Radiohead’s OK Computer. Dave Matthews Band’s Crash. Daft Punk’s Homework. These were among the many CDs stacked up against my PlayStation in 1997. Was nine-year-old me using said console to rock out to these albums? No, not even once. To my family’s dismay, I was hogging them — and countless others — to create new, game-changing monsters in Monster Rancher.
Monster Rancher’s trademark feature revolutionized the monster-collecting genre in the late ’90s: when you inserted just about any CD into the PlayStation, the game would generate a new monster for your raising, collecting, and battling pleasure. In a bid to give Pokémon a run for its money, Monster Rancher and its sequel boasted hundreds of unique monsters, each with their own stats, abilities, personalities, and colorful appearances.
Fast forward to 2021: Koei Tecmo brings enhanced ports of Monster Rancher and Monster Rancher 2 to the Switch. Does Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX capture the magic of the original games? For this nostalgic ’90s kid, absolutely! Though you now use an in-game CD database to generate monsters, this collection revives two classic RPGs and covers them with a coat of polish that makes their novel monster raising and collecting systems more accessible and addictive than ever before.
With that said, don’t look to Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX for a compelling narrative. Unlike its spinoff anime series, you don’t save the world, fight evil, or do much of anything other than collect, raise, and battle monsters here. Both games’ opening cinematics shed light on how a divine force sealed monsters in disc stones (i.e., CDs), but these bits are just background and don’t influence how the games unfold. Similarly, the handful of merchants and other NPCs you meet color the world, but none of their banter is very exciting or leads to anything resembling a storyline.
Instead, these games are all about monster raising, collecting, and battling, and they excel in most of these respects. Each in-game week, you can direct the monster you’ve brought to your ranch to engage in activities like training, battling, and, of course, sleeping. These tasks may raise their stats, fatten your wallet, teach new combat abilities, or net new items. The maximum is 20 monsters at a time (up from 10 in the original games), but you can only give orders to one each week, with your inactive buddies frozen in cryostasis.
If you’re serious about clearing the games’ toughest tournaments and becoming a “Master Breeder,” your monsters will spend most weeks training. By hauling carts full of loot, delivering mail, or tackling other errands and training drills, monsters can raise one or two of their stats with each endeavor (and earn you cash in Monster Rancher, which you have plenty need of). I recommend enabling the new high-speed mode to hasten animations and text delivery; this will significantly cut the time you spend waiting for training results or otherwise sitting idly by as the games’ processing speed moves at a painfully glacial pace.
This monster raising system demands that you stay thoughtful about training decisions and, in so doing, remains engaging for many hours. Depending on each monster’s species, which includes a lot of diversity, different training regimens yield varying results for your pal. Pixies, for example, see sizeable gains in speed through training, but less growth in some other areas, whereas dragons have an especially easy time boosting their power stat (i.e., physical attack). Your training decisions (and food and item choices) may also lead your monsters to develop a “serious,” “lazy,” or other personality type. Though the games do a comically poor job of explaining personality (and most other monster raising mechanics), it can impact whether a monster complies with your weekly directives, how they fare in battle, and a host of other important metrics.
Consecutive weeks of training without rest or the use of expensive restorative items will raise each monster’s fatigue levels, which may hamper future training and battling efforts. More importantly, fatigued monsters tend to boast higher levels of stress, an invisible but all-important stat that can signal untimely death for your monster. Lifespans vary by species, but you typically have only three years to enjoy each monster out of cryostasis – and far less than that if you ignore signs of stress in your virtual friend.
Herein lies the games’ central, addictive challenge, one that kept me coming back long after I’d said goodbye to several beloved pals: you only have a few real-life hours of training and other activities to optimize each monster and propel them to victory in tournaments. This limited window helps make all your weekly decisions feel meaningful. Both games’ higher-ranked tournaments are relatively challenging by modern standards, so you’ll need to be strategic with your monster raising if your goal is to win all of them.
These few hours with each monster leave just enough time to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and personality, but not so much time that you’re likely to find yourself itching to move on to another creature. On the contrary, you’ll probably feel a real sense of loss when your pals pass on. All monsters are animated, showing pain, joy, and disappointment, and boast a unique, often endearing set of greetings and cries. My monsters felt more like beloved family pets than lifeless, AI-controlled beasts – reflecting the abundance of heart Koei Tecmo packs into these decades-old games. Mocchi, Monster Rancher 2’s mascot, is particularly a standout and guaranteed to warm your heart if you’re lucky enough to generate one. When I lost my Mocchi, whom I stupidly named after my first dog, I reeled with a palpable pang of longing that few other games have left me with.
Prepare for a serious emotional investment if you decide to pick up Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX; these games offer hundreds of monsters to fall in love with. This collection also adds 27 new monsters to Monster Rancher 2, enhancing its already-significant replay value. The thrill of generating new, sometimes rare monsters using CDs lying around the house is gone, but the in-game CD database recaptures about as much of the magic as you could expect. You can search among thousands of albums by title and artist name, or you can throw your hair to the wind by jumping to a random CD and seeing what it houses. This system levels the playing field by giving everyone an equal opportunity to generate the best beasts, regardless of each player’s financial means. The sheer volume of monsters in these games remains as impressive today as it was in the late ’90s, especially in the case of Monster Rancher 2, which boasts roughly 400 monsters to collect, raise, and battle.
To help deter veterans – or anyone with access to Gamefaqs – from using the CD database to generate the strongest monsters right out of the gate, many, if not most, CDs now generate different monsters than they did in the original games. Like the originals, this version won’t let you generate certain mighty monsters until you’ve fully upgraded your ranch, cleared tournaments, or made other forms of progress. These wise steps by Koei Tecmo help the games feel balanced and incentivize players to give more common monsters the chance they deserve.
Of course, you don’t just collect monsters to boss them around at your ranch; the games also center around monthly battle tournaments that reward you with hefty sums of money and rare items. When you compete in a match, you can let your monster make its own decisions in combat or manage it yourself. Like in most RPGs, the goal of each fight is to whittle down your enemy’s HP before they do the same to you. You can maneuver your monster around the arena in real time and select an attack to unleash when your foe comes within range. Abilities have a potency and chance to land, and each costs a certain amount of “guts” (or “will” in Monster Rancher) – the games’ version of MP.
Combat is fast-paced and occasionally engaging, but it lacks the depth and polish of the games’ monster raising and collecting mechanics. Controlling your monster in battle feels clunky, and monsters take longer than they should to respond to your inputs, particularly in Monster Rancher. The amount of damage monster abilities inflict also feels too variable, making luck a more significant factor in battle outcomes than skill. Unlike other RPGs of the late ’90s, combat abilities are relatively bland and boil down to some form of offense; buffs, debuffs, and other more interesting moves are conspicuously absent. I let my monsters run on autobattle during tournaments with all this in mind, and I expect most players will make the same call. I failed to match with any players in the new online battle mode since I played pre-release, but this feature is a welcome addition that should add to the games’ longevity.
For better or worse, both games’ visuals are the same as they were in the late ’90s. Koei Tecmo didn’t give these games any noticeable touch-ups, let alone HD or remastered graphics. Monster Rancher’s polygons look an awful lot like Final Fantasy VII’s, and that’s no compliment. Still, its visual style and art design exude charm I can’t help but appreciate, especially its 16-bit character portraits and seemingly hand-drawn monster training cartoons. Monster Rancher 2 is a bit of a glow-up; its polygons look sharper and more refined, and it fully animates monster training, celebration, and other activities around your ranch. These more robust animations enliven your pals in a way Monster Rancher doesn’t, and they make all these creatures feel as if they’re bursting with distinct personalities.
Monster Rancher’s soundtrack lacks the flair you’d expect from a title that’s standout in so many other respects. It boasts only a handful of cutesy tracks that do a decent yet unremarkable job of engaging you during training and energizing you in combat. I’m puzzled Koei Tecmo didn’t remove the downright grueling track that plays while you’re on the ranch, which remains an earsore 24 years later.
Thankfully, Koei Tecmo remastered Monster Rancher 2’s soundtrack, and it’s significantly more impressive. The sequel offers a much broader range of tracks than its predecessor. Just about all of them augment the tone of whatever activity they accompany, and a fair number are head-boppers. Even while my monster was fighting on autobattle, combat music exuded a tense electricity that kept me tuned in and helped me forget how unpolished fighting feels. Neither game boasts voice acting, but both offer adorably endearing monster cries and other noises that make monsters feel genuinely alive. Good luck avoiding falling in love with Mocchi once you’ve heard it squeal with joy.
Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX polishes and modernizes two classic RPGs that are somehow more fun and engaging now than they were 20-odd years ago. Monster Rancher 2 is this collection’s crown jewel, but both games’ core gameplay loops of monster raising and collecting hold up remarkably well today and make up for some mediocre combat. Fans of Pokémon or other monster-collecting games: don’t sleep on Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX! It offers you dozens of hours of heartwarming entertainment that’ll leave you mourning the premature death of this cult-classic series.