Monster Rancher: A Retrospective

Back in the late 90’s, anything Pokémon was hot property. First released in Japan in 1996, the monster-collecting-and-battling game took the world by storm, spawning a highly successful animated TV show, a line of toys and spin-off games, and countless product endorsements that ran from the expected (such as cereal and candy) to the slightly weirder (bath products) to the downright bizarre (such as in Japan, where the multifarious Poké-critters appeared on packages of spiced sausages and microwaveable cupcakes). Everyone wanted a piece of the Poké-pie, and those who couldn’t found their own path to glory. Capitalizing on the success of two popular fads—monsters and virtual pets—toy maker Bandai debuted its line of Digimon virtual pet keychains, and soon they too had their own TV show, trading cards, plush toys, and plastic whathaveyous. Schoolyard debates over which was better were not uncommon, and best friends became mortal enemies when little Joey found out that his buddy Pete would rather have a Patamon for a partner than a Pikachu.

OK, perhaps I exaggerate the last part a little bit. But what most monster-crazed children of the 90’s don’t remember is that there was actually a third contender for the title of Supreme Monster Fad: The lesser known Monster Rancher. Like Pokémon and Digimon, it had its own video games, googly-eyed anime, trading card game, and even toys. But it never achieved the popularity of either of these two monster-based franchises, although it certainly gave it is best shot. Video-game-wise, it does many things just as well as (and sometimes better than) the celebrated Pokémon, and monster-wise, it had some unique offerings. And despite never quite achieving the fame or status of either of its legendary influences, the series still enjoys a healthy following to this day.



The original Monster Rancher hit the PlayStation on July 24th, 1997 as Monster Farm, debuting 4 months later in the US on the 30th of November, rechristened Monster Rancher for an American audience. (The European game named Monster Rancher was in fact Monster Rancher 2, released in early 1999.) The game did not spawn as many spin-offs as its venerable opponent, Pokémon, but it still had its share of them: A platform-style game, Monster Rancher Hop-A-Bout, was released in 2000 in the US (it did not come to Japan until a year later), and the series had two Game Boy incarnations. One of them, Monster Rancher Battle Card, was a virtual version of the series’ trading card game. The other, Monster Rancher Explorer, was a puzzle platformer. (A PlayStation version of the trading card game also came out in 2000.)

Currently, Monster Ranchers 3, 4, and EVO are available for the PlayStation 2, and Monster Rancher Advances 1 and 2 are available for Game Boy Advance. Recently, Monster Rancher DS was announced for the Nintendo DS handheld system, though there is no word (as of this writing) as to whether or not it will come to the PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, or Xbox 360.

So what makes this particular series so interesting? Well, if you’ve played Pokémon, or owned one of the original Digimon keychains, you probably understand the basics of the game. As in Digimon, you have a pet monster, whom you must raise and train. You must feed them to keep them healthy, praise them when they are good, discipline them when they are bad, and make sure they get plenty of rest. However, like Pokémon, you must also train them for battle. Instead of gaining experience points from fights and leveling up, you raise your monster through a series of training exercises. For example, you could have your monster lift weights and boulders to raise their strength, or study to increase their intelligence. They can also gain new techniques and traits by doing special training exercises, which differ from game to game. In the original games, an overworked, ill, or simply elderly monster could die as well. (In more recent games, monsters simply become too old to fight and must retire.) As the titles suggest, most of the game play took place on a ranch or farm, albeit one with more interesting livestock than pigs or cows.

The monsters themselves were different, too, from those in Pokémon or Digimon. In both these franchises, there were gobs of individual monsters—151 in the original Pokémon, and an unnumbered amount in Digimon. The monsters in Monster Rancher are more like farm animals in that there are only a few dozen distinct species, but several “breeds” within each species. Suppose, for example, that you decided to raise one of the lapine Hare species:



Now, you could have a “plain” Hare if you so chose. But suppose you wanted a little variety? Well, you’ve got quite a number of options there. If you like pink, then the winged Fairy Hare is for you. Like tough monsters? Then you should get a Rocky Fur. Want a monster with high accuracy and a truly piercing stare? Get a speedy yellow Four Eyes. Most monsters have anywhere between 5 to 10 or more breeds, and those with less are usually rare and powerful. Breeds can be found either by unlocking them normally (And how do you do that? Ah, we’ll get to that in a minute) or by “combining” two monsters of different breeds together. So if you had that ordinary Hare, reeeally wanted a Rocky Fur, but couldn’t find one anywhere, how would you get one? Well, you could take your Hare to the Laboratory and have it frozen in a special chamber. (Don’t worry! It’s perfectly safe, and you can freeze extra monsters so that you can have more than one at a time—since only one can live on your Ranch.) Then, all you need is a member of the Golem species. Any one will do!



You can then fuse the two monsters together. And voila! You’ll have a brand new monster with the traits of both a Golem and a Hare. Almost all breeds are made by combining two monsters together in this way, and their status screen will usually show what two species will fuse together to form that breed. Special “???” breeds, however, can’t be gotten by combination. They must be found specially. And that is perhaps the neatest aspect of the entire Monster Rancher series.

How do you get monsters? By reviving them from items called Disc Stones. And where do you get Disc Stones?

From CD’s, of course!

If the CD motif in the Monster Rancher box art above didn’t tip you off (or you didn’t know about the series already), you create monsters (known as “regenerating” them) by taking out the Monster Rancher game, placing a CD in the PlayStation’s disc drive, having the system scan it, and then replacing the Monster Rancher disc to regenerate the monster. Any music, computer, or PlayStation CD will work—even burned CD rewriteables—and the recent PlayStation 2 incarnations will even let you use DVD’s. This works by reading something known as the subcode data on the CD’s. The game then interprets the data according to specific rules and uses them to create a specific monster. (In case you’re wondering how the Game Boy Advance incarnations pull this off, they uses codes, called “tablets,” instead of CD’s. By inputting specific codes—or just random letters and numbers—it generates monsters using a password-like system.) This system was radically different from most Pokémon and Pokémon-esque games, where you had to hunt monsters and forcibly capture them. Instead of wandering around for hours, looking for one specific critter, you could generate a wide variety of them almost instantly, and fuse those your CD’s wouldn’t give you. (Of course, not all monster species are instantly unlockable. Some you need permission to raise, and in order to obtain that permission, you must complete special tasks in-game.)

Of course, the easy, battle-free way of obtaining monsters more than makes up for itself in its battle system, which is one of the most unique battle systems in all monster-related games. It’s not really turn-based, but it’s not entirely action-based, either. However, it definitely breeds its own distinct strategies.



In most monster games, you win battles by being the first one to knock out your opponent with powerful moves. However, in Monster Rancher, battles are almost always timed, and always at 60 seconds. Thus, the goal becomes not to be the first to knock out an enemy, but to do more damage in one minute than they can do to you, which isn’t always easy when you’ve got a low-HP, low-defense monster such as a Pixie against a high-HP, high-defense monster like a Golem. Although it is possible to actually KO your opponent in a match, it’s a very dangerous thing if it happens to your monster—your monster can get seriously injured or even die if it faints during a battle.

Also unique is the way in which you “pay” for attacks. Pokémon uses PP—Power Points—that limit the number of times a specific move may be used, while other RPG’s use MP—Magic Points—to pay for using special attacks. Monster Rancher uses Guts, as represented by the red bar and number in the screenshot above. Guts steadily increase as the battle rages, and different species of monsters have different rates at which they gain Guts. However, Guts decrease when you use moves, and the more powerful the move, the more Guts it costs. And a move’s power isn’t solely based on the damage it does, either. In fact, moves are rated in four different categories on a lettering scale that goes from E (worst) to S (best): Damage, accuracy, critical hit rate, and the amount of Guts they reduce. Moves also come in two different categories: Strength moves, whose effectiveness is based on your monster’s Strength stat, and Intelligence moves, which are based on your monster’s Intelligence stat. (STR moves have orange or yellow icons, as seen above. INT moves have green icons.) In some games, they also have specific elements attached to them, such as fire, wind, or “cute.”

As if that wasn’t enough, moves also have range in addition to their other qualities. This is where the battle system really starts to get a little nuts. You see, unlike in most RPG’s, you can just pick your moves from a list and unleash whatever you choose. In battle, you control your monster, and your monster is capable of moving back and forth on a two-dimensional path. And the only moves you can use are those in the distance range you currently are from your opponent. So you can kick and punch at close-range and fire projectiles from a distance. (Most games don’t let you mix-and-match these moves, using close-range moves at a distance and vice versa, but Monster Rancher Advance let you do this, with the moves varying in power depending on their slot.) There are three to four ranges in every game, and if you don’t have a move corresponding to a particular range, you’re in a dangerous spot where your opponent can take advantage of you. You can exploit this, if you can get to a range where your opponent has no attack to retaliate with, but it isn’t always easy. Your opponent is constantly on the move, too, and can belly up against you or move far out of your range. If monsters get too close, you can use the “Punchback” command, which sends you both reeling to the far ends of the coliseum, but if you’re too far away, neither of you will be able to attack.

It’s this constant movement that makes the Monster Rancher battle system high-energy and more difficult than any other monster game’s battle system. It’s possible for a weaker monster to win a fight by managing to stay in the right out-of-target zones, or for a strong one to be trumped because it gets stuck in an area where it’s facing its opponent’s strongest attack. You have to think about not just what MOVES you use, but the MOVEMENTS you make in order to avoid your enemy’s strongest hits. Although it doesn’t necessarily require expert reflexes to win, you have to know where you’re going in order to win a Monster Rancher fight.

But it’s the monsters you really came here for, right? So let’s get on with ‘em!

Over the years, there have been many different species of monster in the Monster Rancher games. Here are some of the most notable:



Suezo:

First of all, sorry about the generally tiny pictures. It was the best I could find. The yellow Suezo is little more than a giant eyeball with a tail. They are somewhat naughty and tend to misbehave and overeat. Despite this, it is popular among breeders for its humorous, exaggerated expressions. It is also considered one of the “mascots” for the series. There isn’t a single Monster Rancher game you won’t find a Suezo in. In battle, they can attack with psychic powers, spitting attacks, yodeling (yes, really), and of course—laser eye beams.



Mocchi:

If Suezo isn’t “cute” enough to be a series mascot, then Mocchi can pick up where he leaves off. These adorable penguin-like monsters first appeared in Monster Rancher 2, and have been going strong ever since. They have soft, squishy, sticky bodies—likely due to the fact that they are named after mochi, a gummy Japanese sweet made from pounded sticky rice. (Specifically, they are based off sakuramochi, or “cherry-blossom” mochi.) They even resemble little mochi balls when they roll up! In battle, their signature attack is a storm of cherry blossom petals .



Pixie:

The most humanoid of all the monsters, the Pixie resembles a cute girl—if cute girls had wings, tails, horns and fur. Much as their primped, pink look suggests, these monsters are spoiled, and if you don’t give your Pixie what she wants, expect her to throw a tantrum. (Now there’s a question for you: ARE there any male Pixies out there? What do they look like? Or do they just all dress in drag?) In battle, they can charm their enemies with cute kisses—or shock them with powerful lightning blasts. A Pixie was a major villain in the Monster Rancher cartoon, but became good near the end. They also appear in every Monster Rancher game.



Tiger:

Strong and noble, the wolfish Tiger is a loyal and powerful monster. It is quick on its feet, and even people who don’t raise monsters professionally like to keep them as pets. They use the power of ice and lighting to assault their enemies, firing blasts off from between their two, curving horns. The purebred varieties are sometimes known as Tiger of the Wind, and in the cartoon, Tiger of the Wind was supposedly a legendary creature. You can raise a Tiger in every Monster Rancher game.



Golem:
The name says it all. Golems are hearty, hefty rock monsters, with a wicked punch and incredible defense. (Well, of course—they’re made of ROCKS!) Unfortunately, they’re also very large—and very, very heavy. If you’re going to a monster tournament, you won’t be able to just plop your Golem in your car and drive off! They’re also slow movers—unless, of course, they happen to be falling downhill, in which case I suggest you GET THE HECK OUT OF THERE! But the solid Golems are excellent monsters nonetheless. They appear in every Monster Rancher game too! Will I ever mention one that doesn’t? Of course; just gimme a moment here!



Hare:

Here’s that Hare again! These furry, mischievous monsters have big, chubby, furry bellies and bright eyes. They’re fleet on their feet and pack a powerful kick. Although they’re tiny, they’re very brave, daring monsters that always try their best. They’re also very energetic—if your Hare wants to play, expect to be going on long after you’ve gotten tired! They’ve been in every Monster Rancher game except for one—the first Monster Rancher Advance. Why the exclusion? I couldn’t tell you. They faithfully reappeared in Monster Rancher Advance 2, however.



Jell:

The gooey, gelatinous Jell has a body made from water with a core of energy. They are shape-shifters, and can change forms in an instant. The only thing they cannot seem to do is change the appearance of their bodies—they always appear shimmering and “sea”-through (Har har har). Many Jell hybrids are actually said to be Jells assuming the form of another monster. The Jell do not appear in either Monster Rancher Advance game, but they appear in all the console games. In Monster Rancher 3, the Jells took on a less humanoid form that resembled a traditional RPG “slime monster.”



Joker:

The most terrifying of all monster species, rare is the game that will allow you to raise a Joker without special permission. (Monster Rancher 4 let you do it, though.) They are almost universally feared, rumored to be everything from malicious spirits to the very Angel of Death itself. If you can steel yourself to face the Joker, you will find it a powerful ally. Of all the monster species, the Joker has undergone the most redesigns over the years (with the possible exception of the Mew), and the picture above represents its most recent incarnation. It was a villain in the TV series, and it is a trainable monster in every Monster Rancher game except the first, though you usually have to unlock it.



Gali:

The polar opposite of the Joker in every respect, the Gali is said to be a god that has taken on monster form. Although the above picture doesn’t accurately show it, the Gali appears much as the Joker—a floating mask and robe—but the Gali has the power of light, and the purifying fire of the Sun, on its side. Its strong holy powers are a match for Joker’s almost overwhelming darkness. Gali has missed the boat on more Monster Rancher games than most—he’s nowhere to be found in Monster Rancher 3, 4, or Advance—but he is still a powerful force in the series, due to the way he mirrors Joker. Its mask is based on South American icons.

With an interesting mechanic, cool monsters, and plenty of fans, you would expect the Monster Rancher series to have become more popular than it was. But although the series retains a strong following, it never really got off the ground in terms of widespread popularity. Although almost every child of the 90’s remembers Pokémon, Digimon, and all the wars that stemmed from them, only a few people remember Monster Rancher today—and they’re either fans of the game series itself, or they remember the cartoon. This tends to beg the question: Why? Why did Monster Rancher never achieve the popularity of either of its rival monster series? I’m not entirely certain, but I have a few theories as to what may have done the series in:

1. The difficulty of the games. The Pokémon games establish an intricate and complex RPG world, with one heck of a multiplayer arena, but the games themselves? They’re a cakewalk. But because they weren’t overburdened with difficulty, they were more accessible to casual gamers and young children, helping to spread the Poké-fervor. But the Monster Rancher games are HARD. Battles in the Monster Rancher world only last for a minute (traditionally), but they’re strenuous, heart-pounding minutes where a single misstep can end in loss. You can’t just sit back and watch the battle unfold; you have to be on your toes, constantly changing your position and trying to stay in the range of your best attacks. And yet you still have to choose your attacks wisely as in Pokémon. And if you’re not battling, the game still requires a lot of preciseness in raising your monster—one wrong move and your title-winning champion could become a washed-up old nag headed for the Monster Rancher equivalent of the glue factory.

2. The lack of variety in monsters. Personally, I’m rather fond of the idea of different “species,” with the unique breeds each riffing on two different species in a unique way. But monster fans were spoiled by the variety in Pokémon and Digimon, and the fact that there we really only a few base varieties of monster may have seemed very limited to them.

3. The over-saturation of the market. When it comes to market competition, there isn’t always room for a broad number of competitors. Although there was a broad swathe of monster-raising games released on various systems in the wake of Pokémon, not many of them are well-known even in the gaming community. As it stood, the mid to late 90’s already had two competing monster fads. And so many kids had already gone and attached themselves to one or the other, ravenously, there wasn’t necessarily elbow room for a third fad. Single-minded kids weren’t willing to throw their established fandoms aside for an unknown. (I was actually a fan of all three groups of monsters at the time, though I mostly stuck to Poké-merchandise because it was easiest to find.) Their parents wouldn’t necessarily allow it either: Buying one set of toys and games and trading cards and video cassettes is bad enough, but buying two or three? Necessity dictated that kids choose one fad and stuck with it for awhile. I see this as one of the two “main killers” of Monster Rancher, along with…

4. Lack of portability! Digimon and Pokémon had one advantage Monster Rancher just didn’t have: You could take your monsters with you. Digimon began life as a popular series of keychains released by Bandai, the “boy versions” of the popular Tamagotchi virtual pets. (Which is itself enjoying an interesting resurgence in popularity as of late, but that’s a different article.) And Pokémon was first released on the immensely popular Game Boy portable game system, a handheld whose main selling point was its “gaming on the go” portability. Now, it’s true that the Sony PlayStation was no slouch—it was the best-selling home console EVER before its younger brother, the PlayStation 2, hit the market. But you couldn’t take your PlayStation around in your pocket like you could your Game Boy or a keychain. And so, if you were sitting in a restaurant, bored, waiting for your food, you couldn’t just whip your Monster Rancher game out of your pocket and spend some quality time with your Tiger. (Well, now you can, thanks to Monster Rancher Advances 1 & 2, but those are Johnny-Come-Latelies in the grand scheme of things.) You couldn’t play them on road trips or on vacation. Not to mention the fact that, although the PlayStation was popular, it was still relatively new. The Game Boy had been around for much longer and had much higher brand recognition, as well as a bigger install base. Although the PlayStation was popular, it was still no Game Boy. And although the PlayStation today has more synonymy with video games that even the traditional patriarch of games, Nintendo, it took a while to get to the top.

But despite the fact that it was never Pokémon; it was never Digimon; the Monster Rancher series is a great gaming franchise and a fan-favorite to this day. If you enjoy challenging, simulation-style games, RPGs, or just love monsters in general (as do I), and you own any type of Sony PlayStation or Nintendo Game Boy Advance system (this includes the DS), I highly encourage you to go out and find a copy of a Monster Rancher game and give it a spin yourself. (I would personally recommend Monster Rancher Advance 2, as it’s my favorite in the series, and it’s one of the more newbie-friendly games while still retaining its challenge level.) You’ll probably get stuck somewhere along the way. You’ll probably loose a lot of battles. But, if you’re anything like me, you’ll hopefully have a good time—and if you don’t, well, different strokes for different folks. At least the anime series is enjoyably silly.



Thanks for reading my article! Coming at some indeterminate point in the future: Freezair attempts to catalogue every single Monster Rancher species in her possibly-ongoing series of articles on Monster Rancher. Only on RetroJunk!

(Images courtesy of GameSpot, LegendCup.com, VgMuseum.com, and Google Image Search.)