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Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX (PC)

Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX (PC) - Review

by Miles Gregory , posted on 13 January 2022 / 3,504 Views

The 90s were a fantastic time to be a young child obsessed with cute critters and monsters. Pokémon absolutely took the world by storm, creating an international phenomenon that has since become the highest grossing franchise of all time. If you had no interest in Pokémon, you were undoubtedly still interested in Tamagotchi. These were tiny handheld devices with very few buttons (and pixels), which allowed you to feed, care for, and show off your digital pet. The release of both of these products at around the same time became the catalyst for the numerous monster catching and breeding clones prevalent within the era.

Some clones grew past their humble beginnings and blossomed into well-respected franchises, such as Digimon. Others fell flat and were unable to reach the lofty goals that Pokémon set. Though the Monster Rancher series fought hard to become the former, its associated gimmick has since died in the digital age, thus pushing it to become the latter. With the release of Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX, you can relive the experience, but you may come to find that your recollection of the past is not as enjoyable as you had anticipated.

To get this out of the way, both games offer extremely sparse stories. In fact, the stories are so empty that Pokémon seems complex by comparison. Essentially, ancient civilizations prayed to their God to help them. This God created monsters for people, but this caused more problems than it solved. The monsters were then locked away in disc stones for hundreds of years until they were accidentally discovered by an excavation crew and, since then, humans have tamed, trained, and integrated monsters into their civilization.

This backstory can be gathered from just two FMV sequences, both of which play before the title screen appears. As you actually start the game you’ll find that your only goal as a new monster rancher is simply to rank as high as you can in tournaments. There is little motivation outside of the general gameplay hook to continue this journey, so don’t expect much from these games with regard to narrative.

How you obtain monsters within Monster Rancher is a core part of its gimmick. Monsters are kept within disc stones, which are to be given to a shrine, where the monster locked within the stone will be released. Disc stones within the game translate to compact discs in reality. The original release on PlayStation required that people place their actual music CDs (and even some games) into the PlayStation to summon a monster. The ability to pop in your new copy of Third Eye Blind’s 'Blue' album and have the game give you an associated monster must have been a real treat for people in 1999.

Unfortunately, the devices that Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX have been ported to don't have compact disc drives as standard. Therefore, Koei Tecmo decided to create a database of music CDs instead. Though I anticipated that this distinguishing characteristic of the series would be greatly diminished by offering a simple database, I actually found it just as rewarding to search for my favorite artists and check which albums contained what monsters. 

At any point within the game you're able to summon a new monster, but you can only have one active at a time. If you want to keep one monster for later but train another, you do have the ability to freeze them, but you’ll most likely be saving this for retired monsters for the purposes of combining (i.e. breeding). In order to unlock new monsters to summon at the shrine you must either defeat them in a tournament, find the appropriate items through expeditions (which are only offered at specific times), or complete a very specific set of tasks. 

Expeditions aren’t explained well, but even when you begin to understand how they work, the odds of finding an item (or the combination of several items) for the purpose of unlocking a new monster is slim. In fact, it's far more likely that your monster will get lost on an expedition and take a month to get back to your ranch. When time is so precious to you in order to train your monster well, these expeditions can feel extremely risky and unrewarding.

The specific tasks that you're required to perform to unlock special monsters range from potential accidental discoveries to simply absurd qualifications that practically require a guide in order to execute. For example, to unlock the Ghost you have to have a monster die of old age, build a shrine, wait 140 weeks, then clean the shrine (twice), all while holding a specific amount of currency. Perhaps it’s simply a product of its era, but it feels almost purposefully obfuscated and incredibly convoluted. 

Both games offer very similar gameplay experiences. Once you have a monster, you’ll be heading to your ranch, which is where you'll spend the bulk of your time. At the ranch you can choose to train your monster, participate in tournaments, or allow your monster to rest. Time moves in week increments for the most part, and while you may have an unlimited amount of time in the world as the rancher, your monsters have a lifespan of about 3-5 years. This makes time invaluable. Every month you feed your monster, which has different effects depending on what your monster likes. This food also costs money, so in order to continue playing Monster Rancher you'll have to continue earning money, through tournaments or jobs. If you run out of money it’s game over.

For Monster Rancher 1 you're given the option to have your monster work for money and stat gains, train for month-long increments for larger stat gains, rest to allow them to recover, or battle to gain items, money, fame, and increase rank. The more you battle or work your monster, the more tired it becomes. Overworking your monster can cause it to become stressed, perform worse, and even die early.

These options are relatively similar for Monster Rancher 2, but there are some additions and changes to the formula. Drills replace the option to work and they no longer provide money when completed, errants replace training (and now offer monetary gains when completed), and battles produce stat boosts as well. This does change the game somewhat, as doing drills each week is no longer as beneficial for you in the long run, since it doesn’t provide you with any monetary reward. In addition, battling more often is much more beneficial, since it offers both a monetary reward and stat boosts. 

The core gameplay loop of raising and training your monster is surprisingly addicting. Ensuring you properly balance your training while maintaining your monster's health is much more akin to the Tamagotchi series than Pokémon. You’ll spend hours feeding, playing, training, and even scolding your monster to ensure it rises to the challenge. Initially I felt underwhelmed by this core gameplay loop, but as my understanding of its systems grew, so did my obsession. With the ability to combine two different monsters to form a better, stronger monster, you may find yourself spending hours training monsters for the sole purpose of creating the ultimate monster with the best stats. The caveat is that the game explains almost none of the subtle nuances of combining to the player. In order to fully understand the mechanic of combining monsters, I had to look up a guide, because it was impossibly difficult to ascertain whether what I was doing was functioning accordingly and actually providing me with better stats. 

Combining is far from the most frustrating mechanic, however. Battles instead serve as the game's Achilles’ heel. I can only describe the battle system as a game of tug-of-war, with some simple fighting mechanics thrown in. You have a maximum of four moves you can have at the ready, but these moves aren’t selectable unless you're a specific distance away from your opponent. In addition, if you don’t have enough energy (either Will or Guts, depending on which game you're playing), then your monster will be unable to perform the move. Your opponent moves too, by the way, so it becomes increasingly difficult to put just the right distance between you and your opponent in order to select the move you think might be best. I found it incredibly frustrating trying to tactically choose moves when the cursor would shift because of the opponent’s movement and I would use a move that would miss and drain my Will/Guts, leaving me helpless.

Battles are where stats play a big role, and you’ll want to battle in a style that compliments the stats of your monster. However, I never truly felt like I could win from skill alone. Luck no doubt plays a part in these battles; this makes it a shame when you lose and waste a week that could have been dedicated to training, or if your monster gets injured, as it can take a month for them to heal. 

Graphically, not much has been much done to make the presentation higher quality. As far as I'm able to tell, the only overhaul that the games have received are their overall pixel rendering, which is also the only graphics option you're able to change on PC. Everything else, from pixelated text to affine texture warping, is present from the PS1 original. I suspect both games are running on an emulator instead of having been ported.

There are a few other minor presentation changes. For example, some replacement text (i.e. text that you create, such as your name) is in higher resolution, but it contrasts with the original pixelated text, thus giving an inconsistency to the presentation and an overall impression that these titles were hastily re-released. This is why I'm so reluctant to use the word remaster within this review, as it honestly doesn't feel like a remaster. Instead, it feels like a classic re-release, akin to Super Mario 64 in the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection. 

It is interesting seeing the improvements in the graphical presentation from one title to the other. Monster Rancher 1 mostly uses pre-rendered backdrops, pixelated animations, and when it's rendered in full 3D the draw distance is very poor. Monster Rancher 2, on the other hand, uses mostly 3D assets and has much greater draw distances. Even when performing drills or errants they're modeled in full 3D. This actually allows for Monster Rancher 2 to benefit the most from the increased rendering resolution and look much more crisp. Still, these products very much do look their age, with low resolution textures and simple geometry of just a few hundred polygons. I would even go so far as to say Monster Rancher 1 holds up a little bit better with its pixelated animations despite being both less technically impressive and benefiting less from the increased rendering target.

As far as new features go, there isn’t much here. Koei Tecmo included content that was never given to us stateside, such as new monsters. This may excite fans of the original, but personally I just groaned at the convoluted process of unlocking these extra monsters. Koei Tecmo also included an online component, where you can register a frozen monster and have it fight in random battles or tournaments. Monster Rancher 2 also includes the PocketStation mechanic, where you can play a stored minigame in order to earn money. A pleasant surprise, but a rather useless one, as its original purpose was to allow you to earn money while away from the game, which isn't possible with the implementation they went with. Perhaps an accompanying smartphone application would have been best.

Lastly, they have added a fast forward function that plays the game at double the speed of the original. Honestly, I had no idea that this function was on through the majority of my playthrough, until I turned it off and realized just how slow and sluggish the game truly is. It's best to leave this on until you decide to participate in a tournament. 

I do believe that Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX holds some charm, and its core gameplay loop can be rather satisfying, but there are quite a few frustrating components that simply spotlight the age of the product. In addition, with the general lack of graphical updates, options, and presentation inconsistencies, it just doesn’t feel like there was much effort poured into this release.

Though the collection certainly allows one to take a trip down memory lane, it does so with antiquated force that is often forgotten by those with rose-colored glasses. Since I didn't have the experience of playing these games in my youth, I felt every bump and outdated mechanic much harder than someone who may hold nostalgia for these games, and the developer did very little to cushion the impact. For this reason, I find it hard to really recommend this experience to a general audience. Instead, it's best served to those who are choosing to relive their gaming past or who have frequent experience with older game mechanics and don't mind spending a significant portion of time either experimenting in the game or utilizing walkthroughs & guides. 

This review is based on a digital copy of Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX for the PC, provided by the publisher.

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Mandalore76 (on 13 January 2022)

I played Monster Rancher on the PlayStation when it first released back in the day and was hooked on it. I still remember my first monster Glen. A Wall Monster that was spawned from one of my Danzig albums (either "Danzig III: How the Gods Kill", or "Thrall-Demonsweatlive"). I also remember quite appropriately spawning a bunny monster out of my Tecmo Super Bowl disc. I was never interested in Pokemon or Tamagotchi, but I spent a considerable amount of time playing this game and would often show it to friends.
I would become attached to the monsters I was breeding. Yes, you were just building them up in tournaments as I high as you could. But, how you treated them had an effect on how they matured. Too much nurturing would make them lazy. Too much scolding would make them rebellious.
Creating monsters from both CD's and game disc was indeed facinating at the time. It's too bad that they couldn't figure out a way to more authentically maintain the original mechanic. Can today's PC's really not read CD's anymore? Since monsters were also made from game discs, you would have thought that on PC it would have been possible to get the game to do this from DVD's or Bluray discs. For the Switch, it would have been awesome if you could have created monsters from the other Switch cartridges in your collection.
And, I do recall obtaining a ghost monster. It was much easier in the first game. All you had to do was have a monster die (I often pushed my monsters to fight one more tournament to try and raise their rank an extra level even when the game would warn me it was time to send it off to pasture), then raise another monster and send it off to tournament. If the monster came back with a strange mark appearing on it, that monster could then create a ghost once combined with another monster. I remember this happening to me naturally of the course of normal gameplay without ever reading about it first. I think it was my worm monster "Jerry", spawned from my Jerry Seinfeld "I'm Telling You for the Last Time" standup cd, that received the mark,
As someone who had a great fondness for the original game, I'm very eager to give Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX a try. I haven't downloaded it yet, but I already have it in my mind to do so soon.

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Doctor_MG Mandalore76 (on 13 January 2022)

Hey, thanks for sharing! I hope you enjoy this game when you do get it. You sound like the exact person that I'd recommend this too.

Technically speaking, a PC could use a CD-reader, but no PC comes with them stock anymore (in fact, most PC's have no disk drive in general), so making the game use the CD's would have decreased the amount of users who would have purchased it, especially since Switch and smartphones don't either. You have some cool ideas though, and I do wonder what a modern Monster Rancher entry would look like in this day and age.

  • +5
ireadtabloids Doctor_MG (on 15 January 2022)

I enjoyed the review. I am really glad someone found time to do it.

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Doctor_MG ireadtabloids (on 16 January 2022)

I'm glad you enjoyed it! I was excited to do this review because I did watch the Monster Rancher series as a kid, but didn't know about the games until I was a teen, and it was definitely nostalgic for me just to see Suezo in 3D lol

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