After playing through Monster Seed the only thing I could think of was how much better Monster Rancher was. Specifically, Monster Rancher 2. I first played the game in the early 2000s, and that was largely due to the American dub of the anime series. After being given my brother’s old PS1 after he got himself a PS2, one of the very first games I bought was this classic Tecmo RPG. I knew summoning monsters was the main draw, but having found the series thanks to the anime, I was expecting more of a traditional Pokemon-like adventure. What I got was one of the most unique media experiences ever.
It is not often a video game changes how you play. The Wii is the biggest example of this, adding motion controls, or the possibility of motion controls, to every single game on the console. However, before we were waggling our controllers in an attempt to move on screen, other gimmicks had us “dancing” on mats with directional arrows, using our voice as a controller instead of a joystick, or playing simple games with our robotic buddy. Monster Rancher and its subsequent sequel had us literally unlocking monsters by using CDs, DVDs, and even other disc-based video games we already had lying in our homes. A music CD now suddenly had the possibility of unlocking a sweet new addition to your ranch. Those Blockbuster rental DVDs meant so much more when you knew a metal version of the Jell monster was exclusive to the Terminator 2: Judgment Day disc. My world was new and exciting again.
Kind of like Genki in the anime, summoning monsters was a big deal. For Monster Rancher 2 though, the beginning of the internet and booming market for gaming magazines meant finding those elusive and exclusive special monsters was much simpler. The previously mentioned metal Jell for example could only be obtained from a specific few discs, while the normal Jell was much more easy to come by. The same went for every monster in the game: was your disc going to give you a regular Mochi, or one decked out in armor? A normal Suezo or a cooler purple one? The possibilities seemed endless. It really did make popping in new discs so much fun, even though doing so meant a lengthy load time each time. This is honestly the biggest reason the game stands out to me so many years later. Thankfully though, there are other high points too.
Monster Rancher 2 is part simulation game, part one-on-one battler. The simulation part takes place on your ranch, where you can play with, train, feed, and raise your monster pets. Activities you do with them will increase their stats, and the stat affected will be linked to the activity done. For example you can build your monster’s strength and HP by going on treks through the mountains. Or you can pump up defense and attack power by doing farmhand activities with them. Using a monster will wear them out though, and they’ll need to take a short break before they can train again, giving you the ability to work with multiple monsters at once. It was a fun system that was met with immediate rewards and growth. I could easily see the potential with each monster, and worked to getting them better and better so they could compete and win the next tournament.
Speaking of which, tournaments and battles are the other main components of the game. After some weeks pass, a tournament is held where you can enter your pets to compete for top honors. Round robin tournaments are decided by battling against each other entrant one at a time. Using the correct skills in combat will spell victory, but sometimes you’re just outmatched by a stronger opponent, which means back to the ranch for more training and grinding. Unlike Pokemon games you aren’t giving direct commands for your monsters to execute, but rather guiding them in real time to fight their foe with suggested moves based on their distance. This system is governed by the Guts system: if your monster has enough Guts they can do their move. If not, then you’ve got to wait for their Guts to gradually regenerate over time. Admittedly this wasn’t my favorite thing about the game, but it was easy to grasp, and encouraged me to go back and grind some more to get my strength and endurance higher for the next bout.
Bringing the experience together are the visuals. The monster designs in particular stand out, featuring creative creatures that are and remain unique to the series. You’ve got your typical wolves, rabbits, sea creatures, and bird ladies. And you’ve also got the more creative eyeball monsters, floating robot creations, and walls with protruding faces. It’s seriously as if the designers had everyone pitch in ideas for monsters, and nothing was thrown out. “Yeah we got wolves and golems and dragons, and we’ve also got animated walls and boulders and centipede things.” Considering the first game released in 1997, a year into the magic that was Pokemon over in Japan, it had to stand out. And stand out it did. While Monster Rancher was never as popular as Pokemon, it did meet with enough success to still have games releasing to this day!
Monster raising will always be dominated by Pokemon. But I will have a special place in my gaming heart for Monster Rancher 2 for making me curious and excited to play. What did the next disc hold? How many cup jellies could I buy before collecting enough red stars for a prize? Why did it seem everyone’s monsters were strictly better than mine? These are all questions I could only ask with Monster Rancher, and damn was I happy to play and explore and discover the answers. Thank you Monster Rancher 2 for giving young Jason such a fun time.