In the mid nineties the virtual pet had finally hit the United States. In a two year span we went from having no Virtual Pet franchises to four. Tamagatochi, Digimon, Pokemon, and my personal favorite/what I am writing about Monster Rancher. Offering game play that not only was not seen outside of Japan, but also had none of the creepy subtext of previous games in the genre (I'm looking at your Princess Maker), these games were a huge success. To examine why I am going to be comparing games, Tamagotchi/Digimon with Monster Rancher. Let's just let the marketing behemoth of Pokemon rest.
Firstly visual design. Tamagotchi and Digimon designs of the monters were simple due to their use of small dot matrix screens. However they had a unique advantage of being self contained units, letting users customize their virtual pet experience by buying a different physical unit.
Monster Rancher had no such advantage. All you got was an ugly disk and a blah opening. But then you saw the first monsters and it all clicked (my first that I raised was a purebred Jell, well it started me with a Suezo but I wasn't feeling it). The monster's where simple, and varied quite a bit in designs from species to species. This is the game where you could have a Magic (just a guy), followed by a Monol (a Monolith that things come out off), followed by a Sketch (a living 3d rendered 2d sketch), and then a Tiger (a horned wolf). Naturally as a series goes on this characters become more homogenized. And this homogenization kind of sucked a lot of the fun out of it for me.
This homogenization is not the only thing that changed as the series progressed. As Monster Rancher progressed designs became more complicated. You can see this just comparing the first two entries in the series. Compare the Dino (a basic dinosaur) with it's "replacement" the Zuum (basic body design, but a completely redesigned head with quite a few crests). While not a huge difference, it encapsulates the design direction the series would later take.
This complication did not just effect the monster design. It also effected how you interacted with the monster. In the original game when you sent your monster on "jobs" or "training" (both stat boosters) you would get a simple animation of the monsters doing it's job. This was later replaced with 3d animations of the monster's doing their jobs, and eventually interactive models, accompanied with a movement away from the menu driven systems of the older Monser Ranchers.
This "3dification" and movement away from a menu driven system had an unattended effect of slowing the games down. Tamagotchi, Digimon, and the Original Monster rancher all had the advantage of being very fast games. In Tamagotchi or Digimon your pet would poop you would clean it and it would take 5 seconds. Factoring in a shorter load time due to the simpler 2d animations a non competitive week in the original Monster Rancher took maybe 5-10 minutes, you would assign your jobs watch the cute animation, maybe give the Monster a treat. In Monster Rancher 4 the same moth would take 20-30 minutes, as you would have to plan out individual days for multiple monsters, set up your farm, and interact with your monster while it does the training. Focusing on one individual monster to raise not only endeared you to your monster, but combined with shorter load times and a menu based system made for a much quicker game.
This endearment of single Monster, single Tamagotchi, single Digimon made the inevitability of death all that more bitter. This bitterness, this difficulty is something that all the Monster Series did well. These are not easy games, you will fail. Your monster will die, hell they may starve because you can't afford to feed them. But that makes the hard earned victories all the sweeter. This financial aspect was tuned down later in the series. With combining being free and food being significantly cheaper. In the first Monster Rancher if a monster failed a job that not only means that there stat's wouldn't increas as much, but they were not bringing in money, and as such you may not be able to afford food or medical care if they got injured or worse in a tournament.
In the first one your monster could die in the fighting tournaments, making the tournaments significantly more risky to enter. But because of there high money pay out, and the higher importance of money in earlier games they were a necessary risk. This necessary risk was lessened in later games, as tournaments became safer, and going broke no longer meant game over. This high risk high reward pay off mean you had to more carefully plan out moves and was more entertaining.
I went all this way without talking about the main gimick of the Monster Rancher series, how you aquired monsters. You could buy a few breeds, or combine them, or breed from you book in later games. But the main way to acquire Monsters was to breed them from CDs (or DVDS in later games). I remember going through every cd in the house I could get my hands on and running them through the game. While neat this was a flawed system as the physical aspects where slow, damaged CDs could stall the game for 5-10 minutes at a time, while regular CDs would still take 2-4 minutes to spawn, not to mention the wear and tear on the system. So while a neat concept it could have used a bit of refining.
Honestly I could probably go on and on on why Monster Rancher 1 is one of my favorite games but my wrist so it is time for a quick positive, negatives, and what I would want in a modern game.
-Every regular monster could combine with every other regular monster
-Some of the monsters really got off the base design (look up Gabriel, looks strait out of Bayonetta)
-The exhibitions where a nice more interactive break
-Learning moves randomly from training put more value on training
-The percentage system was messed up, if you had a 51 percent of one monster from combining and a 49 percent for another you where gonna always get the higher number.
-Unlocking the secret monster types where either esoteric or luck based
-The questionnaire at the begging was BS (if you said you didn't believe in ghosts in the first, or ufos in the 2nd, you where locked out of hidden monster types)
-Combat hit percentages always felt off
-Instead of breeding them off cds breed them off of data. (Other game saves, Pictures, Music, etc)
-Bring back all the regular monsters can breed with other regular monsters (maybe all x all)
-Bring back some of the older, weirder ones (Worm, Disk, Zilla, Gaboo, etc)
-Regions. Like you can start in a region and it would change item prices/availability. Maybe some monsters would be region locked till a bit later in the game. (One region has Dinos, the other Zooms. Jell in one area, Monster Rancher 3 Jell or Gel in another, Wolf (tiger) vs Tiger (wolf))
-Back to the quicker game play of one monster menu based game play.
-Be able to customize your trainer
-Clothing for your monster
-Combine Monster Rancher 1 exhibitions (grid/exploring based) with later series expeditions (Basically Monster Rancher 1 expeditions with monster fights)