The Monster Farm franchise (published in the West under the name of Monster Rancher) is the son of probably the most prosperous era in the history of the videogame medium.
The first chapter, conceived and developed by Tecmo, arrives in Japan and North America in 1997, ready to ride the overwhelming wave of the playful phenomenon – and not only – Pokèmon with a more than fair dose of luck.
A monster sim with strong oriental role-playing connotations, certainly not able to reach the ineffable character design of Satoshi Tajiri’s pocket monsters, but not incapable of shaping a steady group of fans.
The series arrives in Italy only with the second chapter (Monster Farm 2, released as the progenitor in Europe with the name of Monster Rancher) in October 2000 on PlayStation, accompanied and embellished also by an absolutely worthy anime transposition.
Today Koei Tecmo decides to revive the brand, also driven by the pleasantly numerous feedback from enthusiasts from all over the world. It does this with Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX, a collection of the first two productions which also marks the absolute debut of the Monster Farm of ’97 in Europe.
We would like to underline this, as well as spend a mention of the cultural preservation merit of similar – and rather rare, indeed – initiatives, especially in an era of digital autarky in which too often the nostalgic appetite of the consumer and the heuristic of the availability of publishers pave the way for easy mainstream re-propositions of alleged “restorations”.
This although we find ourselves in the presence of a package, that of Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX, in many respects certainly controversial, which, apart from what has been said above, also pushes us to question ourselves without a real answer on the reasons and motivations of another nature. operation, starting from the most exquisitely playful aspects.
Yes, because it is important (we emphasize: important) that it is the contextual, historical and collateral analysis, here we are always talking primarily about video games. And Monster Rancher, as well as Monster Rancher 2, is a rather ugly video game to play in 2021, at times even indigestible.
Mainly due to an outdated basic play concept, as well as a progression system based on elements repeated beyond belief, without a real flicker that could lead to spending the noun “variety” in a single circumstance.
The most powerful element of the production is represented, on balance, by the diversification of the numerous creatures (there are over 400 in each chapter, and in Monster Rancher 2, 27 have been added, which include some creatures exclusive to the Japanese and English versions).
A diversification that is good in itself, not sensational and that is not equally evident on an aesthetic level, with visual concepts clearly recycled. A playful diversification built discreetly on the numerous character traits of the beasts, as well as on the attitudes of each one that condition their growth and consequent performance in the arena. A partially thwarted diversification, however, by a game design that confines the entire gaming experience to a decidedly slim binary formula.
We have the breeding, which in fact always offers the same activities without any form of active interaction to improve the skills of one’s creature, and the fighting in the tournaments, whose formula relentlessly lends – and more than any other element of the whole experience – the side of the inclement judgment of time.
The system relies on partial player interaction with the creature, which can also be ignored altogether like in a real simulation. We can control the movement by getting closer to the opponent or moving away from it. The techniques, clearly different for each monster, have a percentage of effectiveness of the blow that is determined by the statistics of our partner, the opponent and the distance between the two challengers, and are activated with a dedicated button.
If all the purely statistical conditions of the case are met, the blow struck by the selected technique hits and the opponent suffers damage.
The challenge is therefore mainly built on the definition of the build rather than on the fleeting and instinctive ability of the player’s moment. A specimen with a high Speed stat, for one thing, will significantly increase its chance of avoiding a hit.
By balancing, the Skill parameter allows you to increase the probability of hitting, and therefore the game turns out to be almost exclusively indirect, investing the player with the absolutely primary task of building a good build also exploiting the peculiar characteristics of each partner, and almost nullifying quite the chances of victory in the case of a much stronger opponent or a build built without criteria.
The temporal progression that definitely limits the investments in the training of our monster, as well as the rather short timer of each match, are in antithesis, in terms of game design, with the parameters largely linked to the hack and to the mere statistical component that some logic of the combat system govern; a conceptual distortion, this one, which after over twenty years of evolution of the medium – and above all of the reference genre – makes itself felt vehemently.
The game manages to do well something far from trivial, paradoxically derived equally from its contradictory flash structure, and that is to create a strong and authentic bond between the player and the creatures, this primarily due to the limited time we can spend with they. We grow fond of each other, and hardly ever remain indifferent to the moment of having to separate from a partner.
These will always be different from game to game, also thanks to the peculiar traits and to a simulation characterization that is undoubtedly the pride of the whole saga. Monster Rancher’s creatures know how to be very personal, also thanks to peripheral gems in the game design that insert credible and peculiar moments into the adventure, such as requests to the trainer or attempts to cheat during breeding. Exciting, for a work of any kind is never trivial, and due merit must also be given to this.
The two titles are faithfully reproduced, integrally and with the clear and desired intention of preservation as mentioned above. That’s why there are no technical reports whatsoever: Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX is a port of the two original productions, which only benefit from an increase in resolution (up to 1600x900p on the PC version).
However Koei Tecmo could not ignore the inevitability of time completely, which is why we find small marginal tricks that smooth out at least some edges related to the use of the products. We have the ability to speed up the experience, which is very useful especially in the passive phases of breeding, as well as the number of creature slots that we can freeze (from 10 to 20).
For the second chapter, then, we find a rearrangement of the entire soundtrack, with softer and cleaner sounds but which almost never distort the tonalities of the original track, ending up becoming almost a simply better mixed version. Without infamy and without praise, in short, a bit like the whole operation of the Yokohama house in brushing up on the franchise, satisfying the requests of nostalgics by carrying out the proverbial homework and mitigating the work.
Ah, no, rest assured: we don’t want to forget the iconic function that made the franchise shine – and originality -, that is, the ability to generate creatures from discs. In the original chapters it worked like this: you took your CD-ROM, inserted it into the PlayStation and an algorithm generated a creature, sometimes unique.
The commercial logic of software distribution today has imposed a non-trivial change to the function, which now replaces the possibility of physically drawing from one’s collection with a digital database of about 600,000 music tracks.
Today you look for your song or author by pressing on a keyboard, you select it and from it a creature will be born that you will certainly feel even more connected to you, although also in this aspect time has left a not too negligible sign, sly and ineluctable.
It is the same sign that declaims the inexorable triumph of the evanescent, the fluid, the pragmatic, the digital, increasingly at the expense of the romantic, slow and now transient bond with a gesture or a fetish.
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