Monster Rancher Advance
Monster Rancher is a series that has enjoyed a smooth ride with very few major hitches, and it is possibly even more of a smash hit than Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh if you consider that it has met with prosperity despite lacking any hype or a successful cartoon (obviously a very important quality) to back it up. Though there have been so many variations implemented as to make the games more suited to highly eclectic tastes, overall the trilogy and its spinoffs have been well-received by critics and highly ignored by gamers. A move to the Game Boy Advance, then, is sure to mean a return to both the simplicity of the original and a more portable search for secrets that No. 2 made a lasting part of the series. Monster Rancher Advance (Tecmo, 2001) covers both these bases and gives the handheld port some remarkable perks that are specifically suited to its short scope. Grab your pocket dictionary, folks, because Monster Rancher hasn’t used all the tricks up its sleeve yet.
Monster Rancher Advance (MRA from here on out) begins in the usual way, with you as a rookie trainer being assigned an assistant who will teach you the ropes of monster training and league-mandated battles. You are given a guided tour of the town and shown what everything does and how you can make your own monsters in the shrine. Before you head out to your ranch, you have to pick a monster, who hopefully will stay with you long enough to rise up through the league’s ranks (E, D, C, B, A, and S, in that order) to be able to get you more good monsters.
If you’ve played other Monster Rancher games, you know that monsters could be spawned from something as simple as your CD collection, and in MR3, your DVD collection as well. Now how are you going to cram your CDs and DVDs into that little doohickey? Granted, there’s probably some way to squeeze a Gamecube disc in there, but little else will fit within the Game Boy’s semi-rectangular form. But the answer to your question, the salvation of your befuddlement, is:
Instead of reading the data off of discs to give you a creature, MRA allows you to input words in a box, from which the game will then decipher key letter combinations or special words that may yield secret monsters to form a monster with a main type and a sub-type. At the outset you are only allowed four letters per monster. If you want more space for letters, and consequently bigger words, you’ve got to go into battle. In addition to making your monster better, richer, and more respected, each letter ranking that you clear adds one to the amount of letters you can spawn monsters with, finally maxing out at eight letters.
For a portable game harboring some mighty low expectations, this is absolute genius. With all the twenty-six letters in the alphabet listed in both uppercase and lowercase – if you want a secret monster, be warned that the game is case-sensitive – every Arabic numeral from zero on up to nine, and any symbol that’s easily found along the top row of a computer keyboard, there is an ungodly amount of combinations in store for you. Take all those symbols and the permutations possible for arrangements of four, five, six, seven, and eight characters; I dare you to find their exact number. The mere arithmetic of it will shut your brain down temporarily and have you raiding the medicine cabinet scrambling for the highest-strength aspirin you can find. Surely there are more words and arrangements of letters in the English language than there are CDs and DVDs manufactured, and if there aren’t, then the two are running a cutthroat race for supremacy in numbers. MRA sees to it that you won’t be exhausting Webster’s possibilities any time soon, and in the process creates replay value out the ying-yang and shows it has the gusto to stand alongside even the masterful PlayStation releases.
Breeding a fighting money-making machine is easier than ever thanks to an ingenious amalgamation of the systems of MR1 and MR2 with some new elements mixed in. The very basic skeleton of raising a creature is present: feed a monster some kind of comestible item at the beginning of a month, train it up in the statistical areas he needs to focus on, and rest him once he gets tired. When your monster is good enough to meet the standards of his opponents, he can go into battle in the hopes of besting other combatants at the same level. If he takes first place in one of the monster league’s four official tournaments (at the end of each season), he will be promoted to the next rank, which means more fame, more money, and another letter for the shrine. Many of the differences from past releases come in the way a monster is treated – it’s now much more easy to coddle a monster and make it loyal to you – and in the retirement of a monster who has long outlived its usefulness.
Old monsters don’t die; they just become coaches! It’s no longer necessary to endure the death of a monster you’ve grown attached to (believe me, it happens – because of their reactivity to your commands, punishments, and displays of love, you actually feel some kind of deeper feeling for what is seemingly just a jumble of data and pixels). Instead of watching them give up the ghost and decompose under a makeshift memorial forever, you now have the chance to allow a monster with a particularly impressive statistic, such as power or defense, to train up other potential warriors along the path of brawling perfection upon their abandonment of the arena. For such a small game, there are so many things to do that if it were a person, it would be the little shrimpy busybody with disorganized manila folders shoved under its sweaty armpits, constantly pushing its horn-rimmed glasses with thick lenses back up onto the bridge of its nose. And he works so hard that you can’t help but admire his work ethic, right?
The battle system remains essentially untouched. As you learn new techniques through the usual expensive, lengthier training exercises, you’ll be able to use them in battle. Some monsters are best suited to fighting with mental abilities rather than with physical jabs and blows. You’ll learn that the brainpower of a pixie can be just as powerful as a golem’s stony little finger. Striking a perfect balance between all factors is necessary in making it to the top, unless you feel as though one trait will get you there. It all depends on whether you enjoy the riddling thinking game that some creature like a pixie provides, whether you want the brash quickness of an Antlan, or whether the almighty intimidation of the dragon is best suited to your personality. As usual, the move you perform is based on your distance from your foe, and if you feel as though you’re too close for comfort, you can press a button to have the enemy back away from you, a skill that can give you the advantage in battles where time will be on your side if you win. Battles are, however, a bit easier for the Monster Rancher novice to win and require little prior experience, making it easy on those players with a Nintendo preference to get in on the fun that the Sony followers have been having.
There lies a big problem in all of this, however. Perhaps the word games are too addictive, because if you’re a maven with words or like fooling around with the alphabet filling in blanks, chances are you’ll be spending your time at the shrine seeing what words make what monsters, and if you’re like me and immaturity often gets the better of you, you’ll be seeing what fascinating monsters the naughty words will give you, the words that a dictionary cannot possibly do justice to in regard to their connotations. There is almost too much fun to be had at the shrine, which in MRA is quicker and more efficient than the tedium of switching out discs on a PlayStation console. Messing around at the monster birthing temple doesn’t allow you to explore the other fascinating things you could be doing, things I have only touched on with this meager review and will not attempt to spoil for you, the Constant Gamer.
It’s okay to leave the shrine behind for a while, as you can carbon-copy a monster that you’ve already spawned once from your encyclopedia if you find that you’ve taken a liking to one of them. Exploration rewards the patient scribe, however; sooner or later some word that you input is bound to yield a monster with many a secret to reveal, both in sub-type and personality. Though it may be hard to convince many otherwise, there is money to be made and fame to be found past a sacred monster creation site whose main inspiration seems to be a quick game of hangman. All of Monster Rancher Advance is highly addictive, with the noticeable amounts of boredom setting in at the period that is normal for a game like this (a month or two). Still, if being a father or mother of sorts tickles your fancy, MRA is by all means worth grabbing up off a shelf.
I won’t bother you with technical descriptions of this game, because Monster Rancher has surpassed all the first impressions it has generated with every new release and never looked back. This tiny black rectilinear cartridge is no different. The graphics are great, even if they do remind the player of those grainy digitized images from CD-based consoles and fighting games of the mid-nineties. By concocting a reasonable substitute for the inability to form monsters from CDs and DVDs, Tecmo scores points with the portable crowd and gives you a fun fictional pet to nurture on the go. No sounds or songs come to mind immediately, but this is of little consequence when you realize what a fun battle cart and mock game of Scrabble MRA can be. Surely it won’t blow your mind or break much new ground, but you won’t be moved to defenestrate it from the fourth floor of your apartment complex either. Just try and fit that one in the word blank, friends and neighbors!