Monster Rancher 3
When your parents stuff you and your siblings into your clown car of a family sedan and drive you hundreds, thousands of miles even, to a colony where Amish people still churn butter, take the reins of horse-drawn buggies and have barn raisings on at least a weekly basis, they’re trying to prove something to you. And that something is that life wasn’t always so easy. The Internet hasn’t been around forever, cell phones weren’t so prevalent even a decade ago, and you had to put your waffles in the waffle iron one at a time, because that was all they made, was single-waffle-capacity waffle irons. And we wonder how we ever survived such deprived childhoods.
So then, it seems fitting that with the many advanced technologies that the first two Monster Ranchers gave us, we should take a step back in time and see what they had before the miracles of subzero monster preservation and monster combining, two features now stricken from the Monster Rancher record. The third installment in the series harkens back to a time when the neighbors came knockin’ and didn’t just want to borrow no cup of sugar. When they stopped for a visit, they were looking to kick butt and make a name for themselves while doing it. Gone are the leagues everybody competed in and the security blanket of a pre-raised barn to keep your monster in. Instead, you and your lovely teal-haired assistant Fleria will raise a monster of your making in the style of the series’ previous iterations, feeding it once monthly and training it with specialized exercises to help it grow and rise through the ranks and become the best of the best – all in the boundless excitement of the great outdoors. Smell that fresh air – isn’t it a great time to be alive?
With games like Monster Rancher 3 (Tecmo, 2001) coming stateside, I couldn’t agree more. By taking out some of the things that made Monster Rancher 2 more of an esoteric secret-monster hunt than a game everyone could enjoy and adding a couple of new simple yet innovative twists on the weathered growth sim formula, Monster Rancher 3 normally would stand out as a breakaway hit that all people everywhere should play. Since nobody will play it because of its cutesy appearance and decidedly childish themes, however, it must settle for festering like an unsightly boil in the fat catalogue of sleeper hits. That’s a shame, because with its sly combination of the enormous accessibility of MR1 and the intricate specifics of MR2’s monster breeding, Tecmo has in its repertoire a game that can appeal to practically all ages.
The basis of all monster creation – using your CDs and now your DVDs as well to unlock monsters of all shape, size, and strength – remains the same here, with Fleria’s muscular grandfather Bragma in charge of just about everything you do with your monsters, from making monsters to allowing them to hibernate to telling them to hit the road. When you have a monster that you’ve decided you like, you can take him to Morx, the first of several areas that you’ll be able to train in once you become a famous fighter. Training in different areas will allow you to learn different skills during season changes, which are the game’s new and improved errantry in which you walk around with the aid of items called Ran Rans that an itinerant salesman peddles to you. Though you can only learn four skills at a time now á la Pokémon, they can be leveled up and made stronger so they’ll be more effective and accurate in the thick of battle. This eliminates the expensive and chancy errantries of the past and makes it easier to weed out crappy moves you’ll never use anyway, setting a real feel of efficiency all around. If you’re diving into Monster Rancher for the first time, you’ll probably fare better playing this release than MR2.
The game has smooth control and is easy to use. All the menus are easily navigable and it’s simple enough to move your monster around during the seasonal change training with only some friction (moving diagonally is somewhat difficult). The real new innovations come during battle. Done away with are the confusing and wonky methods of movement with the L2 and R2 buttons and the switching of attacks. With only four attacks to choose between (which, surprisingly, is enough) and the transition of movement in battle to Left and Right on the D-pad, fights become so much easier to carry out. Using the shape buttons to execute your attacks is simple in correlation with the diagram at the bottom of your screen that tells you what range each move can be used at. Confusion is far less prevalent and is now better to take advantage of when an opponent piddles around with no idea of what comes next. With this simplified scheme comes more KO’s for you and more ch-ching, if you know what I’m talking about. See what I mean when I say ”a simpler time?” It makes you wonder why MR2 was ever released in the first place. You have all the complex nurturing statistics of that game with the ease of use of MR1 here. And in this environment with the freedom and the ability to move around as you please, it doesn’t hardly get much better.
Visually, MR3 benefits from the cel-shaded look that a lot of us were still getting used to in 2001. The outlines, where they factor in, are pretty sketchy, but the pastel shadowing on the monsters is done with great skill. Unfortunately, the cel shading lends itself to that babyish appearance that will turn most gamers of similar attitudes off to the depth of what’s inside the package. All the colors are bright and warm, and even your most hardcore rivals have a slight bounce to them. Many of the monsters are very stunning to behold, and in the case of powerhouses like the Durahan and Beaclon, can be quite imposing – a feat difficult to accomplish with watercolors and relatively bright lighting, it seems. Thankfully, it runs more smoothly than both its predecessors, who appeared to have problems with framerate in fully 3D surroundings. As in MR2, your light training exercises are rendered in full three-dimensionality, but can be skimmed over to see the final result once they become repetitive to watch. The many locales you can train in are a feast for the eyes. Morx, the one you start your first monster’s life in, is characterized by sparkling luminescent flora and an enormous tree rivaling that of even the tallest sequoias of our West Coast that holds the key to quick transit around your little part of the forest. Your friendly (or fierce) opponents and their monsters are definitely something to lay eyes upon, such as Gadamon’s Gareat, a tiger-striped dog-like creature in a funky hat. The rapid switch to widescreen for your attacks against each other adds a melodramacomedic (yeah, I just coined that word, what’re you gonna do?) element to the diverting rival fights and the tournaments that you fight in while shooting up through the ranks to widespread popularity. The game is fantastically laid out, but you won’t know that if you keep your options narrow and decide that this game is a little out of your maturity range. If you think that, then you’re probably out of its maturity range. The looks can’t allow you to be distracted into thinking that it’s an awful game.
The sound won’t give you much chance to form any such opinions of the game, as the music is mostly restricted to docile beats like those that you hear when clumsy cartoon characters are fiddling with delicate objects. The tension heats up with faster, more intense songs in the heat of battle, but still it remains in the background playing second banana to the WHAMs and KAPOWs that ring in your ear long after they are heard. Very few, if any, of the tunes will capture your attention. The trips into town are not as lively and jaunty as they used to be (I recall that my grandpa referred to the town theme in MR1 as ”circus music”). This game seems to be more about the nitty-gritty business of monster raising than the antics held therein. Since there are no leagues to speak of, all the rivalry comes through people knocking on your door and asking if you want to have a battle right here, right now. As you proceed through the game, you’ll see and hear the same WHAMs, KAPOWs, and BOOMs over and over until they just leave your subconscious altogether. At one point in this game I forgot that there was music at all, just to give you an idea of the relative unimportance of it. It factors in very little at all, and is nothing to remember, but thank God it’s not just flat out bad.
Fortunately, the game succeeds on the deeper, less superficial levels that it needs to in order to succeed as a game. You feel a sense of satisfaction in winning battles so quickly and thoroughly – even more so when a KO for you is the final result. The attachment to the creature you raise up from a CD or a DVD is more present here than in MR2 where your attempts to not mollycoddle a monster or be a cruel dictator toward it often ended in futility. Your monster now seems more responsive to your punishments and praises than ever, and the attitudes you exhibit toward it will translate to the effort it puts into more important things like its light training and its performance in battle. When I play this game, I feel an empathic bond with and a liking for my Suzurin (named Samba) that I don’t even have with many people at school. Surely you can’t depend on these things for social interaction or even hook them on a keychain to your belt loop, but you feel more than in the other games in the series that the time investment you put into raising one of these monsters is not carried out in vain.
Add the fun of bringing your own monster up from the first stages of infancy and adorning it with a number of entertaining accessories gathered from searching your training area and winning round-robin and elimination tournaments, and you have a recipe for success right in the palm of your hand. However, it’s ultimately more comparable to the analogy of accidentally adding too much to the cake mix before you’ve got it all made and ready to go in the oven. Somewhere along the line, something happens and a bunch of people end up not liking the final product, be it the cake or MR3. So you have to gussy up the final product with empty words that only serve as a thin, threadbare cover for what you thought was greatness.
In the world of video games, we call that a sleeper hit. Or a cult classic, if the game is trippy enough.
Monster Rancher 3 is right for all types of people, but many are too stubborn to take a look at the inside, so it becomes in the end right for only that certain special type of person: the kind who’s not so predisposed towards kiddy appearances that he or she isn’t willing to check it out on its graphical merits alone. This game is by no means an indicator of any current or future parenting status that you might attain in the real world. It is highly accessible and lies in wait for those willing to ponder its specifics. With the right DVD or CD collection, your possibilities for greatness are virtually unlimited – even more so when you combine it with the intriguing secrets of the game that have made Monster Rancher such a great game of hide-and-seek for its loyal fan base. It’s got everything it needs to secure itself a place on your game shelf. The people and places within beckon to you, and it seems that they will never shut up. Why should they? For in the end, how can a game go too far wrong when it feels so right?