Whenever anyone brings up games about raising and training monsters, most people immediately think about Pokemon. While it’s true that Pokemon has pretty firmly cemented its reputation as the king of the genre, back in the 90s the field was much more open. Competitors were everywhere, and that includes the original Monster Rancher titles. These games are closer to monster-raising simulators than they are to narrative RPG adventure, but they failed to find a suitable amount of popularity and slowly bit the dust. Well, now the original two titles are back as Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX for another go in the spotlight, but will they fare any better this time? Let’s hope so.
Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX is the director’s cut of the original PS1 titles from the late 90s and early 2000s. Both of these games were produced by Tecmo and put you into the shoes of a newly licensed rancher. Your job is to raise and train a monster with the goal of becoming one of the best monster ranchers in the world. Of course, unlike in other games, here you focus primarily on a single monster at a time, and it’s more about carefully raising your monster, and the choices you make that ultimately determine their success.
While most RPGs you’ll play tend towards a heavy narrative focus, that’s not really the case here. There is no overriding evil or big adventure for you to go on. Your goal is to win four big tournaments with a monster that you’ve hand-reared. Things happen at various points, but it’s usually brief encounters with random characters, nothing close to what you’d call a storyline. You don’t even interact with the characters yourself. In both games, you have an assistant who deals with talking to other people for you, leaving you as a silent protagonist who is obsessed with rearing monsters.
The main gameplay of Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX revolves around planning out your monster’s weekly schedule. You have to choose whether they train, rest, or go to do battle in one of the local tournaments. You also need to choose what you’re feeding your monsters, and which special items you’re using. Each week you choose what you’re going to do, and this not only affects how your monster grows but can also have an effect on how they react to you both on the battlefield and off of it. If you’re too harsh in your training, your monster will begin to become stressed and have a nervous breakdown. On the other hand, if you’re too soft on your monster at it becomes spoiled, then it’ll stop doing what it’s told.
It’s certainly an interesting part of raising a living creature that not many other games of a similar nature tackle all that often. Sure, sometimes a Pokemon won’t listen to you if its level is too high, but here it’s about a constantly fluctuating series of stats, ranging from visible ones like loyalty to hidden ones like stress, fatigue, and fear. There’s so much of this game that is underneath the surface, and to properly figure it out would take a huge amount of time, which is probably why these games never become such a big hit in the west. It’s not like anyone wants to have their hands held, but it’s incredibly frustrating when you’re not working with enough information.
If you’re just getting your start in Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX for the first time in 2021, then you have a huge advantage over those of us that started in the 90s. With the power of the internet, it’s no trouble to go and find others who’ve spent the past two decades learning the ins and outs of these games. With external help, it becomes so much easier to understand where you might be going wrong with your own monster raising. I’m not 100% sure if that’s a point for or against the game, but it’s certainly a sign of a lot of depth below the surface that there is still an active community for the series so many years later. Either way, with a bit of effort, you can dig out the huge amount of gameplay that is lying just beneath the surface.
Battling is probably the other 50% of gameplay and it’s pretty simple. You can control your monster on a single 2D plane, and use attacks based on how close or far away the two battling monsters are. You also have a ‘guts’ or ‘will’ meter that acts as an MP bar and stops you from just spamming moves. You can even elect to just let the monster do its own thing if you’re super confident in its ability to win on its own. The battle system is certainly not very smooth, and you feel like you’re kind of wrestling with the controls, but in a way that feels intentional. When you’re in a battle, you feel more like you’re giving directions that a non-sentient creature is having to follow, which is exactly what is going on.
One other thing you can do with your monster is to take it on expeditions. These are mini-adventures where you have to guide your monster around various different maps to unlock powerful monsters and gain useful items. These only come into play in the later stages of the game, which is both good and bad. While these expeditions are great for mixing up the gameplay, it’s very possible that a player might get turned off hours before they’ve even discovered that these are a thing.
If you’re already familiar with the series, and Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX specifically, then you probably want to know more about the CD system. Back in the 90s, you could put a disc into your console at a certain point to generate a monster from the data on the CD. It was easily one of the biggest selling points of the original, and it’s a no-brainer that it has come back for this re-release but with a significant twist that improves it. Instead of needing physical disks, the game features a database of different CDs to generate monsters from. This is fantastic, as you no longer have to work in HMV to be able to generate a bunch of great monsters. However, if you think this means you’re all set because you remember what CDs generate powerful creatures from your first time around think again.
Several things have been tweaked, changed, or added for this re-release. First up, CDs don’t all do the same thing anymore. While some seem to work in the same way, several of the more popular powerful monsters aren’t generated with the same albums that they used to be. This means following older guides, or going off your own remembered knowledge, is no longer an option. On the plus side, this does mean you get to experiment with a huge database of discs. A few of the items have also been changed and tweaked to make them more useful, or less overpowered. There’s also been the inclusion of a fast-forward feature that makes rushing through the game so much quicker, so if you’ve already sunk 100s of hours into the old ones, you can catch up to where you were much quicker which is a godsend.
The strangest inclusion, and the one that will make hardcore fans the happiest, is actually a mini-game. Originally, the PS1 version of the second game had a mini-game that could earn you items and money, but it relied on the PocketStation which was never released outside of Japan. Well, know it’s back again. By saving a file to your console, then going back to the main menu, you can play a bland, number-sorting mini-game to earn some extra cash. As far as I can tell you don’t get items anymore, and since we’re no longer limited to tiny LCD-screen games when we’re outside now, this game has lost a lot of its appeal. However, for the sake of completeness, it’s nice that it’s been brought in.
The final point to talk about here is how Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX looks and sounds. For the most part, the games are almost exactly as they were on the PS1, although obviously with some more pixels thrown in. The models don’t appear to have been updated much, if at all, and the whole thing is still in 4:3 with a weird border at the edges of the screen. It’s definitely preferable to stretching out the picture, but the edge border is a little bland and something more could potentially have been done to make it useful screen real estate. The music still sounds as great as it always did, and there’s an option in the second game to have either the original soundtrack or a remastered version which is a nice touch.
All in all, Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX is a game that will mostly appeal to fans of the original, but it’s also the most complete version of these games that we’ve ever had. There’s so much depth and complexity here, that if you’re into the concept, there’s a solid chance that you’ll become completely hooked for hundreds of hours. Some slight clunkiness and definite signs of age aside, it’s still clear why so many of us fell in love with these games when they first came out. Now, we get to do it all over again, but with the internet to bring us all together to enjoy the games as a group.
TechRaptor reviewed Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX on Nintendo Switch with a code provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC.
- So Much Depth to Monster-Rearing
- Huge Library of CDs to Generate Monsters From
- Addictive Gameplay Once You Get the Hang of It
- Lots of Minor Tweaks, Additions, or Improvements
- Still Really Obtuse to Get Into
- Not Much Done to Enhance the Look or Feel of the Game