Players: 1 to 2 Player Game | Release Date: 11/30/97 | Genre: Strategy
Monster Rancher is a game in which you raise a monster and train it to fight in tournaments. There are four tournaments a year, and the goal of the game is to win every tournament. As your monster grows, it learns new skills which help it to achieve that goal. Throughout the game, you develop a sense of companionship with your monster, and you truly care about its well-being--something vitally important to any life sim. When a game actually causes you to jump up and down with excitement, you know it has drawn you in. Monster Rancher is an innovative game that is extremely fun to play.
Your monster starts out fairly weak, and it is up to you to assign it tasks to make it stronger. These tasks range from guarding the house (which raises defensive skills) to pulling a cart (which raises attack power). The stats that these tasks raise make your monster more efficient in battle. You can also choose to send your monster to a training school for a month. It's expensive, but it boosts your monster's skills more than just doing jobs around the ranch.
You get to name your monster, as well as control it in battle. The battle system is strange, and has a few flaws. You move the monster left and right with the L1 and R1 buttons, and attack with the X button. You can't block attacks, so you must avoid them by rapidly tapping the L1 button. This is not as convenient as the traditional "hold-back-to-block" fighting game system. That said, the quirks of the controls do grow on you, and don't detract from the game in any major way.
The slight flaws in control can easily be overlooked because of Monster Rancher's real strength, which is the "virtual friendship" that develops between the monster and its owner--that curious affection that all good life sim games elicit from the player. When your monster wins a tournament, you jump for joy, and when your monster gets old and has to retire, you feel genuine sadness. To provoke this response, the creatures must have personality. Monster Rancher achieves this personality by giving extremely expressive movements to the monsters. Dog-type monsters scratch behind their ears. Dinosaur types growl and chomp their jaws. As your monster stomps around the ranch, and explores the edges of the screen, you get a sense of personality that gives Monster Rancher much of its specialness.
One of the best features of Monster Rancher is the number of options concerning the different types of monsters available to raise. The three main types of monsters are: dinosaur, tiger, and eyeball. That's right--eyeball. You can get any of the three monsters at the shop. When your monster gets too old to fight, you can have it cryogenically frozen. Once you have two monsters frozen, you can combine their DNA at the lab, thus generating their offspring. The other way to get a monster is truly innovative. Place another CD into the Playstation, and a monster will be generated by analyzing the number and length of the tracks on the CD. The number of monsters that can be made this way is seemingly endless, giving the game replay value to rival that of the infinitely re-playable Civilization II. Replay value is enhanced by details; this brings up a point. For each job that you assign your monster, there is a bit of animation showing its success or failure at that particular job. There are ten jobs, and a vast number of monsters. It would be expected that animations would only be made for the three main monster types, and if you had a monster that looked like, say, a gigantic moustache, you would still have to watch an animation featuring one of the three main monster types. Not so. Job animations for each and every monster show that specific monster doing the job. This kind of attention to detail is what makes Monster Rancher so re-playable.
Tecmo has produced a game that is groundbreaking and unusual. You may have noticed that this review makes no mention of Monster Rancher's graphics or sound. Both are passable, but they are not mentioned because they are beside the point. A game like this lives and dies on the connection between the player and the creature being raised. And that is what Monster Rancher gets exactly right.