The late ’90s and early 2000s were full of weird, experimental games and toys that constantly sought out fresh ways to test the latest technological advancements, and Monster Rancher was certainly one of these. Starting way back in 1997, the Monster Rancher games are a series of wonderfully weird, quintessentially Japanese life simulation RPGs that have earned their spot as cult classics worldwide, despite never really getting big in the West. So, naturally, it’s exciting to see these little beauties make a return to modern consoles in the form of Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX on Switch.
Despite never getting my hands on the original Monster Rancher games, I have distinct memories of watching the anime as a kid, and being super curious about the odd, disc-stone mechanic. I was therefore both excited, and a tiny bit nervous about the remastered versions hitting Switch – we’ve all been burnt by so-called ‘remasters’ recently, and I was worried that these classics would go through a similar botched job.
Luckily, my fears were unfounded, as I launched the game and tucked into a deliciously clunky but charming dish of nostalgia. No unnecessary filters or attempts to beautify – Monster Rancher 1 & 2 sits before you in all of its blocky, pixelated glory, embracing its wrinkles as it’s blown up, crystal-clear and sharp on the widescreen. I also appreciated the wise choice to letterbox the display, putting textured bars on either side of the screen to prevent stretching or distortion – other games could learn from this, sometimes less is more (looking at you, GTA).
While I was expecting this to be functionally similar to Pokémon or Digimon, I was pleasantly surprised to find I’d really missed the mark. As Aristotle said, one monster does not a Pokémon-clone make (or something like that). Instead, you’re tasked with raising and training an ugly-cute monster of your choice, most of which sport a classic Japanese mythological twist.
Though not as fluffy as Minun and Plusle, it’s just as easy to grow to love these monsters, as you build their loyalty, train to raise their stats, feed them snacks, and guide them through battle. I definitely spoiled mine far too often, and struggled to discipline them because I couldn’t handle their sad little faces.
It captures the essence of its era
On the surface, Monster Rancher 1 & 2 may look pretty simple, with minimalist gameplay bolstered by the occasional battle tournament, but beneath the surface, there are some deceptively complex mechanics.
The first game plays with a lot of these ideas and definitely does it well, but the second game truly takes it to the next level, offering a far more fleshed out and well-rounded experience. Whether you’re juggling your monster’s stats, nature, weight, training schedule, or stress levels, there’s always something to tweak as you progress, even before you introduce breeding, freezing, fusing, and reviving new monsters.
I was hit by another wave of intense nostalgia as I struggled to understand the surprisingly complicated (and scantily explained) battle gameplay, and found myself scouring Game FAQs for an ancient, text-based guide of old (if you find yourself in the same situation, I found this one to be extremely helpful for the second game). There’s willpower, distance, loyalty, temperament, and heaps more to take into account every time you enter a tournament – and even after sinking many hours into gameplay and research, I’m still not totally sure I ‘get it’, but I was having fun and that’s the important thing, right? One thing’s for sure, if you run in guns blazing before your monster is ready, you’re guaranteed to get beaten to a pulp, even in the lowest tier fights.
Aside from a clearly very competent port of the base games, Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX comes with some nice quality of life upgrades, like increased save slots and remastered sound quality. While I can’t say I was a big fan of the sound design, I appreciate its charm, and being able to switch between the original and remastered audio in the menu is a welcome and thoughtful little detail.
Of course, there’s also the glaring matter of the disc stone feature. For those who don’t know, one of the biggest gimmicks in the original Monster Rancher games on PlayStation was that you could keep the game running, remove the disc and replace it with any CD or other game, and you’d be able to snap up a fresh monster depending on the data on that disc. Of course, physical discs are a dying medium now, and even Switch cartridges aren’t as popular as digital downloads. To combat this, a new database has been implemented – now, if you head to the shrine, you can type in the name of a CD and musical artist, or click ‘random’ to generate a name, and get a monster that way. While some of the novelty may be lost, it’s a fun work around that keeps the spirit of the feature alive in a thoughtful way.
Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX is clunky, garish, and downright weird at times. It shows its age, its battle system is complicated and not particularly intuitive, and the gameplay feels repetitive after a while, despite the huge range of monsters and combinations. But you know what? I loved every second of it. It’s utterly charming in its imperfections, and you can feel the hefty groundwork it laid down for other titles to build upon.
Monster Rancher is a great experience, and a true walk down memory lane, that captures the essence of its era without sacrificing any of its unique sense of identity. It’s not for everyone, and games have certainly become a more refined, clean, and streamlined experience since Monster Rancher’s heyday, but it’s a brilliant look into gaming history, and I found myself completely ensnared in its odd little world. And with such a strong remaster that maintains the soul of the game with artful touches, Koei Tecmo has truly showcased what a remaster should be – like restoring an old painting, these classics need to be treated with gentle brush strokes and TLC.
Hopefully, Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX will not only appease the board of old farts like me, but also introduce a new generation to the joys of the series, so we can see more of these creepy-cute critters in the future.