You’re gonna need a bigger barn
Monster Rancher, for me, has always been a game I enjoyed more for its gimmick rather than its gameplay. Back in the ‘90s, I wasn’t too hot about slowly raising a monster through battles, training, and adventures just to eventually fuse them with another monster and start the process all over again. I was far more interested in the gimmick. I went through every CD in my parent’s collection, unlocking whatever monsters were tied to their Garth Brooks and Shania Twain albums. My friends at school would exchange CDs and report back what we unlocked.
For me, that was the game. I didn’t care too much about being an actual rancher. I just wanted to see what monsters I would get if I put in my Space Jam CD. Would I even care about this series if it didn’t have that gimmick?
Turns out I do care, as long as it has kaiju.
Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher (Switch)
Developer: Koei Tecmo
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Released: October 19, 2022
I’ve written ad nauseam on this site about my love of kaiju and how I’ll give just about any game my time and attention if it has big, giant monsters. For the past week and some change, I’ve been giving a bit too much of my time and far too much attention to Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher, the latest entry in the long-dormant monster-raising franchise. Back in the ‘90s, Monster Rancher was one of the most ingenious games on the market thanks to its novel use of reading music CDs to summon monsters. Nobody knew it at the time, but that innovation had an expiration date. In 2003, the same year Tecmo released Monster Rancher 4, Apple launched the iTunes Store. It would only be a matter of time before CDs became a thing of the past.
Without that gimmick, it’s tougher to sell people on the idea of Monster Rancher. The series hasn’t evolved a great deal since its inception. You’re still raising a monster on a cycle of training, sleeping, and battling, building up their power until you can combine them with another monster to create a new creature that’ll put you back at square one. You can send your monster off to grow with other trainers in the game, and after a few hours of playing, you’ll get invited out on adventures where you and your monster can explore tile-based maps with treasure to discover. Those have been the nuts and bolts of the franchise since the original; only everything here is super-sized with kaiju.
It’s the ridiculousness of this idea–that you can control a massive kaiju and keep it happy with cookies and complements–that I could not get enough of in Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher. Going into the game, I pretty much thought it would make a fun first impression, with me raising a giant crab monster on a farm before I’d grow tired of it and want to move on. And yet, even with the game’s pacing being a bit too slow for my liking, I never got that urge to move on. I wanted to see that crab monster through to his retirement, and then I wanted to take his best features and put them into a new kaiju.
Perhaps I’m just too big a sucker for giant monsters, but Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher is the first game in the series to get me to care about the gameplay as much as the gimmick. I put in the effort this time to fuse and raise strong monsters that would be able to take on the toughest competitors the game threw at me. Once I got past the slow opening hours, I really started to vibe with it. My first kaiju, the aforementioned crab monster, was pretty quick to anger and went on several expensive rampages before I retired him. When I started again with monster number two, I got into the rhythm of the schedule, carefully crafting my kaiju’s training and sleeping weeks around the notion their anger could be used as a weapon in battle.
Fight it out
As with previous Monster Rancher games, battles in Ultra Kaiju are distance-based. You’ll move your kaiju toward and away from your opponent, getting access to whatever attacks they’ve unlocked for the distance they’re currently at. Having a good strategy going into battle is fine, but what will really make the difference are your kaiju’s stats. As with most other RPGs, as long as your kaiju has better numbers than your opponent does, you should be fine. But if you really want to seal the deal, make sure your kaiju is as angry as can be before you send them into battle.
It is fun watching a kaiju destroy a farm because it got so angry when I asked it to build me a snowman, but it’s also just fun watching these kaiju in general. Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher isn’t the prettiest Switch game around, but the artists at Koei Tecmo nailed the design of all these Ultraman creatures. The textures used in their character models make them actually look like they’re guys in big foam suits. It’s something that becomes far more noticeable when you stand them across from one of the classic Monster Rancher monsters that appear in the game.
I Summon Thee
There are more than 200 kaiju and monsters to collect in Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher. Obtaining them is not nearly as fun as it was back on the PlayStation. The game has a few options for summoning new monsters, including scanning non-amiibo NFC chips, entering a password, typing two keywords, or using a Field Guide to summon a kaiju you’ve previously raised. Look, I know the Switch doesn’t have a CD player, and the only CD anyone bought this year was Taylor Swift’s Midnights, but it’s disappointing the developers didn’t implement some creative gimmick to summon new creatures.
In Monster Rancher DS, one of the two ways you summoned new monsters was by drawing on the touch screen. Something like that could have been used here. Or the game could have searched your save data like it’s Psycho Mantis. Hell, it could have generated new monsters from the screenshots you’ve saved on your console. I don’t know how easy any of that would have been to implement. I just know it would have been a lot more interesting than me thinking of two words.
But even without a fun and innovative way to summon new kaiju, I think Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher is an excellent revival of a cult classic series. You don’t even have to be a fan of Ultraman to appreciate this crossover. As long as you don’t mind the slow and occasionally repetitious gameplay that’s at the core of the Monster Rancher franchise, there are plenty of good times to be had here.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]