Review: Monster Rancher DS (Nintendo DS)

Monster Rancher DS
Developer: Cing
Publisher: UFO Interactive
Genre: Simulation
Release Date: 08/03/2010

M-m-m-m-monster Rancher! To some of us (mainly me), Monster Rancher was a quaint little game that Tecmo released during the height of the monster battle/collection/raising craze. Monster Rancher was also an okay (for its concept) animated series with a horrible US theme song and terrible 90s style. MONSTERS RULE! You can click that link if you want, but do not cry to me if your mind or psyche is damaged from the awful rapping.

Monster Rancher is usually lumped in with Digimon and Pokèmon, but the game itself is more about raising a monster and less on collecting. So does this new Monster Rancher game stack up? Let’s find out.

Story:

Monster Rancher DS‘s story begins with you assuming the role of a rookie monster rancher. You have qualified to discover/rediscover monsters at a research academy (BOMBA) and the organizing body of monster fighting.

The story, distilled to its basic principles, is that you are someone who raises, breeds, trains and disposes of monsters for the sole purpose of winning monster fighting tournaments. Monster Rancher is a virtual dog/cock fighting simulator. Unlike Pokemon, Monster Rancher does very little to hide this underlying story. Your monsters can be scolded, left to starve and get injured. Your monsters are only worth as much as they can produce. A losing monster is a waste of resources. You can either “release” a monster to the BOMBA labs (most likely used for spare parts) and leave it to whatever Mengele super playground horrors await it in those labs, or you can conduct your own cross-breeding experiments, having humanoid monsters basically breed with dogs and dragons. It’s very odd when you look at it without a suspension of disbelief.

Monster Rancher DS is a story of a youngling learning to put aside their emotions and thinking about the bottom line. If a monster is not worth the food it gets per month (if any), starve it. Have a monster that isn’t training hard enough? Force it to train when it is exhausted to teach it a lesson. Eventually Monster Rancher confronts you about how far you are willing to go for another trophy, another bit of filthy lucre. How many monster lives are you willing to crush to get that Class A license? Is that dragon horn worth your sobbing monster’s shattered body and the time it spent in the monster hospital (the answer is yes)?

Otherwise, the story portrayed in Monster Rancher DS runs right through your assistant. Your assistant is the crush of a sometimes rival; she’s the daughter of BOMBA’s former director. She had a secret past staring in erotic thrillers and the story is mainly about her. Thankfully, there are long lapses before you have more stuff about your assistant. The mixing of being the best monster rancher and the troubles of your assistant distract from one another.

Really, the game could have used less of a “real” story, if you ask me.

Story Rating: Poor

Graphics:

MRDS is squarely in the middle when it comes to graphics. The monsters look decent when they are strutting their stuff on the top screen, but when it comes to battle mode, the monsters become palette swaps. You know who your monster is and it matches up with its actual color, but something about the battle grid’s sprite is…disappointing.

The characters that are shown are your typical Japanese created characters but most are at least somewhat stylish, though the belly shirt jailbait assistant is bothersome since she is always on the screen. The biggest thing about the graphics of Monster Rancher DS is the fact you are mainly staring at menus. Menus, menus, menus. Brown menus, more brown menus, and then some colorful fight menus with interactive distance movement things. You also get some graphs about monster progress, but MRDS is menu city.

One plus is the color difference around the attacks. The borders of each attack are either blue, yellow or red. These correspond with far, medium, and short ranges respectively. This is a little bit of help when you are looking over things at a glance. While not world shattering, it is at least a helping hand.

I like menus but they are kind of bland for most folks.

Graphics Rating: Poor

Sound:

There are a few melodies but the sound effects and songs are not all that memorable. Fanfare plays when you win, and soothing tones play when you are staring at your monster who is wandering around your backyard while you try to figure out what you are going to do with it today. Eventually I just turned down my sound. The sound effects and music are not worth the annoyance factor. I cannot say much more because of how irritating I found listening to the same battle ditty time in and time out.

Sound Rating: Dreadful

Control and Gameplay

Whooo boy, here comes the bulk! I’ll talk about modes first, then mechanics of the game.

Monster Rancher DS has the single player Don King mode and the two-player battle and combination mode. The multi-player is dueling against other Monster Ranchers, combining for new monsters and…well, I couldn’t find anyone to play against, so I don’t really know what else I could do. Having prefaced that I could not find any other Monster Ranchers during my off time adventures, the scope of this review is the single player experience.

The game begins and you are introduced to some basic concepts about BOMBA and what it means to be a monster rah… great, an interruption. A runaway piece of jailbait in a belly shirt interrupts this important lecture to be thrust into an arranged partnership with a rookie Monster Rancher. Basically, I think the Monster Rancher Academy is running some underage worker ring. Human trafficking – not cool?

After Jailbait O’Crawlspacegrave has her dumb lines, it is time to introduce the monster summoning. For the drawing summon you get to bust out your stylus and draw on a square with smaller squares (sometimes called a grid). You can also use your DS’ microphone and a third summoning technique is unlocked later. The question everyone has about this game is: how will they deal with genital monster drawings and curse words?

Ah ha! That’s how they bypass the penis monster epidemic: the monsters are linked to the drawing field, but are not the actual picture created. So a penis becomes a shadow mage. Wait… what? According to the monster lady with the pointy chest, the aura of the shadow mage shows great nobility and well versed in magic. All from a penis with a smiley face. Amazing. The pointy lady says this type of monster seems to be a first for me. Oh, how little pointy lady knows about me. Sadly, my mage could not be named Penisy. I drew so many different things (dead mimes, mimes being eaten by bears, dead WWI vets, a flower, a Jackson Pollock spooge homage), and more often than not I got a different monster. After about 40 or so drawings I realize that the penis mage is kind of a default critter as it shows up the most often. I did get a chuckle out of the vagina drawing giving me a giant pink colored golem.

After finding out that I could use the microphone on my DS (Screw you, dumb camera-based DSi!) I proceeded to yell in Spanish, French (all I know is fromage and, “I don’t like work”), crazy, curse words, and then the alphabet. After creating monster after monster, I think that most of the selection is utterly random – especially with the voice summoning. Later on you get the ability to spell out words in multiple mini-magic fields. The smaller magic field version is more tedious but, just like the other two summons, there are certain monsters you can only get from combining penis shadow mage from the drawing summon and weird creature in a ball from randomly yelling Waterloo into your DS.

Having a monster, I get to check out what sort of attacks it can do. My magic monster has two attacks – one is a staff hit at close range and another is a staff throw at farthest range. Since my monster is not exactly a super strong sort, my fights are mainly spent hoping I can hit enough times and dodge other attacks to win a few fights.

Your monster’s ability to hit and dodge is tied into its ability scores. Each monster has six statistical categories: Power, Intelligence, Skill, Speed, Defense, and Life. Physical combat moves and damage are related to power, intelligence governs magical power and defense, skill is for hitting percentage, speed is for evasion, defense helps against physical attacks, and life is your monster’s hit points.

Some monsters, like my shadow mage, can do a bit of both (physical and magic) while others, like the basic golem, are better with just one (physical). You are told by your jailbait assistant about what type of monster you have when you take him home.

When you get the chance, you can begin training your monster in a variety of exercises. The first six are focused on a single statistic while the last four improve two stats while decreasing another. For some monsters, like a Pixie, raising skill and intelligence while lowering power makes perfect sense. For others, like a dragon, a balance must be struck. Since a dragon is a great overall monster, slight reductions can be useful for larger gains but lowering something too much means some attacks become rather useless.

Aside from training your monster, there is the option of sending it on some adventures or to a board game like training scenario. In town you have the option of sending your monster on an exploration mission (errantry), accepting bounties on monsters you find in errantry or going on a drill (board game) to increase training. You unlock new drill and errantry areas as you climb the monster rancher ratings ladder (E-A with S for special). Errantry and drills are the ways to unlock new techniques, with errantry also having the bounty encounters and the way to find rare monsters or rare combination ingredients.

The monster you are raising has feelings and you can end up over indulging your monster, making it fatter, slower and a breeder’s monster (soft discipline) or being a hardnosed, no nonsense, nigh brutal breeder – forcing your monster to train even when it is on the verge of collapse and starving it. There is a middle, but sometimes it is easy to forget that when you are pissed off that your monster has lost to a club player. You can risk your monster’s life span using foods and items that increase training results but reduce its lifespan. Breeding and training is the bulk of the game and learning just what your monster likes and doesn’t plays a part in its attitude.

The combat of the game is based on magic or physical attacks and range. Your skill score determines hit percentage – a higher skill score betters the chance you have of landing an attack. You move your monster into and out of ranges via the stylus. If you or your foe gets too close there is an option to shove your foe to far range.

Each attack takes up something called guts, which are basically points that determine whether or not you can make an attack. There seems to be no limit on how many guts points you can store, but there is a time limit to each match (60 seconds). Each attack uses up guts as does the shoving move. While your monster is free to move back and forth at regular speed, sprinting means that guts doesn’t regenerate. This can be a big deal if a match is close. For example, your monster might have to sprint to get into range thanks to a low speed score because you may not have enough guts if your attack misses.

Some attacks (usually intelligence attacks) can drain guts. This can be a great way of preventing a big attack if your attack is reliable enough. Eventually I trained up a pixie that had 600 + intellect and 600 + skill with a magic attack that would drain guts. I would sit in middle range and just snipe my opponent’s guts (though most couldn’t survive a single strike).

Combat eventually gets repetitive, but there is an option of allowing your monster to fight without your control. Often times a monster’s battle plan will baffle you, such as going for its token short range attack when it have a better longer range attack. That can be taken care of if you arrange your monster’s attacks in the two battle bars you get. The first bar I often set to my favorite attacks while the second bar was for high guts/low hit attacks that could end a match if the monster was lucky. Sometimes the monster would fall in love with using a dumb attack, so I would remove it from its bars. Usually when a monster was more experienced it became much better at its choices but that could just be my perception.

Battles are divided into two set ups – single elimination tournaments and round robin league settings. All license battles (acquiring higher level licenses) are tournaments. Round robins have a tie breaker battle if there are two monsters with the same record. Battles can end in time limit decisions (life percentage determines winners) or knock outs. I found no extra weight added to KO victories when it came to tie breakers, nor was any weight given to direct Win-Loss between monsters. There is a list of the events that you can look up and see which ones you have won, which is handy for completists.

I found the core of the game made sense, even with a poor manual. Newcomers could wonder what the point of all the stats are since they are not spelled out right away but they make sense. It won’t take too long for someone to get the hang of Monster Rancher.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Above Average

Replayability

With 200+ monsters, combinations, multiplayer (if you can find someone), and multiple tournaments to win, Monster Rancher DS has quite a bit of play time held within. Obsessives will have things to do after you become a master breeder. A caveat: those with limited attention spans may not be able to survive playing over and over. There is quite a lot offered if you are of the proper mindset. There is no denying this is a niche game and if we are going with an overall audience, well, the score takes a hit.

Replayability Rating: Mediocre

Balance:

All monsters are created equal but some monsters are more equal than others. Animal Farm was just an earth version of Monster Rancher, if you ask me. The game’s fighting runs the gamut from easy victory to being one shot. The different classes in Monster Rancher do tend to mean something. I merged two monsters I found adorable, but pathetic, into a pirate in a barrel. I will talk about Iggy the Barrel Pirate. He was an adventurous sort, what with his dew rag, handle bar mustache, and eye patch. Iggy liked wearing horizontal stripes because he was not only a swashbuckler but a fashion dare devil.

Iggy was, at first, a so-so monster. I sent him to get his butt kicked in the very first tournament I could find, sans training. Eventually, through scolding and feeding him monster gelatin (probably made from failed monsters), Iggy became a contender. The results were good and there was a logical progression. Iggy went from going out all night on the docks looking for any port in the storm to a pudgy, gelatin scarfing monster wandering about town with his fighting acumen. I reached the B level rankings and Iggy needed more work. He just wasn’t ready to take on all B level comers. That isn’t to say Iggy was losing all the time; he won about 60% of this fights. The fact that Iggy went from Barrel Pirate Gojira to US Godzilla told me that the game had a balance. Things sometimes came too easy or seemed too hard but never too far from one end to the other.

The game is not too hard to understand but there are nuances that reward those willing to go a bit further. There is just enough depth to balance out some of the simple parts of the game.

Balance Rating: Above Average

Originality:

Being a game in a long running series that encompasses over seven games on four consoles means originality will take a hit. The hit is not as big as you would think. Since Monster Rancher DS is more of a monster battle raising simulation and not a monster battle collection simulation (there really is a difference), there is a nice slot MRDS fills that really isn’t filled by much else save for Pokemon and… do they even make Digimon any more? There were others but I have forgotten. Tamagotchi seems to still be alive but I think the last one, Tamagotchi Crack and Hand Job Den, was too specific to be considered part of the larger crowd.

The big new things are the use of the stylus and microphone to get monsters. This adds a more creative element and is more convenient to get monsters than finding CDs. The new cherry on top gives the game just enough help, along with the four years since the last game, to make Monster Rancher look newer than it should be.

Originality Rating: Mediocre

Addictiveness:

I admit, as a sports fan, improving my win-loss record was a very large hook that kept me throwing monsters in the trash and riding Pixie (my bestest monster) towards the higher leagues until she could work no more. The stat building, monster finding and thrill of crushing all who oppose you is very good at keeping Monster Rancher at the forefront of the gaming mind.

The big downside is that things settle into a routine. Eventually you get bogged down looking for that next monster to exploit. Your days as the Monster Rancher world’s version of Don King are spent finding that new monster with a fantastic, high percentage super move. Eventually, after your monster is hooked on coke, you have a few dead hooker monsters in the corners of your new stable, and you are about to go to jail on tax evasion, you find yourself not all that interested and boarding a plane to Aruba to avoid the authorities.

Sorry Pahnuss, you are going up the river.

Addictiveness Rating: Above Average

Appeal Factor

Monster Rancher‘s appeal is a question I had difficulty answering. The creation of monsters, the way you go right into raising your monster and minor story considerations means that anyone new to the series could pick up MRDS and hit the ground running. On the other hand, the Monster Rancher name factor holds very little cache outside the Monster Rancher fan community, with the last entry in the series in the US being Monster Rancher EVO in 2006. There are Monster Rancher fans out there but Monster Rancher DS wants to bring new players into the fold as well as renew hope of fans of the series.

Since the game plays very differently than the most popular monster battle game, there could be some appeal to those who are looking to broaden their horizons. The problems I am seeing are that fans of the Monster Rancher series may not be as interested in the game and that new potential players may not want to pay the price to try something unfamiliar (a more common problem these days).

I believe the mechanics of the game and the name have enough of a draw to bring players into the Monster Rancher fold.

Appeal Factor Rating: Mediocre

Miscellaneous

The manual explains nothing about the monster statistics and is a terrible waste of paper. If you are going to have a manual, have it actually explain more than the bare bones of information. I also could not find anyone to play against at the mall or truck stop (where I found free wi-fi connections). I think I saw a hooker at the truck stop… and mall.

The world, lore, and nostalgia of Monster Rancher is worth something. Monsters from the previous installments are here, the game has all the essential Monster Rancher elements, and MRDS stays true to what the series is about but makes itself accessible to new players. That is worth something. Sometimes franchise names are slapped onto games that are not always true to the predecessors, this is not one of them.

Miscellaneous Rating: Mediocre

The Scores:
Story: Poor
Graphics: Poor
Sound: Dreadful
Control and Gameplay: Above Average
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
Final Score: Mediocre Game

Short Attention Span Summary:

I spent a bit too long playing Monster Rancher, trying to make sure I covered as much as possible in the game (finding all the monsters takes a very long time) and completing the core game with the full monster monty. Monster Rancher DS is a game that will delight its core fans and not too steeped in Monster Rancher history to be a complete mystery to newcomers. I do not think MRDS has a broad audience but it should satisfy most who give it a chance.