In its heyday, the Monster Rancher series was hamstrung in many ways by its supposed peers. Like Pokemon! But it was never Pokemon. A little bit Digimon, a little bit Princess Maker, a little bit Tamagotchi. But many players came to the series with certain expectations, and those expectations were wrong.
That’s what makes Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX so fascinating. You see, Monster Rancher makes more sense now than it did then. Players are much more prepped for run-based games and the thrills and pitfalls of RNG. For emergent narrative and clip-worthy nonsense. For the joy of watching something play out without a lot of intervention.
Thankfully, then, 1 & 2 DX rises to the occasion. The original experiences are still very much preserved here, but some smart additions help them play more smoothly. A crafted fast-forward option speeds through the right segments and slows down when you’re in control. Text and visuals are as crisp as they can be, while original pixel art is still here too. There are ample slots for saving things, which might feel like a small adjustment! But transcending the arbitrary limits of decades past can take out a few headaches along the way.
Of course, the signature element of Monster Rancher — its CD-based monster generation — had to go in this port. While it is headed to PCs, it’s also releasing on Switch and iOS, where there’s no drive to read a disc. So instead, 1 & 2 DX provides a new interface with a wealth of albums to search and use. Does it have everything you’d want? Not really. But you’ll find some things. We found Smash Mouth and Electric Light Orchestra albums just fine, but no Space Jam soundtrack or Pokemon: 2.B.A. Master. (Sensing a theme? Yep, we stuck to the CDs we owned when these games first released.)
These early Monster Rancher games aren’t always the most transparent about their mechanics. Ultimately, there are two ways to play: with guides and taking copious notes, or just going with the flow. Veteran players likely do the first! It’s the way to optimize and succeed, managing stress and such to live long and prosper. There’s a lot of room to find more and better monsters, and dominate battles with ideal tactics. But hey, you can also wing it, and that’s fun too. Trying for some sort of middle ground is probably a treacherous endeavor.
The weaknesses of this collection are the weaknesses of the original titles. The action controls, both in battle and minigames, are rather clunky. Random chance can and will ruin your day on many occasions. The games are balanced, such as they are, for these inadequacies and frustrations! But any prospective players should come equipped with a decent tolerance for these things.
The first two Monster Rancher games offer fairly similar experiences, and a lot of the systems are refined for the second installment. So you’re probably better off spending most of your time with Monster Rancher 2! But it’s nice for both historical value and completion’s sake that the first game’s included here. It’s treated with a similar level of care and effort, and has most of the enhancements added that the second game sees. They’re close in ways that probably made it efficient to work on both simultaneously, and there are a few system changes that might have those with nostalgia preferring the old ways.
If you’re looking for a fresh take on the formula, Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX ain’t it! It’s very much the game it once was, just with some handy quality-of-life upgrades. But that in itself has a lot of merit these days.