the debut of Mortal Kombat in 1992. Its name was Moonstone: A Hard Day’s Knight, and the level of violence that it depicted was far and away beyond anything Midway would cook up for its digitized, arcade fighter many months later.
Before we get properly down to all the squishy stuff, however, some background is certainly needed. More than just a bunch of armor-plated knight dudes twatting each other until parts of their anatomy fall off like some sort of Monty Python sketch, Moonstone is actually a little bit more complex than its outwardly savage premise infers.
Much closer to an action RPG rather than a straight-up fighter, Moonstone’s premise pits four different color knights against each other with the goal being to return the titular Moonstone to Stonehenge, and thus, win the game. Where things get spicy however, is in the manner in which the combat and the exploration side of things play out.
Allowing players to control each of the four knights, with the remainder being placed under AI control, Moonstone kicks things off looking at a world map, allowing each of the knights to move across it in turn-based fashion. Ultimately, the objective during this phase of the game is to gather four keys from lairs dotted around the map, or from other players. Once obtained, these keys can then be used to reach the Valley of the Gods, where the player must defeat a super-tough elemental guardian and then finally obtain the titular MacGuffin and whisk it off to Stonehenge for the win.
Dotted around Moonstone’s patchwork map of the world are a number of Neolithic tombs which are guarded by all manner of deeply unpleasant creatures, and it’s here that the other side of the Moonstone coin, the real-time battles, kick in. Viewed from a side-on perspective, and allowing players and enemies to walk in and out of the background and foreground, the idea in these sections of the game is quite simply to messily murder your foes as quickly as possible. Think Golden Axe if it was made by Clive Barker, and you’re basically there.
Should you achieve this and not die horribly, you will be rewarded with some better gear and one experience point to put into either the strength, stamina or constitution skill categories for your knight – which in turn provides the neat incentive of character progression, too. Speaking of dying horribly, Moonstone is absolutely, positively swimming in blood, gore and all things generally horrific.
For a start, everything wants to murder you in Moonstone and do it with a grotesque flourish. Giant ratmen will use their tails to attempt to lynch you from the nearest tree, wolves will rip your throat out, hobgoblins will try to impale you with their spears and massive ogres can land a single hit on you that literally crushes you into a metallic red paste.
Oh, and all of that is before you even start fighting your fellow knight, because all manner of grotesque death can be inflicted on your friends too. Whether you’re gutting them with a well-aimed stab at the belly, cleaving them clean in two with an overhead strike, or, merely *just* chopping their head off, complete with an over-enthusiastic spurt of claret, there is no shortage of the red stuff on display.
Moonstone is a brutal, savage game with a penchant for violence that many games of that era simply could not match. Peer behind its grim, nihilistic facade however, and a deeper, more sinister game soon reveals its deceptive depths. Because of the winner-gets-all mechanic that is deeply embedded into Moonstone, the game can become quite the fiercely competitive offering, as players routinely screw each other over in order to nab equipment, money, keys and even the Moonstone itself.
Equally, there are other little neat design mechanics put into play which make things more interesting too. Not every move that you make on the world map has to result in you walking somewhere and killing something (or getting ruined yourself), as instead you can elect to pop into your hometown to regain lives lost, or wager money to obtain better gear at the local tavern.
Then there are the different phases of the moon that you must contend with. Face the ratmen on a half-moon phase and you might discover that they are weaker than at other times of the day, meanwhile, the wolves on the other hand, when encountered during a full-moon phase, become one of the deadliest foes in the entire game. So yeah, watching the moon is pretty much crucial to keeping you attached to your mortal coil.
Oh, and did I mention the dragon which is the size of a house? Ah yes, you see, when you travel across the world map you’ll spy a massive crimson dragon soar across certain portions of its patchwork layout. Should you find yourself unfortunate enough to be in its shadow, the thing will fly down to you and an almighty scrap/beating will kick off in earnest.
Easily the strongest adversary Moonstone has to offer, if you encounter the dragon early on, you’re basically either toast, or, the beast will simply just chew you up like discount Jolly Rancher candy and that’ll be that. If you prove victorious though (and that’s the biggest ‘if’ that ever was), the rewards for defeating the dragon are dramatic, and can completely tip the balance of the game in the favor of a singleplayer.
Moonstone then might make the original Mortal Kombat look like The Little Mermaid in the splatter stakes, but that would be selling it short, as this is one brawler that is as smart as it is brutal. They just don’t quite make them like this anymore.