When I was younger I would prowl the house like a thief, combing each and every room for musical goodies. I’d grab everything from my brother’s The Beatles collection, raid my sister’s Linkin Park and Blink 182 CDs, take my Dad’s Harry Chapin albums, and sometimes hit up my mum’s car for her Celine Dion and Meat Loaf singles. No one was safe from my wrath.
Then, with my stack of stolen discs piled high, I would put each one in the PlayStation to see which creature it would generate on Monster Rancher, taking meticulous notes on each new discovery. Sure, many of them would throw up the “this rare monster can be generated only by an authorized IMa trainer” message, but you couldn’t beat the pure excitement of each reveal, much like the high you get from opening trading card packets long before the arrival of Gacha games.
21 years later, my favorite aspect of Monster Rancher remains unchanged. Actually, I tell a lie, it’s slightly changed. I no longer need to raid every room in the house for CDs — thankfully, as we don’t have many of those lying around nowadays — I can just simply search using the digital database included in Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX.
Monster Rancher was one of the games of my childhood and one of the few games that I break out at least once a year to play again, which meant having to dust off my old copy and console each time. So when Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX was announced, I couldn’t contain my excitement, it was like being given pure nostalgia on a plate without any of the hassle.
I didn’t even set the bar high, I would have been happy with a simple port that made it easier to play, but this collection offers so much more than I originally hoped for. There are so many quality of life improvements and new features that have been added, such as faster loading times, additional freeze slots so you can store more monsters, a high-speed mode so you progress even faster, auto-save, new monsters for Monster Rancher 2, and so much more. For fans of the original like me, this is the revival you’ve been waiting for, whether you realised you wanted it or not.
Despite visual enhancements, these games still hail from a different era, so you’re not going to get the high polish of modern titles. They play in a 4×3 aspect ratio, and while the graphics look nicer than they did on your old CRT TV, they’re still the same blocky, clunky shapes that we knew and loved from all those years ago. The more I thought about it, the more I realised I didn’t want to see these games glammed up. Would Suezo have the same charm without being a little rough around the edges? Every little soundbite and awkward-looking creature has a special place in my heart, including the strange building in the background of the town that looks like it has a derp face.
As well as providing a new way to play an old favourite, this collection finally grants European players like me access to the original game, as we only ever received Monster Rancher 2, though for us that was simply called ‘Monster Rancher’. Confusing? Yeah, a little. I’m not going to lie, the main appeal of DX for me was Monster Rancher 2, as it’s bigger, better, and the one that I played as a kid. I imagine a lot of players will simply default to the better of the two and I don’t blame them.
Having said that, it was nice to finally check out the game that preceded one I loved so much. Understandably, it’s largely just a more limited version of Monster Rancher 2. I loved the cute little pixel animations that weren’t continued in the sequel and interestingly, I noticed that you could use the same CD in both games but get completely different monsters. This is where the feature that allows you to transfer frozen monsters from the first game to the second came in super handy, by the way.
Playing the original also gave me context that I didn’t even realise I was missing. In Monster Rancher 2, you’re ranking up in the IMa monster battle organization and you encounter the neighbouring continent’s equivalent, FIMBA, during one of the tournaments. Imagine my surprise when I realised in the first Monster Rancher, you’re on that other continent and ranking up through FIMBA, oh and your assistant is Holly, the NPC you speak with during the FIMBA tournament in Monster Rancher 2. Mind blown.
Back to the star of the show, Monster Rancher 2 — I already know this is going to remain a constant companion of mine for years to come. It’s going to be one of those games I dip into all the time, just like Animal Crossing, and now that it’s portable thanks to the Nintendo Switch, nothing can stop me from playing it anywhere and everywhere.
It has an enduring appeal that makes you want to keep playing, possibly because of how non-linear it is. Unlike Pokemon, which you can’t help but compare it to due to the monster collecting/battling similarities, you’re not traveling all over the world with a fixed end goal or location. You’re largely on your ranch raising monsters and taking part in tournaments, though you can visit the local town or send your monster off on expeditions and errantry training. You can consider reaching the highest IMa rank as the main objective, but discovering new monsters and breeding stronger versions of them is something you can keep enjoying over and over.
Another thing that really sets Monster Rancher apart from Pokemon is that you can’t keep your favorites indefinitely as they will eventually grow old and die. They can also run away or die from injuries, so prepare yourself for heartbreak. While it’s sad to lose your best buddies, I think this is part of what keeps you playing, since creating the perfect monster and keeping it forever would be boring.
There are hundreds of monsters across both games, some of which you can’t obtain until you meet certain unlock requirements, hence those pesky “authorized IMa trainer” messages I was on about earlier. This is one of the things I really love, discovering how to earn rare monsters is an adventure in itself. Some are obtained from tournaments, others from expeditions, or even from random events, such as upgrading the shrine more than once after a monster dies. Doing different things can result in unforeseen rewards and events, so despite there not being a world for you to explore in a traditional sense, there is so much to uncover if you choose to take part in optional content.
As I mentioned before, generating monsters from CDs was my jam. It’s the first thing I did in DX and I spent hours searching for my favourite artists to discover as many monsters as possible before I even took one back to my ranch. I experience the same sense of joy when scanning through all the monster cards I have collected as I did when I was a kid, and perhaps this time around I can achieve what I failed to do then — collect ‘em all.
This collection has a couple of niggles I’d love to see improved upon or changed, and I’m sure it’ll surprise no one that these both come from the feature I spent the most time with — the shrine. If the CD you attempt to use from the digital database is blocked by the “IMa trainer” message, you get booted back to the main town screen. This happened in the original PS1 version, but I wish it had been changed for DX. It stands to reason you’ll likely want to try another summon, so why kick us all the way out?
When searching for artists and titles, you have to get it exactly right. You can’t search “Beatles” in the hopes of finding “The Beatles”, you’ll just get no results. Nsync was also a no-go until I added that damn asterisk. Partial search terms would have been so much more helpful.
Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX is undeniably engrossing and though it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a modern game, it manages to hold its own due to its sheer charm and enjoyable gameplay. Even if you’re not completely biased because of childhood nostalgia like me, if you love collecting, raising, and battling with monsters, you’ll be hooked from your very first shrine summon.
Score: 4/5. A review code for Nintendo Switch was provided by the publisher.
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