Soapbox: A Monster Hunter Obsession, and Why the Franchise Could Take Off in the West

Tom Whitehead argues the case for the divisive, demanding series

I'll put it out there right from the off — I'm no Monster Hunter veteran. Not by a long way, and in fact my first experience with the series was Monster Hunter Tri on the Wii. I played the campaign to completion and enjoyed it a lot, but it wasn't until Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate that I truly fell in love with the series and realised that I'll likely be an MH aficionado until I stop playing games — which will be the day I die — or Capcom does something very silly like halt the franchise or ruin it beyond recognition.

Neither of those doomsday scenarios is likely in the near future for the simple reason that the series is too important to Capcom, particularly in Japan. The enthusiasm of the fan base also means that the games evolve slowly and retain quirks from one entry to the next, and that right there is the biggest conundrum for the publisher. How can it maintain its loyal following in Japan but convince many millions in the West that these are must-have games?

Sensible evolution can broaden appeal

Before I outline some reasons why I hope Monster Hunter could enjoy a strong 2014 and 2015 in Western territories, I think it's important to acknowledge some clever moves from Capcom with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. While the borderline ludicrous volume of content can keep players coming back for months after an initial playthrough, it made critical improvements over the Wii title in its overall structure and progression. It managed to take the flaws of the Wii release and scale back some of the unnecessary complexity and clunkiness, which is integral for a game that screams of both challenge and depth.

As I said above, Tri was my first MH game, and it undoubtedly captured my attention to the point I battled through the main story. Where it failed, and this is my personal perspective and only partially my 'critic' viewpoint, is that the online setup was flawed. I'm aware that in some features in the past I've said that Tri had one of the very best online experiences on the Wii, which I think is accurate, but it wasn't up against much competition and, ultimately, wasn't particularly friendly for series newcomers.

On a technical level it got a lot right and was a revelation for the system — voice chat was there (though criminally underused because, well, it needed Wii Speak) along with a workable lobby system, reliably lag-free co-op and a variety of challenges to take on. To my eyes, though, it was a messy setup; the hub area alone was more spread out and diverse than in the actual main campaign. The biggest problem for me, however, was the online mission structure; I wanted to play online and tackle enormous monsters with like-minded gamers, but the grinding needed in order to level up was a painful affair. Each quest — depending on objectives achieved — awarded ranking points, and it was a terribly dull experience. The balance was all wrong, as menial tasks such as picking mushrooms were prominent, and even simple monster battles gave relatively few ranking points; it seemed that levelling up simply took too long. It wasn't helped by the fact that hopping between lobbies and actually co-ordinating a hunt could also be tricky, as the overall structure was rather scruffy.

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate on Wii U was more than an expansion that threw in a huge number of extra quests, but it overhauled the online component. Some of the issues with Tri could perhaps be blamed on accommodating humble hardware, but even allowing for the benefits the Wii U gave the developers Ultimate's online setup is far superior, with simpler routes to levelling up and more action right off the bat. Unlike Tri's online grind-a-thon, the more instinctive Port Tanzia setting is the home for both local and online multiplayer, though can also be tackled in single-player; not only do the quests follow the same structure as the main campaign — complete them once, clear a certain number, defeat an unlocked "Urgent Quest" and level up — but progress is synchronised across all three options. So while Port Tanzia is separate from the solo campaign in terms of its mission set and progress, successes in these quests either on your own, in local co-op or online are all synchronised together.

Most importantly, you can progress by completing two-thirds (or just over) of the quests in each level, and even the initial single star quests include hunts of dangerous beasts such as Qurupeco, Barroth, Royal Ludroth and Gobul — veterans can crush those in their sleep, but remember these are all in the first ranking level of Ultimate's online mode. It's possible to skip mushroom gathering, and when reviewing the title I moved up multiple ranking levels in a limited number of hours online, as I was reliant on Capcom-organised sessions and some friends in Germany that were up for online play. Whether these Port Tanzia quests are tackled alongside equivalents from the campaign or by beefed up hunters that have spent many hours progressing in the main game, unlocking new levels can be a rapid business; it never stops, either, as I'm still planning more trips into the G Rank quests.

When you throw in voice chat and instinctive keyboard chat with the GamePad, as well as a more instinctive lobby system and hub that enables games to be organised quicker, you have an online experience that transforms the game. I went from being a fan that wished Monster Hunter's justified in-game grinding wasn't amplified by a poorly designed online component, to an enthusiast that has spent well over a hundred hours and plans to play much more in the coming year. Very little was lost of the standard MH formula in streamlining the online component, but so much was gained.

Frontier G and Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate Have a Major Opportunity

If I say that 2014 and 2015 give Capcom its best chance to date to truly expand the Monster Hunter audience, some may rubbish me and point to the fact that multiple titles were released worldwide on PS2 and PSP before the focus shifted to the Wii, 3DS and Wii U. That's fair enough, but plenty has changed and evolved since that time, with online play being an integral part of that. There is still, over ten months after launch, a loyal group of gamers hitting up the Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate servers for online co-op on a daily basis; the numbers don't blow any socks off, but it's enough to find a game. That's a bit of a revelation on Wii U, in particular, where plenty of third-party games with online play can be so short on players that actually getting into a session can be a troublesome business. That's because while the single player challenge is terrific, and local multiplayer is great fun when 3DS and Wii U players team up in the same room, it's the online component that gives the game such legs. Taking on the ludicrously tough G-Rank quests with an experienced group count as some of the most fun experiences I've had online in any game on any system.

Capcom seems to be exploring the idea of bringing Monster Hunter Frontier G to the West, which is its MMORPG (massively multiplayer online RPG) spin-off in Japan. This began as a PC game, shifted to Xbox 360 and then, last year, arrived on the PS3 and Wii U. In Japan it has a monthly subscription — standard for the genre — and as the name suggests incorporates MH gameplay into the online RPG world, one of the most popular game formats in the world. It's a genre typically thought of as a PC affair, but recent years have seen more games of this type come to consoles. The upcoming Vita version of Frontier G will support cross-platform play with the PS3, but I'd suggest that Capcom pursue the possibility of multi-format cross-platform ahead of potential localisation. MMORPGs live and die by the size and loyalty of their user-bases, and rather than split up adopters of the new sub-series by which console they happen to own, open it up for all to play together. If download developers can do it for titles like Cubemen 2 and Pure Chess, Capcom should consider it.

And then we have Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate coming to the 3DS in early 2015. Unlike the previous entry on the 3DS this will have online play, with the system having the necessary features to mimic the microphone and virtual keyboard that make 3 Ultimate on Wii U all the better. By the time this title arrives it'll have the benefit of a sizeable 3DS userbase (currently a little over 40 million) to target, while eager fans will no doubt be desperate to tackle an all-new entry in the series. It has an advantage over its portable predecessor on Nintendo's system due to that online play, and promoting that ability to take the quests on with others — while promoting in-game and Miiverse communication — can give the title a buzz as a definitive experience on the system.

I also hope, and I doubt this will be a universally accepted viewpoint, that we'll also see Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate on Wii U. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate was an interesting case in that the 3DS port was the original plan in Japan, and then the company rightly realised that as the source was a Wii game, porting up to Wii U was worth the punt. The save transfer feature was nice and was a rare Nintendo example of the kind of handheld / home console synergy currently being pushed by Sony with the PS4 and Vita. Different architecture with the Wii U and 3DS make such constant connectivity options pretty much impossible on Nintendo's hardware, but 3 Ultimate showed that exceptions can be made. Only Capcom knows whether Monster Hunter 4's building blocks follow its predecessors and can therefore be up-scaled similarly for Wii U, or whether the engine is different enough to make the transition more difficult.

If it is possible, then there are key differences that could make a dual release of Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate beneficial to both systems. First of all, both would have online play, so wherever a player is they can, in theory, continue their save online. Most importantly, I'd personally welcome a genuine cross-buy initiative — I don't mean buy one and get the other at a discount, I mean buy one and get the other free. I suspect this would involve a great deal of confidence from Capcom and, should Nintendo be involved in promotion as it was with 3 Ultimate, perhaps guarantees and money offered to cover shortfalls. As a campaign to spread awareness and to also promote hardware, it could undoubtedly be of benefit, though it's an aspirational idea, admittedly — costs of the porting and promotion will always be a big consideration.

Monster Hunter as Part of a Small Group of Genuinely Challenging Games

So why now for Monster Hunter? Why could it potentially push for greater recognition in the West now when it's remained as a modest performer in the past? For one thing, Monster Hunter hasn't flopped badly in the West, as if it had Capcom wouldn't be bothering with one and potential two new Western releases. It's merely not become a cultural hit on the scale that it has in Japan, and maybe it never will. But Capcom has arguably never had a better chance to push the sales numbers in the West and take a relatively small group of loyal fans and expand its numbers — sales of 3 Ultimate may have been limited to some degree by a small early Wii U audience and the absence of online play on 3DS.

I feel that to do that, in many respects, the series should stick to its principles. The transition from Tri to 3 Ultimate shows that it's possible to streamline and help gamers reach the most fun battles quicker, while still demanding many hours and a committed effort; it's still impossible to race ahead in the Wii U and 3DS entries. Yet so few franchises satisfy that craving for complexity, challenge and a willingness to ignore 'go easy' conventions. We're in an era when games are so much easier than before, and while I'm actually a supporter of Super Guides, unlimited lives and regular checkpoints to enable all gamers to enjoy the games they buy, it is nice to be pushed and challenged on occasion.

Such challenge is out there, and for example over two million copies of Dark Souls have been sold, while there are games on various platforms that are shooting for similar complexity. What Monster Hunter has is some loyal fans from its ten years on the market, and games that are becoming increasingly stronger in their core structure and setup. Vitally, it's a franchise in which gamers can immerse themselves, a far cry from the increasingly accessible and generous attitudes of many retail games — the download-only scene can be more brutal, in a good way.

Common complaints about the game can also revolve around elements of the controls, right down to some of the animations — such as the obligatory pose after every healing or buff item. These probably remain for the reason mentioned at the top of this article — Capcom isn't keen to alienate or throwaway its substantial and passionate support base in Japan. Yet still, by sticking to its guns in most cases (I would prefer the character drinks or eats their item and then gets on with it, minus the pose) Capcom can differentiate itself and remind gamers that, even in a land of pure fantasy, some degree of reason and logic should exist. If you're running around wearing heavy armour and swinging a sword that's ridiculously big then, yes, movement will be limited.

While the camera could be a little slicker and improvements are always possible, the current style of the series suits its goals. When tackling an enormous, powerful creature with a relatively vulnerable hunter, there's serious tension and focus is required. If my character was some kind of superhero that could swing an over-sized sword around like a bread-stick while executing Bayonetta-style backflips and moves, I wouldn't have played it for over 150 hours. What truly captures me as a slightly obsessive, stubborn gamer, is a desire to defy the odds against these enormous monsters. They may be 20-30 times bigger than me, but I have armour suited to minimise their damage type, I've topped up on a strengthening meal, I've an inventory loaded with items and I've mastered the move-set of my trusty long sword. I've learnt how to do that from steady progress, tackling smaller creatures, failing plenty of times, and learning from mistakes. I've hunted alone, with friends and with strangers online, and I've accumulated skills and knowledge.

When you combine all of that against a tough adversary and win, defying the restricted movement of your armoured hunter, it's a thrill. Battles that go right to the edge, with time running out and restorative buff items gone before a late winning blow, are among my favourite gaming memories of recent years. I've enjoyed being an experienced campaigner helping lower-ranked players, and equally watching gobsmacked as three outrageously good players take down the most dangerous monsters with tactics and strategies I hadn't even imagined.

That's Monster Hunter, and it rewards effort and commitment. I'm not typically someone who surpasses 100 hours in any game, but this series is an exception. If Capcom and existing fans can convince others of the thrill of the hunt, and the community continues to grow outside of Japan, then the franchise can go from strength to strength.

Now, back to the hunt.

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