The popularity of the Monster Hunter series has been spearheaded globally this year by the incredible success of Monster Hunter: World and the release of Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate on Nintendo Switch. Even with competition from other franchises like Pokémon, Dragon Quest and Capcom's own Biohazard (Resident Evil) or Rockman (Mega Man), Monster Hunter has carved out a huge fan base of its own in its native Japan since its comparatively recent 2004 debut, with a notable highpoint being its migration to the 3DS, starting with Monster Hunter 3G in 2011.
Every Monster Hunter title launch in Japan is an event, and interest has never been higher with the success of World, but what makes the series so popular - and what is on offer for fans besides the games - are two questions we wanted to answer for ourselves. So, with a sense of adventure and an empty stomach, we ventured out into Tokyo's bustling streets to see just how prevalent the series is in its homeland.
Our quest for Monster Hunter goodness actually started outside of Tokyo, in neighbouring Saitama prefecture, as we visited the flagship Capcom store nestled in a typically huge shopping mall.
Despite the comparatively remote location, there was a good range of merch to buy, from stickers and key rings to lunch boxes and plushies. There were even more luxurious items on offer, like eau de toilette and a leather golf club bag. Yes, 'MonHun' merch covers everything.
Inside the store was a small cafe, and naturally Monster Hunter-themed dishes were on the menu. We couldn't come all this way and not try something, so in we went. We chose the Hunters Meal - spicy chicken kebab sticks, fried rice and soup. We also got a small memento with our drink of choice.
Ueno toy store Yamoshiroya was next on the list, which was stocked with even more knick-knacks, like stickers and pens, along with more collectable figurines.
Finally, we made our way to the main event. In downtown Shinjuku, what used to be a cafe for all things Capcom has now been completely taken over by Monster Hunter, and friendly feline buddy Palico greeted us at the door.
The interior had impressive life-sized replicas of weapons and flags, and epic orchestrated music from the series was blasting through the speakers.
There were also portable and home consoles on display to play on while we waited for our meal.
The food was suitably themed too, so among the snacks and veggies, we tried the 'Chicken Stamina Set' and a frozen yoghurt-like dessert. Yum.
There was also some exclusive merch to buy on our way out, and even a concert of music from the series at the weekend - but unfortunately, it was sold out.
However, on our travels, we were lucky enough to catch up with the expert of all things Monster Hunter in Japan and have a chat about the attraction of the series.
Nintendo Life: Please introduce yourself.
Adam: My name is Adam and I have a YouTube channel called Gaijinhunter, focused primarily on Monster Hunter and specifically game tutorials and news. The name of the channel comes from the fact that I am a foreigner in Japan who is a Monster Hunter fanatic.
How long have you been in Japan?
I have been in Japan for 16 years! I am from Lakewood, Ohio originally.
When did your relationship with Monster Hunter start?
It started with Monster Hunter 3G. I never really tried Monster Hunter before that, despite knowing it was a big thing here. The hype was really big, I was playing 3DS all the time, so I made the decision to give the franchise an honest show when 3G launched in Japan. Originally after my first eight hours or so I hated the game and was about to sell it, but then a co-worker at the time coached me over lunch and explained the game loop better, and after a few more hours, I was hooked in. I've never looked back since!
How important was it for the series to move to Nintendo consoles?
It’s hard to say. The Vita ended up doing okay in Japan but it wasn’t the successful machine PSP was, but that is likely because Monster Hunter wasn’t on it. Personally, I think the move was great. The dual screens offered new opportunities to try new things and the team has been great at having one or more new defining features in each game. I think the team would do great no matter what system they were on, but sales and reception in Japan show they made the right move going to 3DS.
Was there a point where the popularity of the series jumped since the first game?
As far as I am aware, it was once it went portable that Monster Hunter blew up in Japan. That was on the PSP. Local multiplayer is very much a thing here in Japan and that is what the series needed, I think. For the west, there was a sizable cult following that got much bigger when the Monter Hunter Freedom Unite came out, which was also monumentally huge in Japan. After that, the next big jump was probably Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. The series had a more fleshed-out world and story, and the game started picking up more action game elements like elevation and jumping attacks, which I think helped it become more appealing to players in the west.
What contributes to the popularity of Monter Hunter in Japan and in the West?
I think it’s a lot of things. First off as a game, it’s simply really well done and fun. There is something incredibly satisfying about a game that gives you all the tools to do good at the start and it’s you as a player that levels ups and gets better. Then to craft new armour and weapons out of the monsters you take down, you get a real sense of pride and accomplishment as you are wearing your trophies; a visual reminder of how far you’ve come. Then the fact that it’s co-op multiplayer makes for a really fun and positive environment that players all around the world can appreciate. Then finally I think it’s that the game doesn’t take itself too seriously; there is a cuteness factor with the felynes and stuff like that which make it light-hearted, despite how serious it might appear.
Why has Monster Hunter found it difficult to ‘crack’ the west in the past?
The game has always been rather hard to approach for new players, which is part of why it had a cult following. Also, I think handheld was not the right platform for the west, the culture of playing games on handheld is not like it is here in Japan. Also remember that it wasn’t until Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate on 3DS (which sold over a million in the west, I think) that we finally had wi-fi for multiplayer; before that it was only local multiplayer, which is a huge hurdle for the west as well.
Is it fair to say that Monster Hunter is a daunting series for western audiences?
For Monster Hunter: World it isn’t, which is why I think it did so well. But in general, it is because the games have traditionally had a lot of legacy conventions and mechanics the are never really explained. I think it’s just daunting for anyone to start, not just western players. But World has changed that, which is amazing.
How important is the release of Munter Hunter Generations Ultimate on Switch in the west?
I think it’s important in that it shows commitment to Monster Hunter both to the west but on multiple platforms. However, I don’t see this being a huge launch or anything; even in Japan, the Switch version was only expected to sell around 300,000 units. I think this is more important from a business perspective, showing they haven’t abandoned Nintendo and also giving hardcore fans the game they wanted.
Lots of fans have been asking for World on Switch. With that in mind, was Generations Ultimate the right game to bring to the console?
It really is the only game. They have hinted heavily that they are making a new Monster Hunter game on the Switch but as far as we know that could take years to develop. With a commitment to a new CG animation, a movie, multi-platform for World, as well as events such as a collaboration with Universal Studios Japan in the past, I think it’s great that they are casting their net so wide and are bringing Generations Ultimate to the west on Switch. And with the sales for non-Nintendo games on 3DS not doing so well, it’s the right platform as well. With World, I consider it a “new-style” of Monster Hunter, and Generations Ultimate and previous games as “classic style”. You might like both, you may not. That doesn’t make you any less of a diehard fan. I think some - but not all players - who got into the series with World will enjoy Generations Ultimate, but the DNA that makes the series great is strong in both. With this much choice, it’s never been a better time to be a Monster Hunter.
So, Generations could be seen as a celebration of the series?
Yes, and this is what makes it a bit hard to get into if you are new to Monster Hunter. It was meant as an anniversary title so it assumes at the start that you are a fan since it’s pure fan service. There is very little in the way of tutorials or getting you immediately into the action, which again is great if you know Monster Hunter but maybe not so much if you are new. It brings together a loyal fan base. A group of core, old school gamers happy to see franchises, because it shows commitment and the audience is just happy to get it. It's a really fun title; since Capcom considers it a 'special' title and not a 'numbered' one, they did a lot of experimental things that we can see clearly influenced Monster Hunter: World. Stuff like Hunter Arts and styles we can see in some of the new stuff hunters can do in World, and a lot of the 'quality of life' changes in Prowler mode we see were implemented, as well. They did a great job of bringing back the villages, NPCs, monsters, and maps of the old games and wrapping it together with this amazing concept of Hunter styles, allowing everyone to play each weapon differently.
Capcom initially had no plans to localise it or release it in the west - what do you think changed?
The team was working on Monster Hunter: World and by the time they would have made the decision to localize it, the release would have been right on top of the announcement of World in the west. As I mentioned, the game is pure fan service for existing fans and is not the right title to reveal to the west when you are making a huge gamble to reboot the franchise with World. Looking at the success of World, that seems it was the right choice. People hear Monster Hunter and will look at it and judge it by first impression; they were correct in making sure players were looking at World to make the call if they are interested or not. Now that World is out and doing great, they can release Generations Ultimate with little risk of damaging the perceived image of the franchise. Everyone knows this is an older title and not a huge new release. Releases coming out every year has impacted sales and a bit of franchise fatigue may have set in, but they always have something going on and their eyes are now on the Switch, so the future is bright.
It could be argued that the game found its popularity on a handheld, but World was incredibly popular - what do you think about the balance between pushing the technical fidelity on ‘next gen’ and maintaining portability?
Portability was never a massive need for the western market when looking at the mass market. For gamers like me, it means a lot though. It’s to be expected that you can’t do the same things you want to do if your goal is “let’s take the best tech available to us and execute on our concept” which was the dev concept behind World and then expect a device that can fit in your pocket to handle that tech. The DNA of what makes Monster Hunter is absolutely there in World. It's a new direction for the franchise and the best selling Capcom title ever. It’s fundamentally different, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think we’ll see two lines of Monster Hunter in the future - or at least I hope we do - given how important portability is for the Japanese market.
Can the Switch cater for both audiences after the popularity of World?
Only to an extent. World is popular for a reason and just franchise visibility will not sell players on Generations Ultimate alone. I think it can certainly carve out its own audience and there will be the group that enjoys both. As for a Monster Hunter game built for the Switch, I think the possibility is there, but if talking about Generations Ultimate only, I think it’s limited in potential for the fact that this is still a 3DS game that has been ported to Switch, and it faces the same hurdles that held the franchise back from huge sales in the past.
Is the ability to transfer data between consoles important?
For Generations Ultimate it is, since Generations / Cross was a really large game and the 'Ultimate' is basically the second half of the game. Forcing players to throw away upwards of a thousand hours of gameplay would be a deterrent for many players.
What can the hybrid nature of the Switch bring to the series going forward?
It allows for local multiplayer, which is the bedrock of the franchise here in Japan. While I think it’s a great feature for the west, it’s a killer feature for Japan. If they ever release a more portable-focused light version of Switch that is easier to lug around, Monster Hunter would be the killer title for that, for sure. I don’t think the portability affects the gameplay though, it never really has. The game was never designed for bite-sized sessions like mobile games, it was a full console-like game simply released on a handheld because people want to play it all the time, and with friends.
We won’t get World on Switch, but is this a litmus test for both western audiences and Japanese audiences for a future Monster Hunter game catered to the Switch?
I think it is a fun test of sorts. It helps Nintendo to have a title with killer online right as they are about to launch their online service, I think it’ll be a good indicator to Capcom how many core fans will still buy post-World, and at the least it does show commitment from Capcom to the west on providing Monster Hunter to players on multiple platforms, which is good. I think if the title exceeds expectations, maybe when the day comes that a Monster Hunter is built for Switch they might debate a same day global release.
How do you think Monster Hunter fits in with audiences alongside the other very popular IP in Japan?
Monster Hunter is one of the biggest gaming IPs in Japan. I don’t necessarily see an overlap with it and other IP, like Pokémon. Fans are not any more likely to enjoy MonHun than any other gamer or anything like that. Maybe that is why Monster Hunter is so big, because it doesn’t really have any big competition in the co-op hunting genre space; it has been around long enough to be a cultural phenomenon and one that will last.
Do you have any advice for people who are starting with Generations Ultimate?
Be patient with it. The game wasn’t made to teach you much about it, but if you stick with it I think you might really enjoy it once it all comes together and clicks. I hope resources like my channel can help you to understand and get into the game.
We would like to thank Adam for his time. Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate launches today in the west - don't forget to check out our review!