The player begins the game with a small spaceship armed with a single laser cannon.
After successfully completing the first four waves of alien attacks, the player must attempt to dock the ship with the next 'stage' of the ship. This second stage has two lasers in addition to the original one. Each docked stage is one of the player's "lives". After successfully clearing two more waves of aliens, the player must again dock with the third and final piece of the ship, which also has two more lasers (giving the player five lasers in total). The trade-off for this is that the entire ship is a much larger target. Failure to correctly align the stages during either docking sequence causes the destruction of the stage being docked with. After completing the first eight waves, the player's ship reverts to the first stage and the process is repeated. If any of the player's three ships are lost along the way, the docking sequence occurs only after the first four waves have been completed.
Play ends when all three of the player's ship-stages are destroyed.
Moon Cresta was a success for Nichibutsu. It helped propel them into the video game business, and is one of their most successful arcade games. In Japan, it was the fourth highest-earning arcade game of 1980, below Pac-Man, Galaxian and Crazy Climber. Computer + Video Games commented on the game's visuals for being bright and colourful, and its gameplay for being captivating. Game Machine felt the same way, recognizing it as a sure-hit for arcades because of its gameplay and mechanics.
The ZX Spectrum version in particular was met with average reviews. Your Spectrum said that the gameplay was close to the arcade original, but felt that it was beginning to show its age. Sinclair User had a similar response, and commented that the only reason to even play it was to win a contest held by Incentive. They said that the game was a good conversion of the original, but the gameplay itself was dated and not as fun as other games for the system.
Crash magazine was a lot more positive towards the game, awarding it a "Crash Smash" award; they applauded it for its simplistic gameplay, accurate portrayal of the arcade game, and its overall addictiveness, saying: "At a time when the emphasis tends to be on complicated arcade/adventures or third generation platform games, I think it’s brave of Incentive to release an old fashioned shoot em up like this, and I’m thankful that they have. Great fun!"