You never know when some particular piece of media will strike you. Monster Rancher might be the most personal game I own.
Let’s start with the facts: I played Monster Rancher a lot. How much is a lot? Well there are these stats:
720 Wins! And add that to the slight fact that that screencap was taken in the Monster Rancher year of 1062. The game starts in 1000. My player avatar has been a monster rancher for 62 years! Holly, the ever-present assistant monster rancher, should be in a retirement home! I can’t even remember my first monster!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the basics: Monster Rancher is a Playstation 1 game that was released in 1997. To be clear on the timeline here, that would put MR’s release a solid year before Pokémon Red/Blue hit the states in 1998. And the comparisons between Monster Rancher and Pokémon are appropriate. They’re both games about loving and raising unusual creatures, and then forcing them to fight for your amusement/money. The big difference here, though, is that Pokémon started with 151 fairly unique creatures (electrode and voltorb are objectively similar), while Monster Rancher mostly relied on less than a dozen “types”, and mixed and matched their attributes in a couple hundred different ways. Tiger plus Eyeball = Hairy Eyeball isn’t exactly as original as a Jigglypuff, but it still leads to a larger bestiary. And where do you find these fantastic beasts? In Pokémon, they’re hiding in tall grass, but Monster Rancher was a little bit different. Monster Rancher concealed all of its monsters in much more mundane locations…
Let’s rewind even further in this inevitably autobiographical article. I was a gigantic videogame nerd as a child, but music wasn’t really my thing. Or, to be more precise, I simply happily listened to my parents’ oldies stations, and I was fairly convinced The Beatles and The Traveling Wilburys were the be-all end-all of harmony. This belief had a brief hiccup in about fifth grade, when I discovered “Weird” Al Yankovic and proceeded to demand his every last tape. So, while I wound up with Amish Paradise, I passed on every last Gangsta’s Paradise or practically anything else that was supposed to be interesting to my generation. Yes, this means I missed Nirvana. But I had Bomberman to keep me company, so I didn’t much mind. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I started to listen to my own music.
And then the floodgates were open.
Ignoring a few “comedy albums” (technically, my first CD ever was a Simpsons soundtrack… I regret nothing), I still remember buying my first three “real” CDs: Squirrel Nut Zippers – Hot, Ben Folds Five – Whatever and Ever Amen, and Jethro Tull – Greatest Hits. My tastes are very… eclectic. From there on, I started collecting albums like I collected videogames. In fact, since this was a time when Playstation titles were at an all-time low ($40 brand new across the board), buying a new CD of any kind, game or music, was roughly the same financial decision. And, given this was also the first time in my life I had a disposable income (welcome to teenage employment!), I quickly amassed a glut of CDs of all shapes and sizes (okay, they were all the same shape and size, but their covers were different!). Now who wants to listen to the Barenaked Ladies discography and play Mega Man X4?
So enter Monster Rancher. At first, MR appeared to be another random monster raising game. Yes, we all knew about incoming Pokémon at this point. Yes, I’m pretty sure we were all at least dimly aware of Digimon, too. All the ‘mon games were on the cusp of global dominance, but before all of those, we had Tamagotchi, the insidious little “virtual pets” that were crying and (virtual) pooping “augmented reality” experiences before the term even existed. For anyone that missed that trend, we’re talking about electronic babies. You had to care for them at all times, react to their insistent beeping, and, if you were a good little monster parent, you wound up with a twenty pixel dragon or something. As if you can’t tell from my present level of disdain, I loathed the little (wannabe) monsters, and, as a result, even the likes of Pokémon sounded like some lame cash-in on the monster-raising fad. I eventually played Monster Rancher, not because I wanted some of that cool, monster ranching action, but because I wanted to rent a videogame, and literally nothing else available looked like any fun. Congrats, Monster Rancher, you were the absolute last choice.
But to say that “last choice” worked out well is something of an understatement. The main hook of Monster Rancher? Stick any CD in that Playstation slot, from Butthole Surfers to William Shatner Sings the Hits, and you’ll get a brand new monster. Your favorite album might create a winged dinosaur, or that demo that came with your CD wallet could produce a hulking golem. The CDs are seemingly randomized, but they’re consistent, so if you find a monster you like, keep that disc handy for breeding later. And some discs are decidedly less random, which would explain why I bought a Madonna album exclusively for its unique Pixie. Yes, in an age a solid decade before DLC, Monster Rancher found a way to get its dedicated fans to go out and buy Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits for some inexplicable reason.
When I first discovered the hook of Monster Rancher, I’m pretty sure I didn’t actually play the “game” for a week. I had collected my CDs in real life, and now here was a virtual world rewarding me for such hoarding. I was on cloud nine. What’s more, I was spending all my time on that cloud scanning every last disc I owned. When that ended, I went through my dad’s entire CD collection. By the time that had ended, I’d already bought the game (and a Van Halen album that contained another unique Pixie), and started monster ranching in earnest.
That’s about when the OCD really kicked in.
You can summon monsters from real world CDs, but some CDs are “locked”. While you can acquire an absolutely rocking naga from any old disc, some of the more unique monsters, like dragons, magicians, and giant robots, may only be summoned if you’ve “earned” that species in the game proper. So, yes, Billy Joel can provide a unique ape, but you have to earn the right by careful monster rearing, battling, and some good ol’ fashioned luck on expeditions. This infuriated me. Here I was, entitled to some awesome monsters for deigning to own Tecmo’s Deception, but, no, I can’t have the little biters, because I haven’t played the game enough. I’ll show ‘em! I’ll show ‘em all! I’ll earn every last monster in this stupid game, and then I’ll finally have a completed personal bestiary. It’s not about catchin’ ‘em all, it’s about knowing that every last disc I own is equally accountable.
And then I played the game for 62 years.
Did I enjoy every minute of it? Of course not, this is a ranching sim, so a healthy amount of Monster Rancher is just navigating menus and killing time. Battles are long and tedious, and, while they’re not entirely unpleasant, they do involve a lot of time invested before potentially losing everything (you could easily win six matches, take an unlucky crit in the seventh, and literally watch your monster die as a result). Expeditions are a necessary part of unlocking any interesting monsters, but, even with perfect stats, they’re little more than reskinned slot machines. And, in general, the dialogue is perfunctory and randomly accusatory (I’m spoiling the monster? Really? He only gets fed once a month!”). Monster Rancher unquestionably has its good points, but the minute-to-minute of the experience is sorely lacking.
But that didn’t matter. To this day, Monster Rancher is still one of my favorite games, unmatched by even its sequels. It was, for all purposes, a particular moment in time, crystallized in a videogame. By just a few years (maybe even months) later, I’d be hording MP3s, and buying entire albums would become a part of grandpa’s generation. New Playstation titles would rise in price, and, for a little while (poor college days), I’d barely buy a new game at all. Had Monster Rancher dropped just a half year later, it would have been a random rental I’d forget about forever. But, no, Monster Rancher was there just when I needed to indulge my ridiculous collector tendencies, and it became as synonymous with my teenage years as my first girlfriend (who, incidentally, got a monster named after her in my save).
Monster Rancher might not have been the best game, but it is one of the best games to me.
FGC #360 Monster Rancher
- System: Playstation 1. Given the central gimmick, I’d say this one is nigh impossible to emulate/port without bringing the rest of the late 90’s with it.
- Number of Players: Two! And you can import a buddy’s monsters for battles, too! I… I never found another human being that owned this game.
- Speaking of Discs: You can play this game on the Playstation 3, but I did not test if the central CD summoning mechanic still worked. I don’t want to push my poor backwards compatible Playstation 3 disc reader any further than I already have. I need that thing for LPs!
- Favorite Breed: Pixies were always my favorite as a teenager, as I was a teenager, and a half naked lady monster is naturally going to seem appealing. As an adult (and when I actually wanted to beat the game), I usually went with the humble golem or magic. To be clear, there’s a monster that is just named “magic”. It kinda looks like Michael Jordan. This is a weird game.
- It’s good to have fans: There’s a popularity gauge for your monster in this game, and filling it can lead to some excellent fan mail.
I am great!
- Did you know? For whatever reason, all monsters are assumed to be male, so male pronouns are used universally. This is very odd for the clearly female pixie breed. “It” should be allowed when you’re talking about a creature that eats raw meat off the ground.
- Would I play again: I love this game. I love it more than I’ve loved some other particularly dear inanimate objects. But I’m probably never going to play it again, because it is very much a product of its time. We’ll always have the memories…
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Psychic Force 2012! Journey to the marvelous future of 2012, and join the Psychic Force! Or fight them! Please look forward to it!
We do not talk about Doodle in polite company
My first experience with Monster Rancher was the Official PlayStation Magazine demo. While I really wouldn’t call it much of a demo since all you get to do is make a monster (Fighting? Simulations? Whuzzat?!), all it took to get me interested in picking up the game was being able to create a monster from every single music CD, PlayStation disc, or AOL trial disc I owned.
Glad I picked up the game too, ‘cuz it got me a lot more interested in the simulation gaming genre. Like, I’m not just spawning monsters from discs and cockfighting them, I’m raising and training them in the hopes of making the next generation stronger with their cryogenically frozen corpses. I’ll gladly take my monsters on expeditions with Karn to work towards unlocking new species, but I also worry that they’ll get lost while digging through some ruins and I’ll be waiting months for them to return. I’m hoping to tear through the tournaments, but always dreading that this monster I’ve put so much work into will be brutally K.O.’d and end up hospitalized or dead.
Basically, Tecmo saw Bandai’s Tamagotchi and Digimon LCD pets and thought “Those are neat, let’s make a game like them but bigger and better.” And that’s why I loved it. And I had a bigger attachment to my Monster Rancher monsters than my Pokémon ‘cuz of that, to be honest.
The Pokémon series always talks the talk about how Pokémon aren’t just fighting machines, but outside of a contest here or a Pokémon Amie mode there it’s always FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT. Fighting’s still a major goal of Monster Rancher of course, but sending your monster on jobs and training classes, travelling together on expeditions, trying to keep your monster from getting too fat or thin or spoiled or scared, worrying when your monster’s lost or sick or gravely injured, the mixed feelings of dread, sadness, failure, etc. if a monster dies too young…It makes them feel a lot more like family, you know?
Never seriously got into any Monster Rancher games past the PSone era, though. Monster Rancher 3 just didn’t have the same appeal to me, and Monster Rancher GBA bombards you with way too many dumb anime rivals. “No kid, I don’t want to see how your monster is stronger than my fresh out of the box Suezo, leave me alone.”
It’ll never have the impact it once did, but I still miss the series. There’s some mobile games, but they’re the microtransaction filled kind and the latter two didn’t even get a localization.
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