Monsters, Monsters, Eveywhere
A look back at monster raising games
It was the year 1514. The age of exploration was in full swing with Spain and Portugal in a bitter struggle to claim as much of the globe as possible. A spoil of this war, brought to Lisbon as a diplomatic gift from Sultan Muzafar II, was a fully-grown Indian rhinoceros. Its arrival caused a sensation in the capitol. No rhinoceroses had been seen in Europe since Roman times and many scholars had come to regard them as little more than legends. The arrival of the exotic beast gave King Manuel an idea. According to Pliny, the rhinoceros and the elephant were bitter enemies that would fight at the first opportunity.
As it just so happened, Manuel had an elephant in his private menagerie. On June third, 1515, he arranged for the elephant and the rhino to face each other in deadly combat. The results were less than spectacular. The rhino was goaded to walk towards the elephant, at which point the pachyderm got spooked and ran away.
Although somewhat anti-climactic, this is still one of the more interesting examples of a historical "monster battle". Though even in 1515 this was not a new phenomenon. Humans are fascinated by the animal world, especially the strange and bizarre. Along with our fascination comes the human desire to know "which one is the best". From beetle fights between Japanese schoolchildren to elaborate Roman arena matches between lions and bulls, humans have been pitting (often horrifically) animals against each other for thousands of years. It makes sense that there should one day be an electronic version.
I was twelve when the pokemon craze hit my little town. Like most kids my age, I was swept up in the fad. I'm pretty sure that most kids in my demographic or younger developed a mini-obsession with it too. I wrote this article both to share my love of the monster raising genre, and to research more into its past. In order count as a monster raising game, it must meet three criteria:
1. The focus of the game must be on raising creatures.
2. You must be able to raise a variety of monsters.
3. While your creatures may have extraordinary abilities, the player's avatar is more or
less a typical human being.
Being a retrojunk article, I have limited my search to pre-2000 properties. Also, while many of these franchises eventually spilled over into television and other media, this article will focus solely on the games:
The "pre-pokemon" era (I'm not sure whether that label is more pretentious or idiotic) offers slim pickings for fans of the monster raising genre. It's sort of like RPGs before Dungeons and Dragons or novels prior to Cervantes, there are a lot of efforts that seem to be meandering towards the golden formula, but they all stop slightly short of hitting the nail on the head. Nonetheless, for people with money and a bit of spare time (or low morals and an emulator) there are some interesting ideas here for a different take on monster raising.
Mail Order Monsters(1985)
It's surprising how much this pioneering effort by Electronic Arts resembles its modern counterparts. You buy monsters, modify them a little, and then send them off to fight for you in the arena. Pure and Simple. I've hunted long and hard, but I've been unable to find an earlier game that was based around this simple concept, so my hats off to EA for some groundbreaking work.
The gameplay options in this game, especially for a Commadore 64 title, were outstanding. You start off by picking from one of the twelve different types of monster ("Tyro", "Arachnid", etc.), then select an enhancement (such as "fiery breath" or "tentacles"), and finally give your monster a weapon (e.g. rifles and flamethrowers). The customization didn't end there though. The arena (terrain) you fought in had to be selected, with different topologies offering different features. On top of all that, the gameplay options ranged from simple one-on-one style death matches, to huge "horde" battles where computer controlled opponents would rush down from the top of the screen and it was your job to stop them from reaching the bottom. Like codons in DNA, all of these little parts combined together to form near-infinite permutations of gameplay possibilities.
What really impresses me though, was the two player mode. The vast majority of computer users did not have the internet in the mid-eighties. So if you wanted to play against an opponent, you would have to share keyboard space on a computer. While you still had to do that in Mail Order Monsters, the game would let you save your monster's info to a diskette, letting you battle your custom creations against your friends. Although I've never had the chance to play this game, I know what a rush it can be to see your customized creation triumph over another's. I imagine many 80's kids felt the same.
A Boy and his Blob(1989)
Public School funding sucks. Or at least the funding for my school wasn't the greatest. Our playground was shut down for over a year due to unaffordable-but-needed repairs, we were still using Commodore 64s during Clinton's second term, and up until 1997 my textbooks were convinced that there was some giant central Eurasian nation called "U.S.S.R.". Given the situation, I think it's a miracle that our library had any video game books at all. Sure, most of the games mentioned were older than I was, but buried among the duds in a video game anthology was the nifty little game "A Boy and his Blob".
I may be stretching my criteria by including this game, but the name's so much fun to say that I couldn't resist. You play as an unnamed kid who one day discovers an alien creature known as a "blob" that has crash-landed on earth. It turns out that the blob's home planet (creatively named "Blobolonia") has been taken over by a mad junk food emperor. Playing the Paulie to his Rocky, it's your job to train the boneless wonder into an unstoppable killing machine by feeding it different flavoured jellybeans.
Or at least, that's how I would have done it. Most of the game the blob is pretty passive, relying on the hero to shoulder the bulk of direct combat. The blob is mostly used to transform into things like ladders and umbrellas (the game is more of a puzzle-solver than action-platformer). Some might challenge whether this game really counts as a monster raising game at all, or is it just an automated Co-op game with the blob in place of the likes of Rush from Mega-man? Not quite. Unlike those games, the blob is as much the focus of gameplay as is the hero. While the "stats" of the blob remain fixed throughout the game, you do train it in the most rudimentary sense by giving it different abilities via the different jellybeans. If nothing else, it's an interesting side branch of the genre's evolutionary tree that didn't quite pan out in the end but is still worth a look for the interested.
While you didn't get to battle them, you were responsible for making sure that these little two bit monsters didn't die. This mostly involved feeding the Tamagotchi and then cleaning up its poop. For an extended lifetime, and bragging rights with your friends, you could "play" with your virtual pet to increase its satisfaction. Depending on how well you were taking care of it, the Tamagotchi would take on different forms as it went through its life phases.
I never actually owned one (Tamagotchis were considered more of a girl's thing), but I do remember when the Tamagotchi fad hit my school. Coincidentally, it was right about the time that backpack key chains were starting to be an "in" fashion. These two fads combined like Alkalis and Halogens, explosively launching the key chained digital dependants to stardom. It's funny though, I can't seem to ever remember anyone actually clipping their Tamagotchi to their backpack along with the rest of their key chains. Most people I knew just carried them around in their pockets.
Despite not really being my thing, I still think that Tamagotchi's had an innovative idea behind them. Tamagotchis forced you to fit your schedule around them. Although, like most things that beep inappropriately, this caused them to be quickly banned by many schools, I can imagine it was a fresh change from most games where you can save your data, leave for a year, and then boot it up as if you never left.
God I wanted this game when I was a kid. Every time my family went shopping at the local superstore I'd head right to the small electronics section and read the back of this games box until my dad dragged me away. I never did get it though. This was 1996, and our home computer lacked a cd-rom drive. So no "Creatures" for me.
The game had an interesting premise. The creatures in the game, known as "norns", had "digital DNA". This was a fancy way of saying that somewhere deep in the code there was a data structure that kept track of each individual norn's different features. "Breeding" involved combining two norn's data. By selectively breeding over several generations you could eventually produce a customized variety of norn that (given the sheer number of permutations) could be unique to your computer.
AI was another selling point. The true focus of the game was for you to interact with and raise your norns. Now, back then the word "AI" had a mysterious aura about it. I envisioned me and my norns having conversations and solving problems together. Now that I'm a little older (and with four years of University Computer Science under my belt), I know that AI doesn't quite work that way in real life. Nonetheless I still think it was a neat idea to try and give the norns at least some semblance of life.
It's interesting to think about what might have happened if pokemon had never been invented and any one of these previous games had become the template for all monster raising sims to follow. Mail-order Monsters had a huge variety of battle modes that would have been a refreshing alternative to continuous turn-based 1-on-1 matches. A boy and his blob focused more on creative puzzle-solving than tedious stat grinding. But, in my humble opinion, it was Creatures that offered the most potential. Imagine monster raising games where interacting with your monster is just as important as fighting with it. Where cutting edge AI gives your creature unique quirks, like a favourite toy or training location. Image a game where your monsters are allowed to become more than just numbers attached to a jpeg, and become true individuals.
So why did none of these games take off? Any number of reasons could be true. My opinion is that, while most of the games have solid game mechanics, they universally suffer in the world building department. But more on that as we discuss the biggest juggernaut of them all:
I remember exactly where it was that I first heard about pokemon. It was 1998, and I had just gotten a fresh issue of Disney Adventure in the mail. It was one of those "end of summer/back to school" issues. You know the kind. They mostly just preview the "hot" new things coming in the fall. Buried in one of the lists, between TV shows and video games that have long since been lost to time, was a little three-sentence write up on a new Japanese franchise being imported to North America.
Fast forward four months. Anyone even remotely familiar with pop-culture can probably guess that I was asking for a copy of pokemon red or blue for Christmas. I got them too, in addition to a gameboy pocket (some awesome foresight from my parents). I remember ignoring all that "Bulbasaur is the most balanced" crap and picking Charmander for my starter. I had no idea what I was doing (this was one of my first RPG's), but I stumbled through and generally had a good time.
For me the series peaked with Gold and Silver. I had an idea of what was needed this time around and I was able to dive right into the game. The storyline carried over from the previous series, so it actually felt like your effort in the earlier games was still paying off. That, coupled with all the new features, made this game feel like a true step forward from the originals. The next games, Ruby and Sapphire, felt like they were backtracking a lot with the removal of time-sensitive events and a (relatively) smaller map. I haven't even touched Diamond and Pearl, but the reviews I've heard haven't been good.
There is a question that begs to be answered when looking back at the golden days of pocket monster: why Pokemon? There were monster raising/fighting games before it, why didn't any of them tap into this seemingly primal urge to stage digital cockfights? I think that the answer is similar to that for why World of Warcraft became a breakout MMORPG: it wasn't so much a case of increased improvements as it was of fewer shortcomings.
Previous to Pokemon, most monster raising games were either all out action (e.g. "Mail Order Monsters") or simulation (ala "Tamagotchi") games. Pokemon was, to the best of my limited knowledge, the first game to take an RPG approach. Suddenly, as opposed to a series of selection screens or forced level-by-level progression, there was a whole world to explore. Our love of monsters, like our love of animals, is tied into our love of the natural world. If you simply present the monster to the player, like in "Creatures", you are creating a necessarily artificial environment. But if you force the player to seek them out in logical areas (fish-like monsters in a river, bird-like ones in forests, etc.) and suddenly the digital world of the game feels more alive. What Pokemon did that no other monster raising game before it did was tap into that basic need in all humans to see, explore, and ultimately understand more of the world around them.
Needless to say, when video game companies saw that Pokemon was rapidly attaining a GDP roughly equal to that of the French nation, their interest was peaked. Enter in the slew of clones. Most of these "franchises" (even describing them as such leaves a bad taste in my mouth) were poorly conceived and generic knock-offs like "Mon Collie Knights" or the Americanized version of "CardCaptor Sakura". But amid these all were a few iterations that, more due to their directors than their corporate overlords, attempted to do something new with the genre. Digimon and Medabots in particular achieved a sort of brilliance at points. But I digress. This is an article about video/digital games, so I will limit myself to the two pre-2000 post-pokemon franchises with which I am familiar.
Digimon started out as a "Tamagotchi for boys". It shared the same keychain design as its more passive soul-sibling, but came with a crucial add on: the connector. Two little metal plates would let you hook up two different devices to each other so your little two-bit monsters could hurl LED triangles at each other. This was Digimon at its purest. You could carry the thing around with anywhere, carefully tending to your growing monster's needs, and then throw them into the arena at the drop of a hat.
Making the leap to consoles and handhelds was less than spectacular. I've heard mixed opinions about the Digimon World games for the Playstation. Taking out the ability to battle your monsters against a friend's seems like a huge strike against it. I might give the DS version a chance though.
Anyone reading the dates next to the franchise names is probably wondering, "Why do you have Digimon in the post-Pokemon section"? It's due to the fact that, while Digimon did reach North America before Pokemon, in its native Japan digivices didn't hit the streets until almost a year after Pokemon debuted. Thus it felt more appropriate to place it here.
Monster Rancher (1997)
There was actually an excellent article here on retrojunk a while ago by Freezair on the monster rancher series. That article goes a lot more in depth then I'm going to here, as these are mostly personal experiences and impressions rather than objective criticism.
I first got interested in monster rancher after watching the TV show. The whole idea that CD's around the house could be used to generate monsters in a game was cool. Unfortunately I didn't own a Playstation. But I did eventually own a gameboy advance. Although not technically "retro", in 2001 Monster Rancher Advance was released, giving me my first taste of the rancher lifestyle. What struck me about the game was its intuitiveness and replay value. Pokemon was a pretty traditional RPG, very rigidly defined by mathematics. In monster rancher, your creature was not assigned a level as an overall indicator of its power, instead each individual stat (strength, stamina, etc.) could increase independently of the others. You would have to judge your monsters' abilities based on your own intuition and logic. It made you feel much more involved with your monster's growth, as opposed to the mostly arbitrary stat gains of pokemon. Also, unlike the immortal pokemon, monsters in Monster Rancher could die. While it was sometimes frustrating to have to let go of a monster you'd spent so much time on, it gave you chance to start anew, keeping the experience fresh.
I remember when I was ten I used to have a binder of drawing I called my "monster book". All it was was page after page of three ringed binder paper, each with a drawing of a different monster. Giant floating eyeballs, furry savage rat things, with each page I tried to be more creative and push my creations further into the bizarre.
I've long since lost that binder, but I think it helps show that the human facination with monsters reaches beyond video games and movies. H. G. Wells, in his novel "The First Men in the Moon", talks about his protagonist being initially bewildered by the variety of forms that the lunar people can take on, but then remark that if you could look inside men's souls you would find a spectrum no less wide. Another author, whose name escapes me, put it more directly: we sympathize with the monsters because the monsters are us. We project our own personality aspects onto those we think the monster represents, thus allowing us to view ourselves in a more objective manner. I may just be reading way too much into a series of video games aimed largely at children, but I think even the fact that it can inspire such thoughts is evidence that there is more to them then most people think.
Thank you all for putting up with the mindless rantings of a deluded idiot.