‘Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX’ review: nostalgia can be poison

"DX" is doing a lot of heavy lifting here

Pokémon? Pfft, too mainstream. Digimon? Poser, you only like that because everyone else likes Pokémon. Back in the early ’00s, when it came to tapping the monster-catching Japanese pop culture zeitgeist, the really cool kids were hooked on Monster Rancher.

Of course, most would have been hooked on the Monster Rancher anime series, a surprisingly well-done media crossover that saw a young boy named Genki thrown into a fantasy realm where he partnered with assorted monsters to save that world and our own. Unfortunately, the original Tecmo video games that the anime was very loosely based on weren’t released outside of Japan and North America.

That meant that unless you were canny enough to import the game, or knew which dodgy market stall to ask at for “special” releases, the core appeal of the Monster Rancher titles – being able to briefly swap the game disc out of the PlayStation for actual music CDs, which would randomly generate monsters to train and battle – was a mystery to a generation of players. Fast forward nearly a quarter-century, and with this collection of the first two Monster Rancher titles, the mystery is about to be solved.

Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX
Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX. Credit: KOEI TECMO GAMES CO., LTD.

Except… it’s not. While Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX does ostensibly contain the original PlayStation games – 1997’s Monster Rancher and 1999’s Monster Rancher 2 – their appearance here is based on the mobile ports released in Japan for Android and iOS in 2019. Worse, these are not good mobile ports – Koei Tecmo hasn’t taken the 2019 code and tailored it for play on PC (version tested) or Nintendo Switch, it’s just dumped the mobile versions onto those platforms, seemingly unaltered.

That means chunky icons on the pillar boxes either side of the 4:3 screen – keeping the original aspect ratio of the games is one of the few good things about this collection – that are designed for players to tap with their thumbs on a phone screen. It means in-game instructional dialogue that had been slightly modified for the mobile releases, telling players to “tap” on options, remains in place on the PC. It means menu selections that react with a flash when selected, a holdover from a touch-based UI on smartphones.

It means a control scheme for battles that is tailored for having thumbs either side of the screen, tapping to control your monster’s distance from opponents and when to attack, dispel, or forfeit. In place of thumbs, a mouse cursor can be used to click the various control icons but it’s an awful, awful alternative, leaving you wildly throwing the cursor across the screen.

Although controls are also mapped to a controller, there’s no indication as to which button does what, leaving players to figure it out on their own. It’s worth noting that the default button layout remains Japanese style, so on an Xbox controller the B button is confirm, rather than A, although this can be changed in the controller settings of the package’s launcher.

Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX
Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX. Credit: KOEI TECMO GAMES CO., LTD.

This stilted mix of never-right controls really undermines Monster Rancher’s battles, which were arguably the strongest of all 1990s-2000s monster-catching games. Rather than turn-based combat, Monster Rancher throws your pet creature into a series of arena bouts where space, distance, and timing are all key to victory. They’re closer to a 2D beat-’em-up than anything you’d find in Pokémon, and gauging when to advance or retreat, when to dodge or to go in for an attack, made for thrilling encounters. Here, they’re a fiddly mess, even if you do figure out the controller scheme.

Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX being little more than cheap and nasty mobile ports also means that the central mechanic of scanning in CDs is gone. Yes, OK, the argument that “it’s 24 years on from the originals and who even has CDs anymore?” is a fair one – especially for the Switch release, famously lacking a disc drive as it does – but it’s disappointing that the PC version doesn’t even have the option for those who still have a DVD or Blu-ray drive on their machines.

Instead, across all formats, the CD scan function has been replaced with a searchable archive. Players type in a song or album name and the corresponding artist, and a monster is generated. It would be a fine replacement—if it worked. What’s more likely to happen is that you type in each album in your entire CD collection – or, more likely, your saved albums on Spotify or similar – and are met with no results. This isn’t a case of certain artists being too niche, either – the likes of Madonna or Snoop Dogg bring up nothing.

As a result, you’ll more often be left to the random selection feature, which mostly seems to be a mix of classical music or performers so unknown that even your hipster mate who claims to know every artist before they were popular won’t have heard of them (although one random search did ping up Japanese rockers The Gazette, so that’s something). Even this feature falls apart though, as the first several random tracks tried in Monster Rancher 2 would have yielded a “rare” monster that could “be generated only by an authorised IMa trainer” – a rank you only acquire later in the game.

Monster Rancher
Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX. Credit: KOEI TECMO GAMES CO., LTD.

Failing all that, there’s a market where players can choose from pre-generated monsters, which entirely drains the appeal from the game. Given the problems with creating your own monsters though, it may be the best option.

The actual training parts of both games remain cute monster-raising sections, at least. The first Monster Rancher seems to take more of a cue from Tamagotchis, with jobs or training assigned to monsters carried out in a smaller, pixelated window, with various stats increasing based on success or failure, while the sequel offers more engaging 3D sections here. Between training, you’ll be able to feed, praise, or scold your monster, or engage in casual battles between the major tournaments that serve as the main progression gates.

Monster Rancher 2 was clearly designed more in keeping with the anime, which premiered the same year in Japan. It boasts a slightly more anime-accurate style, plus more detailed backgrounds for locations, plus a generally nippier pace, but both games remain very much of their time in turns of pacing.

Both are also unique for not pushing the “gotta catch ’em all” focus of certain other monster titles though. In both Monster Rancher games, you’ll initially only have one creature to train, and while the ranch where you train them grows over time to accommodate more, you’re never raising hundreds at once. It’s a nice reminder of how diverse the genre could be when various players in the games industry were all trying to put a distinctive stamp on it.

The dated nature of the games ultimately drives home how un-deluxe this “DX” collection is, though. Aside from the changes made for the 2019 mobile releases, the games are essentially unchanged in and of themselves from the late ’90s. Koei Tecmo has added a few tweaks to the package as a whole, most notably a high-speed mode that accelerates the sedate pace to something a bit more in keeping with modern play styles, plus a random battle mode, training memos, more save slots, and even extra monsters in Monster Rancher 2. However, none of this is enough to salvage a fundamentally broken re-release.

While Monster Rancher was never a breakthrough franchise – meaning there aren’t enough of those really cool kids who watched the anime to monetise the nostalgia of, to justify a full-blown remaster – the games still deserve better than a quick smartphone port dropped onto PC and Switch as seemingly an afterthought. A total mess.

We reviewed Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX on PC. It’s also playable on Nintendo Switch. Available from December 9.

The Verdict

The best that can be said about Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX is that it’s an interesting time capsule, a snapshot of how different monster-catching games could get at the turn of the millennium. Unfortunately, stripped of its most interesting mechanic and lazily dropped onto PC as an almost entirely unaltered mobile game, a snapshot of the past is all most players will want from this. There’s only so far that nostalgia can drive players, and this is more likely to poison memories than spark fond remembrances.

Pros

  • High-speed mode makes the ’90s pace more tolerable
  • New monsters in Monster Rancher 2

Cons

  • Lazy, sloppy mobile port
  • Awful controls
  • Almost useless music database that fail to replicate CD scans
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