Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX Review: A Strange Time Capsule
As much as I love classic games, some make more sense to revive than others. While I’d love nothing more than for every game to stay in circulation forever, there are challenges to keeping certain titles available which sometimes just aren’t worth the work. Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX pushes up against this sort of issue. Based in large part around a gimmick that really doesn’t work in 2021, the development team instead released a lazy port meant for mobile on other platforms, which really doesn’t do justice to the original games. Some of their strengths still shine through, but there’s pain along the way.
Two Games, One Experience
In theory, you get two games’ worth of content here, but most players should move immediately to the second Monster Rancher title. Outside of some charming pixelated training sequences, there’s little in the first title to keep you interested, and both games are remarkably similar, only with the second fixing a lot of the minor annoyances of the first. Better menus, improved graphics, a remastered soundtrack, it’s the game more worth your time.
Whichever game you’re playing, you start Monster Rancher by getting yourself a monster. Back in their original releases, this was one of the highlights of the experience. The entire gimmick this series was built around is that to get a monster, you would swap a different disc into your PlayStation. It could be a CD, or another game. Later series entries even let you use DVDs. The game would read certain data off that disc and use it to assign you a monster. Some popular releases even had specific monsters mapped to them, while less popular ones might feel a bit more random. Still, putting in your Weird Al CD and getting an appropriate monster was a ton of fun. Arguably it was the most special thing about the games. I spent hours testing every disc I own.
Lost In Time
That, of course, doesn’t really work in 2021. Sure, the development team could have left the option in the PC release, and I wish they had, I’d have had fun with it. To be clear, though, that would have been the first time I touched a CD I own in probably two years. While I still have a bunch of discs I could have had fun pulling out and testing, I understand most players don’t, so it probably wasn’t worth the time to add it in. A ton of computers don’t even have CD drives anymore. Players with the Switch release wouldn’t have even been able to do that if they still had discs.
The developers of this release had an alternative. You could always grab a few preset monsters if you didn’t have discs, and that’s still there. Or you can search a database for artists or specific albums and generate a monster based on a disc. It’s a nice attempt but doesn’t really capture the fun of putting in your discs on the original release, especially when the database is so bare-bones that tons of searches return little to nothing. My favorite part of the original releases now feels like a bummer.
Under The Surface
Thankfully, there’s still a strong monster-raising game at the core of these titles. Be warned, though, they’re quite repetitive, you need to be someone who can fall into this game’s flow and overlook that. Once you get your monster back to the farm, you’ll set out training them to raise them. Unlike some of the other games in its genre, the focus here is on building one great monster, not on gathering a team or getting them all. Training exercises help raise their stats, and sending them away to training camps can help them learn new moves and gain stats faster, for a cost.
Everything here comes with a cost. Each month you’ll need to pick out a new move for your monster. When they get stressed, you’ll need to buy items to bring that down. You’ll need to rest them when they get tired or buy an item that will rejuvenate them, costing either valuable time or money. You might be tempted to spend the time, but that’s always risky. Your monsters only live so long. After a few years, you’ll start being pressured by your assistant to retire them. If you don’t, they’ll eventually pass away, leaving you to start over.
Fight To The Top
Starting over means starting at the bottom of the ranks as well, a definite annoyance. You rise through those ranks by winning tournaments in multiple skill levels. Lower-level tournaments are meant to help you find your bearings, while later ones pit you against tons of powerful monsters. You can enter lower-level and slightly higher-level tournaments, but your fame stat will suffer in lower level ones while higher level ones are often way outside what your monster can handle.
Battles are simultaneously one of my favorite parts and also one of the most frustrating parts of Monster Rancher. Once you get the hang of them, they’re a ton of fun. The poor interface of these remasters gets in the way constantly, though. Mouse controls, clearly adopted entirely from the touch screen controls of the mobile version, sit on the sides of the screen, but they simply don’t work well. They’re too slow and don’t properly explain much of how battling actually works. With nothing in the actual game explaining how to battle in terms connecting to these modern versions of the game, it’s very much trial and error. This extends to some of the game’s minigames as well, I never fully got the hang of the playing minigame, which I actively avoided after a time.
Breaking out a controller helps, though still, nothing in the game explains anything in terms related to a modern controller. It’s still trial and error, but at least it’s more intuitive, and I eventually found a flow. At that point, you get to fight in an interesting battle system built around spacing and timing. There’s a lot of stats to keep track of to make sure you’ll be able to avoid attacks when you need to and land your own. Battles ramp up nicely over time with more challenging monsters, to the point that each time you rank up, you feel the need to push forward and improve once again.
Nothing comes easy in Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX. These are fairly poor ports of two pretty good games, with the best part of them stripped out. I still had fun revisiting these games after so many years, and players able to overlook the poor interface and lack of guidance can still definitely find a good time here, but you’ll need to work for it.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Switch; Publisher: KOEI TECMO AMERICA; Developer: Koei Tecmo; Players: 2; Released: December 9th, 2021; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: A copy of Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX was provided by the publisher for this review.