Monster Hunter is Capcom’s second-best-selling video game franchise. It’s bigger than Street Fighter, it’s bigger than Devil May Cry, and it’s bigger than Mega Man. However, Monster Hunter has had a rocky road leading up to the monumental success of Monster Hunter: World earlier this year, and most recently, the release of Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate.
So, how did the series manage to reach the heights that it enjoys now? It all begins with the advent of online console gaming. When Sony released the PlayStation 2 Network adapter in 2004, Capcom set out to develop online games to support this brand-new infrastructure; one of the fruits borne out of this initial effort was Monster Hunter, a third-person action game where you can team up with your friends to take down gigantic monsters. Inspired by games like Phantasy Star Online, Monster Hunter established its trademark gameplay loop early. Gather, Craft, Hunt, Repeat.
However, upon its release, Monster Hunter released to lukewarm reviews, with Gamespot calling it “a living fossil”. Suffice to say, it wasn’t exactly a runaway hit. Nevertheless, Capcom went ahead to develop Monster Hunter G, adding in new subspecies of Monster, leading to more armour sets and most notably, more weapons. Monster Hunter G never got a Western Release, but its expansion, Monster Hunter Freedom for the PSP, did.
Monster Hunter found a dedicated audience on the PSP in the East, with its co-op collaborative play becoming incredibly popular. It was here that Capcom started work on the Second Generation of Monster Hunter. Monster Hunter 2 debuted in 2006 on the PlayStation 2 as a Japan-Only release, adding key features such as upgradeable armour, 'Gem Skills' and the addition of now-iconic weapons like the Long Sword, Gunlance, Horn and Bow.
With Monster Hunter hitting fever pitch in Japan, another PSP expansion was ordered, and Monster Hunter Freedom 2 was released worldwide in 2007. This game kickstarted the cult status of Monster Hunter in the West, with many having their first experiences with Monster Hunter Freedom 2, such as prolific Monster Hunter YouTuber and Nintendo Life friend Arekkz, who cited his first interaction with the series as Freedom 2. A year later, we saw the release of Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, which added an endgame G-Rank for experienced players, along with a host of new monsters - and, for the first time, downloadable quests. Monster Hunter Freedom Unite went on to sell 3.8 Million copies worldwide.
With the next generation of home consoles in full-swing Capcom's beast-busting franchise found itself in a strange spot; poor sales of Monster Hunter Frontier combined with the issue of Japanese developers struggling to wrestle with the PlayStation 3’s confusing hardware architecture, which meant that the next generation of Monster Hunter was set to release on red-hot Nintendo Wii; not the most technically-advanced system on the market, but certainly the best-selling. This time, both Capcom and Nintendo were eager to push this as a 'hardcore' Nintendo Wii release, which meant a rather curious marketing campaign over here in the West.
With a bundle that came along with a Wii Classic Controller and Wii Speak, 2010's Monster Hunter Tri wanted to make a splash with brand-new underwater hunts, some new weapons, and a new variety of areas to explore. Curiously, while online play was free in Europe and America, the Japanese release of Monster Hunter Tri required a monthly fee to hunt online. While Tri managed to find a smaller, niche audience in the West, it still lingered in obscurity, as its expansion, Monster Hunter Portable 3rd, was Japan-only just a year later.
The series continued to have widespread success, and Monster Hunter 3G was released for 3DS in 2011, with a fully-online Wii U and 3DS release coming two years later in early 2013. This time, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate had a host of tricks up its sleeve to smooth out some of the edges that gamers were getting stuck on. With the introduction of the Target Camera, gamers were no longer having to 'claw' their way around the maps on the portable versions of the game, and the 3DS and Wii U had a save-transfer service where you could pick up your character from each version and take it with you on the go. New monsters and areas were added, in addition to weapons that were not featured in the original release of Tri.
Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate started to generate some genuine hunger for Monster Hunter in the West; the Wii U’s online services and built-in mic made for online play extremely smooth, and didn’t require gamers to rely on local-play to team up with their friends, unlike its portable brethren. With more quests, subspecies and added depth through modification of armour via the use of gems, the customisation aspect of Monster Hunter grew even deeper, iterating and evolving with every release.
With the successes of Monster Hunter on Wii, 3DS and Wii U, Nintendo was eager to grab a bigger slice of the portable pie to boost its 3DS software lineup. It was around this time that rumours swirled that the next mainline Monster Hunter game would not be coming to Sony’s PlayStation Vita, with Capcom signing an exclusivity deal with Nintendo that would last for three years. While never officially confirmed, this rumour would now appear to hold weight - between 2013 and 2017, Monster Hunter was entirely absent from Sony systems.
Monster Hunter 4 Released in late 2013 as a Japanese exclusive for the 3DS, boasting more verticality in its environments and gameplay, alongside a bigger focus on story content for the single-player campaign and full online functionality. An expansion would arrive in late 2014 in Japan and early 2015 in Europe; Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate released alongside the 'New' Nintendo 3DS, with full support for the console's second analog 'nub'. It also added more monsters and a G-Rank mode. Critics were all over it, with Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate garnering a respectable Metacritic score of 86, as well as being the best-selling title in the series outside of Japan at the time of release.
With Monster Hunter 4’s formula established, Capcom decided to put work into developing each weapon’s move-set and style, adding flashy finishing moves and equippable arts into their next release. In late 2015 Monster Hunter Generations made its debut in Japan under the title Monster Hunter X (Cross), and with fans clamouring for a Western release, it was finally localised for the west in 2016. With a whopping 72 different Hunting Styles and packed with locations, maps and assets from the series’ rich history, it sported 93 unique monsters and is often viewed as a 'Greatest Hits' of the series up to this point - before the biggest revolution in Monster Hunter’s 14-year history. Before we get to that one though, it's worth mentioning the spin-off Monster Hunter Stories, which adopted a more traditional JRPG approach and would eventually find its way to the west in 2017, following its initial Japanese launch a year earlier.
Monster Hunter: World made use of the horsepower of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, being revealed at E3 in 2017. Its distinct change in colour palette, focus on hand-holding and various 'quality of life' changes to the core gameplay loop made longtime fans sceptical at first; however, thanks to the removal of loading screens in large areas and drastically improved visuals, Monster Hunter: World hit the mark - it has enjoyed sales of over 10 million copies worldwide and has become Capcom’s best selling game ever.
However, the story doesn't end there. In 2017, Monster Hunter Generations spawned a further expansion in Japan - Monster Hunter XX - which remained exclusive to the region. Japanese players would benefit from an upgraded version of this title for the newly-launched Nintendo Switch in August 2017; this has just been released in the west under the title Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate. With its original release being based on Monster Hunter Generations, the future of the series seems divided between the two styles; given the incredible commercial success of Monster Hunter: World, it remains to be seen which route Capcon will take with any future instalments. Whatever happens, it's a good time to be a Monster Hunter fan; as YouTube content creator and Monster Hunter enthusiast Arekkz says, “Whatever is next for Monster Hunter, we will surely see the lines blur between these two groups, and hopefully see the series get bigger and better." Amen to that.