Playing Monster Rancher in 2021 is a surreal experience, to say the least. On one hand, it’s a ’90s game through and through, when CDs were still the standard music format and the relative novelty of a disc-based game console made a fun gimmick out of putting your music into a game. On the other hand, it feels like a game made for an age of social media, with the untold meme potential of a game that will procedurally generate monsters based on data from the music albums you feed it: “This is what Love Yourself: Answer would look like if it was a creature in a monster-battling game!”, and harvest those likes and retweets. It’s a strange place to be, but strangely delightful.
But let’s back up a step. Monster Rancher first came out for PlayStation in 1997, and Monster Rancher 2 in 1999, combining a monster raising and battling simulation—think Digimon virtual pets, not Pokemon—with the fun and novelty of compact discs. By sticking an album (or even the disc for another game) into the PlayStation console, you’d be able to summon a monster from within! (In other words, procedurally generate something based on the data contained in the CD.) Though a few hand-picked albums would summon unique creatures with a thematically-linked design—Mariah Carey Xmas got you the festive hare Santa, for example—you could use any readable CD to generate something.
You don’t have to be a ‘90s kid to be able to imagine the excitement of this. The mystery of seeing what your favourite albums would summon—like the thrill of drawing a gacha, but with a more personal touch and none of the financial hardship! Now imagine that in the age of social media, where the wacky results of your summoning can be an instant form of Shareable Content™. Enter Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX.
In lieu of actual CDs, these remasters use a built-in database of albums and games. While it doesn’t have the tactile novelty of actually putting a disc into your console, it does mean there’s an extensive library to summon from, experiment with, and take those crucial, meme-ready screenshots of. Albums as recent as September this year show up in the mix (Alien Weaponry’s excellent Tangaroa gets you an Obelisk in Monster Rancher—fitting), with a broad assortment that covers everything from BTS to Pink Sweat$, Alice Cooper to Doja Cat, Captain Dan and the Scurvy Crew to Nujabes. For games, you’ve got everything from Final Fantasy to Dynasty Warriors, Mario Kart to Angelique, Ikaruga to Shantae.
There are a few noteworthy absences, I assume for trademark reasons or some such—don’t expect to summon Carly Rae Jepsen’s monster form, or Beyonce’s. But the list of what is available is huge, and the strange appeal of seeing what monster comes out of a given album never really dies down, especially now that you’re not limited to discs you actually have on hand. Even when you’ve exhausted your search options, the random function is a wonderful source of monsters, laughs, and maybe even some new tunes to check out if a title intrigues you enough to check it out.
As much fun as these summoning shenanigans are, they’re really just the jumping off point. Once you’ve settled on a monster—you can only have one active at a time, though you can store a few and later combine them to create new ones—it’s off to the ranch to raise them, train them, care for them, and get them in fighting shape for the monster battles that are all the rage in Monster Rancher’s world. It’s here that the games go full simulation mode, playing out in a turn-based fashion over weeks, months, and years. Each week you get to choose one task—maybe training, or doing an odd job to earn some cash with a side of stat point growth, or resting—with the ultimate goal of helping your monster get stronger while improving (or maintaining) its loyalty.
Finding the right balance in all these factors is crucial, and how strict or lenient you are plays an important role. At the same time, it’s very much a product of its time in a way that feels both quaint and crude: stat management is opaque, available activities are fairly simplistic, and the punishment/praise mechanics lack nuance. That’s not to say that Monster Rancher lacks depth, because it has that in spades, but it’s narrow in focus and there isn’t the variety that you see in today’s simulation games.
With a strong monster at your side, you can find fame and fortune in the arena, with rising through the tournament ranks as the main goal of the games (insofar as there is one—they’re quite open-ended, by design). Outside of the CD aspect, battles are one of Monster Rancher’s more unique aspects in the way they weave together aspects of turn-based, real-time, and a dose of herding cats. Playing out on a 2D plane, you can freely move your monster toward and away from the opponent—and they can do the same—with your distance at any given moment determining what attacks you can use. You can attack when you want, so long as you have enough Will—but with this being a gradually-regenerating resource, it creates a sort of ATB-like effect, and in the higher-level battles especially, good Will management becomes crucial.
There’s also that herding-cats aspect I mentioned. At the most obvious level, your monster’s loyalty determines how likely it is that they actually respond to your commands at all; sometimes, they’ll just ignore you, and stand around waiting to get hit. But it’s also there in the tug-of-war as both you and your opponent try to move into your optimal positions, meaning that you never have full, precise control over attack selection. Despite the ATB-ish effect, combat isn’t strictly turn-based, which means there’s also a bit of a fight for priority.
All this can mean that battles feel unwieldy and fraught, in a way that’s both frustrating and invigorating. These aren’t fights between highly-trained martial artists; they’re wild animals, essentially, running on instinct and training. Having a battle system that captures the awkwardness of that is neat—although it does also make it harder to shake the uncomfortable “dog fighting” mood that games like Pokemon mostly dodge by presenting its creatures as sentient, willing (mostly) participants.
Revamped summoning mechanism aside, both Monster Rancher and Monster Rancher 2 are largely unchanged in their DX forms. They’ve got remastered soundtracks and a fast-forward option, and the original PlayStation graphics might be rendered at a higher resolution (I can’t be 100% sure without a side-by-side comparison, to be honest), but otherwise they’re the as they were, in all the glory of that low-poly PS1 aesthetic and the charming awkwardness of ‘90s translations. That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but I promise it’s not—as someone who grew up on PlayStation JRPGs, if not Monster Rancher specifically, there’s something endearing about revisiting that style. Some might be disappointed that there isn’t more of an overhaul, but I think for games like these, it works.
In lieu of a polish-up, there is one welcome new feature: an asynchronous online battle mode. By downloading other players’ monster data, you can pit your own monster against an AI-controlled version of theirs across a couple of different modes (including a ranked mode, for the competitive types!). The lack of any real-time player battles is a little disappointing, but understandable given the technical hurdles that would be required to get that up and running. The nature of Monster Rancher’s battles makes fighting “ghosts” much more practical than in a lot of other games, too. And for those who do want the fun of live multiplayer, the Switch version has a local versus mode.
Between the monster-raising simulation reminiscent of handheld virtual pets, the relatively untouched PlayStation aesthetic, and the crucial role that CDs hold in both game design and narrative, Monster Rancher is about as quintessentially ‘90s as a game can get. Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX does a fine job of carrying these two PS1 classics into today’s age, both preserving the originals’ charm, and reworking that core, CD-driven system for an age of digital media. And with the social media potential of the latter—the endlessly shareable fun of seeing what monsters your favourite albums create—maybe Monster Rancher is a quintessentially 2020s game, too.
Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX
Developer: Koei Tecmo
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Genre: Simulation, RPG
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.