In the world of Monster Rancher, bigger doesn’t always mean better, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The newest entry in the series, Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher, takes this philosophy and turns it up to epic proportions, creating a world filled with monsters the size of mountains that need to be fed, trained, and loved to reach their full potential. This is Monster Rancher gameplay but on a much grander scale.
This new title is the result of a team-up between two much-loved franchises; Ultraman, the long-running Japanese superhero show, and Monster Rancher. However if like many people in the English-speaking world you’re not as familiar with the former as you are with the latter, don’t be worried. While several Ultraman forms show up in this game, it is much more of a Monster Rancher title than a tokusatsu game. Many of the iconic monsters from Ultraman are available for you to raise and fight, but no specific knowledge of the series is necessary.
Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher is very close to previous Monster Rancher games. Monsters start trapped in stone disks and are unlocked by placing them on an altar in town. In the original game, these represented music CDs that could be placed into the console to spawn new monsters. It was one of the things that made the early games unique — and one of the common complaints around the Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX collection was that it didn’t have this functionality. But, for this game, the developers have offered a few workarounds.
Players can input a few keywords into the menu to generate a new kaiju monster to raise. This does feel completely random at times, though there is a kind of consistency to what monsters each keyword gives you. The real fun of this, though, comes from the Memory Board. Using NFC devices such as reusable bus passes, contactless bank cards, and, of course, amiibo figurines, players can also generate random monsters by holding these items over their controllers. It isn’t quite the same as digging through your CD collection to see what your favourite album can get you, but it creates a similar feeling as you're still turning something in your physical space into a monster in the game.
Once you’ve got a monster that you’re happy with, you can head to your ranch and start raising them. This part plays out exactly like in previous Monster Rancher titles. You spend weeks sending your kaiju on jobs that raise their stats, then enter them into tournaments to earn money and glory by fighting other giant monsters. Occasionally you’ll be visited by other trainers you’ve encountered in tournaments and, once this happens, you'll have the chance to send your monster to their place to train for a month. Sometimes, these trainers' kaiju will also show up at your training ground looking for a fight. But most weeks in the game pass by in a train-rest-fight cycle.
This pattern is fun, though it is very static and predictable most of the time. There's no sense of a grander adventure waiting for you until you manage to rise through the ranks of the kaiju fighting world. This process can take several years of in-game time, especially since you are effectively locked into low-level tournaments until you manage to defeat a specific opponent. This was frustrating for us because we breezed through the first two tournament ranks only to be stuck on this encounter for more than a year. The fact that you can only attempt this battle twice a year is even more baffling.
It quickly becomes clear that you aren’t meant to complete this stage of the story with your starting kaiju. Like in previous games, Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher doesn’t want you to get attached to your monsters for very long. After around two years of fighting, they get close to retirement age and can be fused with new monsters, creating a stronger version of that creature while retaining their previous skills and traits. You’ll go through several generations of monsters before you’re able to reach the top ranks of the tournament world, so this isn’t the game for people who get attached easily.
The battles in Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher play out just like in previous games, too. Moves are determined by your kaiju's distance from your enemy, so you need to find the right balance between staying close enough to unleash your strongest attacks while also avoiding your opponent’s best. This is the extent of the strategy in the game as most fights feel like they've been determined before you enter the arena. Basically, like many RPGs, having stats that are higher than your opponent's is the first step toward victory, and it feels like battles are shallow exercises that require a lot of grinding ahead of time to consistently win as a result.
The improvements come from the visuals and sound in this entry in the Monster Rancher series. Even if you’re not familiar with Ultraman, the monsters on offer here are a lot of fun to look at. They strike the perfect balance between looking realistic while still moving like they are a guy in a rubber suit. The inclusion of the sound effects from the Ultraman shows only adds to the experience. Watching them go on a rampage because their anger reached critical levels is as much fun at the end of the game as it is at the start.
If you like the Monster Rancher series and have been looking for an updated version of it to dive into, Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher will give you the experience you’re after. Despite the shallow combat mechanics and hefty grinding to advance the plot, there is a lot of fun to be had simply watching your monster unleash their larger-than-life attacks on enemies. Even if the references to the Ultraman series pass you by, this is still one of the best Monster Rancher games ever.
Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher is the quintessential Monster Rancher experience, just bigger, louder, and more polished looking. The mechanics of the combat and training cycle will be familiar to long-time fans while the new larger scale of the creatures lends itself to the scale of Ultraman and his monstrous foes. Scanning every electronic device in your house to see what monster pops out is satisfying even if the actual gameplay gets stale over time.