Name the first classic game series that centres around collecting, training, and battling monsters against other trainers around the continent that comes into your head. No, we’re not talking about Pokémon — instead we’re looking at Monster Rancher, a series which started in 1997 on the PlayStation and turns 25 next year. So what better way to celebrate that quarter-century than to catch the first two games re-released for Switch? Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX is certainly one of the more unusual games on Switch eShop.
Monster Rancher, like many series coming out of Japan in the '90s, has a somewhat spotty localisation history. In fact, this is the first time that the original game has ever reached Europe, with the sequel marking the series' debut in that territory (dropping the titular '2' so as not to confuse Europeans). Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX is a pretty faithful port of the first two games, adding in a few quality of life improvements that weren’t a part of the original Western release — such as more save slots and monsters to raise — while keeping the gameplay, sound, and graphics straight out of the PS1 era.
While fans of Pokémon might recognise the general structure of these games, there is a distinctly different focus to Monster Rancher. Here, the game centres around training a single virtual monster to compete in battles before breeding them with other virtual monsters to create new and strange creatures, repeating the cycle until players reach the upper echelons of the monster training world.
One thing that set the original Monster Rancher apart from other, similar games, was the fact that players could put a CD into the PlayStation and it would generate a random monster in the game, allowing them to effectively use their favourite songs and albums to create perfect killing machines. The idea is that, in the game, an ancient god sealed powerful monsters away inside stone discs. Modern humans have discovered the means of opening the discs and releasing the monster inside, raising them to battle for fun and profit. It didn’t need to be a music CD but that was the most common use of the feature.
Of course, there are a few problems with this when porting this game to modern hardware. First, CDs are a quaint idea in 2021. Second, even if you do have some lying around, you're not going to get far jaming one in your Switch's cart slot. Therefore, this port allows players to search for their favourite songs and artists in a database, generating a list of possible matches that can be used as though the original disc were present. The list is somewhat limited, however; the more mainstream the artist is, the more likely it will be to show up in the search.
Beyond this alteration in how monsters are delivered to players’ ranches, there isn’t a huge amount that seems to have changed from the original. The graphics and gameplay are largely the same as they were 25 years ago, with sharp angles and polygons as far as the eye can see. Once a brief tutorial is completed, the trainer is free to choose their monster’s schedule. Both games in this collection offer broadly the same options. Monsters can be put to work to raise their stats and earn money, sent off to battle to earn fame and money, or allowed to rest to recover fatigue. They can also be sent off for more rigorous training that takes several weeks to complete.
The thing about the tutorial in both these games is that it is incredibly brief. You are dropped into the world with the expectation that you will make mistakes and missteps on your route to climbing the ranks of the monster fighting leagues. This can lead to some frustration, particularly since the battle mechanics seem to rely fairly heavily on luck and focusing on the distance between the two monsters before selecting a move. It takes some getting used to and never really feels as reliable as it should be.
All good monsters must have an end, however. With a lifespan of around three years, monsters will fade away and die eventually. Before they go, trainers should ideally breed them with another monster, creating a new type that possesses some of the traits of both its parents. There is an amount of randomness to how breeding goes, so it is probably wise to save ahead of time. There are some strange combinations out there, too, and some of the monsters are truly wild-looking.
From the basic giant wolf variety to a full-on dragon to Suezo, a limbless Mike Wazowski-alike, there are plenty of different types of monsters to breed and raise. Figuring out the best combination to tackle certain opponents is the key to progressing through the tournaments that the story is based around, although the story is just a flimsy excuse to get players to enter the tournaments and breed yet more monsters.
Both Monster Rancher games are fun throwbacks and this package is a tribute to a series that arguably never got the love it deserved, especially in Europe. Retro gamers and those who enjoy finding hidden gems should definitely consider picking up Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX for a taste of late-'90s non-Pokémon monster battling. Once you get your head around the unusual controls and the dated presentation, there's lots to like here — and it feels like nothing else released before or since. Go in expecting to make mistakes and stumble through some of the gameplay features and there is plenty of fun to be had.