Last week, I discussed a game that was a prime example of how a product made only to capitalize on a fad can fail and be forgotten. This week, I would like to discuss the first two games of a series that show how a fad can work the other way in the videogame industry -- they can be responsible for great loose adaptations that have their own merits.
Not to say that the games of the Monster Rancher series are a rip-off of Pokemon. On the contrary, besides the basic similarities in their monster battling mechanics, they are quite different. Where the Pokemon series is more along the lines of traditional RPGs, the Monster Rancher games are breeding simulations. Still, there's no denying that Pokemon more than likely had at least a little influence on Tecmo's Monster Rancher series, which first came along during the digital pet craze of the late 1990s.
Ultimately, even though they weren't at all horrendous clones of the leader of the genre, these games also fell to the wayside as if they were.
Story: In the world of the first two Monster Ranchers, you are cast as a young monster breeder who starts with nothing but a weak monster and a big dream of being the best breeder in the world. The first Monster Rancher sets you in the FIMBA league, whereas the second game puts you into the IMA league. These two leagues are on different continents, which co-exist in the same world. Whichever game you are playing will pit you against the other league on occasion.
In order to reach your lofty goal, you must raise a monster and fight it through many battles to the S rank, and then win the four major S rank battles.
There is also some back story about how the world was once an advanced civilization that hid its technology on disc stones, but this really never comes up as any part of your story.
Gameplay: You acquire a monster and then spend a lot of time taking care of it in order to help it grow strong enough to be a champion. While at your farm, you can choose to train your monster, let it rest, send it to battle, give it an item, or go to town. Resting, item giving and town visits are fairly self explanatory, each causing a week to pass after you finish. Training is done through drills, which are done on-site at the farm over the course of a week, or an errantry, which has you send your monster away to another location to train for a whole month.
Sending your monster to battle will switch the game from breeding simulator to fun little RPGish battles. Your monster starts out at E rank and will be matched up against monsters of similar rank. It is through official rank battles that your monster can rise through the E, D, C, B, and A ranks, capping off at the S rank. Monsters are allowed four moves at the maximum, and the ones that can be used at any given time depends on their distance from the enemy at the time.
What makes it hard to raise and push a monster through to S rank is the fact that they grow older, weaker, and will eventually die. How well you take care of a monster will affect its lifespan, which can be anywhere from two to seven years or more. However, you do have the option of freezing your monster before it dies in order to preserve it.
There are a few different ways to get new monsters. The first way is through the marketplace in town, which usually sells the standard fare such as your Mocchis, Suezos, Hares, and so on. Another way is to combine two frozen monsters you have stored away to make hybrid monsters that have a little of each of their parents' stats, moves, and looks. Combining frozen monsters with certain items may produce more rare monsters. But by far the best way is by using the Disc Shrine in town.
At the Disc Shrine, the game gives you the opportunity to pop out the Monster Rancher disk to replace it with any other CD you may own. The game then reads the CD's data and finds a monster hidden inside of it. You can sometimes get very rare monsters through this method.
Why you're probably not playing it: Just like its other monster-battlin' brethren, Monster Rancher games can get a little dull after a while. They are even worse off due to long periods of having to watch the game play itself, as you do not control your monster directly while it is in training. Unlike Pokemon, which has managed to keep chugging along by offering fans new games regularly, there have not been as many successful follow ups to the first two Monster Rancher games to keep players interested in the series. When the third game finally came out for the Playstation 2, Tecmo had changed the game's formula in ways that didn't sit well with fans. Two years later, Monster Rancher 4 took a step back toward what 1 and 2 had, but no one cared anymore. They then strayed way off the path again with Monster Rancher EVO, and it has yet to be determined whether or not the games will ever be the same as they once were.
Maybe the series needed a change, though. While I personally enjoy the first two games of the series, I can see why many would not. They are slow-paced and very boring in many aspects. In fact, it is often the CD swapping portion of the game that solely sticks with people.
I don't care how far technology advances -- the fact that I can get a special monster from any old CD lying around the house still gives me the fuzzies. I have spent several hours going through every CD in the house just to see what creatures could be recovered from them. Reportedly, Tecmo themselves chose many of the CDs that yielded the most rare monsters (such as a Pixie named Kasumi that could be extracted from Dead or Alive). My personal favorite back then? A Happy Mask found in the Backstreet Boys' Millennium album.
But I digress.
Monster collecting/raising/fighting games as a genre are most certainly not a thing of the past, with new franchises popping up every so often and Pokemon games still spearheading the entire movement. Unfortunately, Monster Rancher 1 and 2 are mostly forgotten, and are often incorrectly viewed as just two more drops in the virtual pet game ocean. Looks are decieving, as they are not Pokemon clones, but something almost entirely different wrapped in a similar monster-patterned gift wrap.