MONSTER HUNTER PORTABLE 2nd G

a review of MONSTER HUNTER PORTABLE 2nd G (Monster Hunter Freedom Unite)
a videogame developed by capcom japan
and published by capcom
for the sony playstation portable
text by tim rogers

4 stars
#23

Bottom line: MONSTER HUNTER PORTABLE 2nd G is “the son of Street Fighter II.”

You just can’t throw a rock in a medium-sized parking lot anymore without hitting someone in the head and interrupting their monologue on the state of casual games versus hardcore games. In Japan, where all parking lots are extraordinarily small, this isn’t a problem. Elsewhere, even the people who get paid to make products sound good are prone to putting their feet in their mouths regarding the “casual vs. hardcore” issue, with Semi-lovable Neanderthal Reggie Fils-Aime frequently making big headlined promises to release more games that “appeal to core gamers”. It’s the opinion of Action Button Dot Net that people in general, whether they realize it or not, feel kind of uneasy whenever they’re shifted into one pile or another by a guy who used to work at Pizza Hut and now wears an enormous suit. We also believe that there really shouldn’t be any reason to shift gamers into piles.

 

Way back when, there was Super Mario Bros., a straightforward game that was fun, pop-culturally enlightening, universally loved, and simultaneously hard as hell. All players walking into Super Mario Bros. knew that the main character’s name was Mario, and that he was on a quest to rescue a princess who had been captured by a dragon. Many people never saw the princess; some never even saw the dragon. Whether or not either existed was a kind of meta-folk-myth, though only if you sucked at videogames.

Twenty years later, someone at Nintendo (who probably gets paid a secretary’s salary) deduced that the supernova-like explosion of interest in interactive entertainment that occurred with Super Mario Bros. had, eventually, petered out: that some people stopped playing videogames. Nintendo made it their goal to get people back “into the game”, though they did this in a dodgy sort of weird little midget way: they did it with things like Brain Training and/or Animal Crossing, the former of which is about as much fun as a really clever Apple OSX desktop Widget, and the latter of which is basically the same thing as one of those “autograph books” you passed around at middle-school graduation, except now you can’t draw vaginas all over everyone else’s Mona Lisas’ foreheads.

We mean no hate to this wave of “un-games”; Brain Training is a clever little tool, whether scientists believe it works, or doesn’t work, or whatever, and Animal Crossing is so hopelessly cute you’d have to be a Real Piece of Shit in order to Actively Hate it. What we’re saying, simply, is that there exists a great contextual divide between these games and Super Mario Bros.; if Brain Training and Animal Crossing are Nintendo’s way of drawing people “back in”, then we can only deduce that Nintendo’s ultimate conclusion, back at the time of their corporate re-evaluation, was that “people gave up on videogames” because “videogames became too videogame-like”.

Another angle would be that, with Brain Training and Animal Crossing, Nintendo isn’t really winning people “back to videogames” so much as they’re tricking them into holding a videogame system/controller by presenting them with a new kind of interactive software. (It can be further deduced, then, that Nintendo isn’t really “winning” the “console war” at all, because . . . well, let’s not bother finishing the sentence. Use your imagination. You obviously have a vibrant one, if you’ve bothered to read this far.)

We here at Action Button Dot Net are an open-minded sort, and we very graciously allow these non-games to exist. We do not, however, believe that any game ever made in the shadow of Brain Training‘s zeitgeist will rank as Immortal Great Entertainment.

What Nintendo perhaps needed to do was examine why people liked Super Mario Bros. in the first place. A look at their present game design strategy indicates that they have no idea; Super Mario Galaxy presents the player with computer-animated cut-scenes and loud music, tells us there’s a princess to rescue, and then holds our hand all through the outer-space journey. It shows us a bee who tells us rabbits are looking for star chips; then we meet a rabbit three feet down the road who tells us he believes there’s a star chip — which he’s looking for — nearby. You see a box; you remember that Mario can break boxes by shaking the Wiimote; you shake the Wiimote; the box breaks, there’s the star chip. In short (and yes, we’ve been over this before), the game is rewarding us for remembering to do what we can do, and then doing it at a point where no real-world logic would declare it to be of any relevance, so as to acquire what the game has contrived us to need. Apparently, Nintendo makes games this way so that they’ll be “accessible” to “everyone”. They should probably work on creating a place where accessibility and enjoyability overlap, and become entertainment: let us not forget that we used to rent Metroid, get nowhere in it, and then tell all our friends in school that the game was “Awesome“.

Now that enough paragraphs have elapsed, it is time to talk about the game which is being reviewed: Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G is the answer to the Big Question Nintendo asked themselves years ago. It is a “casual game” and a “hardcore game” at the same time; it is easy to play, it is difficult to master, the level of strategy involved is as deep as the combined imaginations of as many as four simultaneous players; and, most importantly, the title of the game (minus the three modifier words, which we’ll get to later) tells you exactly what you’re going to spend all your time doing. Imagine if Super Mario Bros. had been called “Princess-Rescuing Plumber”: would you have enjoyed its honesty, or would you have been disappointed that you only ever get to rescue one princess? Think the question over seriously: your IQ is at stake. In this modern world, after all, we call a man a “killer” even if he’s only ever killed one person. There you have it: do something once, and it goes from being something you’ve “never done” to something you “have done” and something you “do” in the space of a microsecond.

Therefore, in title alone, Monster Hunter is a masterpiece. You need only fell one grunt with a weapon of your choice before you have, completely and perfectly, lived the life of the title concept-character.

At any rate, here’s a description of the Monster Hunter series on the whole: you play the part of a person (male or female human being) who finds him or herself in a rural village in an iron-age-like fantasy world. Monster Hunter 2 goes so far as to explain that your avatar is a wandering hunter who got attacked by a dragon and ended up with amnesia, which is kind of silly, though considering the nature of the game that flows forth from there, it’s good enough. You can customize your character’s looks to a fuzzy point; after that, it’s all about choosing equipment and playing the game. This is a bit of a double-edge battle-ax, here: say you love how a spear looks, though try as you might, you just can’t seem to master the use of a spear. Will you use a spear anyway?

Make your aesthetic / pragmatic choices, and begin the brain-numbingly long series of tutorials. You don’t actually need to play the tutorials, though in a game that otherwise features no “end goal”, you’ll feel compelled to knock all the tutorials off the quest list. Luckily, the tutorials all basically mirror “actual” missions, which is kind of weird, when you think about it. Why didn’t they just make a series of “easy” missions for the beginning of the game? It’s obvious that the developers’ MO is to make a game the full thrust of which can be experienced in fifteen-minute bursts, slow-burning in its own awesomeness for upwards of three-hundred never-tiring hours, though given how the crux of the game is so shockingly well-grounded in common sense, part of me wishes they’d have cleaned up the tutorial aspect.

The content of a “Mission” in Monster Hunter almost invariably involves hunting and killing a monster, or many monsters, sometimes with deviations from the path to do things like cut meat off of small monsters or helplessly heft Very Valuable Monster Eggs back to the start of the level while your human buddies protect you from grunts. Whatever the goal, the missions are self-explanatory: you might start you out at the bottom of a mountain; without reading the briefing, if you be a man, you will know: you must climb to the top of that mountain, and you must slash the fuck out of whatever is waiting up there.

There exist literally a trillion ways this game concept can shit its trunks immediately after jumping into the pool; Capcom admirably dodge more than 999,999,999,900 of them. The very fact that this game was not completed and released as a member of the pseudo-real-time turn-based “massively multiplayer online role playing game” format alone is quite frankly breathtaking. No, Monster Hunter is not about grinding numbers. Rather, it is quite literally about grinding axes — and no, the “literally” is not a joke word in this case, as it was in the first sentence of this paragraph. You literally do grind your ax (or sword) to keep it sharp. When your weapon is sharp, it cuts the enemy; when you cut the enemy, blood spurts out. If you’re hitting the enemy in the right spot with a sharp enough weapon, more blood comes out than if you hit them in any other spot.

Monster Hunter, ideally, is never about numbers; if you be a Real Man, you should be able to walk cold into any mission with the very first weapon you find and kill everything. It’s a skill game. Keep your weapon sharp (if it goes dull in the middle of a battle, you must retreat to somewhere safe, and sharpen it), keep your wits at hand, and stay focused, and you should be able to kill anything with enough practice. Enemies possess varied (albeit predictable, in an adorably Megaman-boss-pattern sort of way) AI patterns that are interesting enough to make you relish the moments where you kill one, and two more emerge from the shadows. Mission structures normally have it that higher ranked missions reuse the same locales with more monsters. Once you’ve formally installed yourself into Monster Hunter, the repetition isn’t a problem: the repetition is life, and life is good.

Now we will tenuously compare this game to Grand Theft Auto, by way of Metal Gear Solid: when Hideo Kojima was asked, back in 2004, if he’d ever consider making a big open-world game like Grand Theft Auto, he replied that such simply isn’t the way of the Japanese game designer; he mentioned the scene in the first Metal Gear Solid where a cybernetic ninja is delivering a parody of a Shakespearean soliloquy while suffering beneath the clawed foot of a giant robot. The player, as main character Solid Snake, views this scene through the sights of a portable stinger missile launcher; destroying that robot is what he came here to do; though now that the ghostly cybernetic ninja is revealed to be his old war buddy, he’s confused: if he shoots the robot, the ninja will die. The player is able to aim the missile launcher freely, and even press the trigger button. However, pressing the trigger button merely results in Solid Snake whispering “No — I . . . can’t!” And thus we’re forced to listen to the end of the soliloquy. Says Kojima, of this scene: “It’s ‘liberty’ over ‘freedom’; the player is playing the role of Solid Snake; this game is a ‘open-world’ game; it just so happens that ‘the world’, for Solid Snake, at right this moment, consists of that hangar, that robot, and that Ninja, and Snake is not the type of person to shoot his friend, even if the player doesn’t care.”

So it is that, to a “Japanese” game designer, an “open-world” game ideally consists of a setting with context-appropriate restrictions on transportation and a single, all-holy “occupation” (rather than “ambition”) for the main character. Monster Hunter is a “sandbox” game about subsistence. You “play” the “role” of a hunter of monsters. The people of your village will never travel abroad, and they might not want to. There’s more than enough context to conclude that That Mountain Over There and That Lake and Those Caves are “The Entire World” to these people. Hunting Monsters is life. You hunt monsters, you bring meat back to the village, you sell the meat so that the people can have food, you use the money to buy, modify, sharpen weapons, and then you hunt more monsters — because (and this is crucial) you love hunting the monsters, and the monsters love being hunted.

This never gets boring because your character is constantly changing. You’re constantly earning new items and trinkets and pieces of clothes or armor; your weapons get shinier and sharper, and — most importantly — you get better at playing the game. Experiencing different patterns of more monsters as you tackle quests with higher skill ratings is, to say the very least, far more psychologically fulfilling than playing a fighting game against the computer.

It helps that the game’s controls are so disgustingly perfect, with a monkey-barrel of delicious quirks; if you can at least understand the spirit of the idea that people love Megaman because he can’t duck (that is to say, that the game design of Megaman is lovingly crafted in such a way that ducking is out of the question, and, furthermore, pointless), then you possess the possibility to adore Monster Hunter. The intricate differences between swords and axes and shields and longbows and crossbows (and spears, by god, spears) are figuratively delicious; learning each weapon is at least as entertaining as tackling a new character in a fighting game.

Ideally, in a game like this, every motion of the player character will be blest with a joy-like friction; the simple act of pressing a button and swinging an ax should feel like Something; let us remember the lesson of Super Mario 64, where just running around outside of the castle was More Fun than Anything we’d ever played at that point; in Monster Hunter, merely walking, footsteps crunching in snow, feels about as much fun as digging unecessary holes in Animal Crossing.

The moment where Everything comes together in Monster Hunter is, indisputably, when you first play it multiplayer. Your friend might have a long bow, and you have a short sword. You might have just one velociraptor-looking dinosaur-thing standing in the middle of a round clearing, hissing like a cat in heat, and your friend might be like “I guess I’ll shoot this guy”, and you might be like “Okay”, and then your friend shoots, and hits the velociraptor thing roughly in the shoulder blade, which isn’t its weak point, though hell if there exists any creature in any world real or imagined that wouldn’t get kind of pissed off when someone shoots it in the shoulder. Your bow-carrying friend now has the runt dinosaur’s attention. You walk up nonchalantly behind it and stab it in the liver. “Hey, that was kind of cool.”

Eventually, you’re playing with three other friends, against nine velociraptor things, and you all get killed, maybe because one of you is trying to carry back a totally optional monster egg that can be exchanged for Big Money. “Okay guys, maybe we’re going to have to, uhh, actually think about this.” Thinking about it, of course, cannot exclude the Monster Egg, because you guys want some Big Money.

Months pass; you’re sitting in your office with a cup of coffee and a message pops up in your Gmail chat. Your friend asks how you’re doing, if you’re going to that show tomorrow night, and then tells you that he got a new sword.

Monster Hunter wins the game we call “the games industry” because it’s never Conversation Topic #1, even while you’re playing it. This is something the rest of the aspiring blockbustermakers don’t seem to get. Bloated game-entertainment hybrids like Metal Gear Solid 4 aim to be Conversation Topic #1 with as many people as possible, despite fatalistically knowing full well that people will only talk about one thing for so long. Monster Hunter, by lodging itself firmly at Conversation Topic #3 or below, charismatically stays endearing; it’s As Much of a Videogame as the majority of civilized humans should be willing to play. Like Any Old MMORPG, it’s often the Only Game that its fans play, regardless of how many games they’d played before getting hooked. However, unlike Any Old MMORPG, Monster Hunter miraculously manages never to feel lonely or futile. The reason is simple: it’s not about numbers, it’s about skill. (Yes, we’ve mentioned this maybe sixteen times already.) Anything that can’t be accomplished through virtuoso skill can be convincingly, gloriously faked through cooperation with trusted friends.

Furthermore, Monster Hunter is commendably bold for never failing to instill any aspect with a risk/reward dynamic. One example: with co-op play comes Great Fun, though you also have to share the rewards. Therefore, the promise of monopolizing the loot is a fitting reward for the player willing to learn monster patterns inside and out and tackle missions alone.

Or maybe, let’s say, you want with all your heart to be a guy who uses a longbow, though your friends acknowledge that you suck at using a longbow; so you play some quests on your own to try to get better. You long for that next play session, where you’ll show them how much more awesome you are now.

Expert knowledge of the Japanese games industry leads the typical analyst to wonder how in the hell a game as good as Monster Hunter ever got made: it has no girl-faced anime boys, no ridiculous plots involving incest and/or lesbian robot maids shaped like three-year-old girls with breasts the size of canteloupes — for starters. Part of the miracle of Monster Hunter owes itself to its PlayStation2 roots, back in a time when Capcom was probably the only videogame company in the Japanese archipelago that saw the need to craft new franchises. Shinji Mikami was getting vaguely vengeant, producing Devil May Cry, a ground-up revisioning of survival horror in Resident Evil 4, and numerous quirky games which almost entirely fell flat. Monster Hunter was born of the same zeitgeist that plopped out Steel Battalion, a mecha-piloting simulation game that required a $200 three-piece table-sized plastic controller with forty buttons, and Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter, a ten-hour “RPG” about merely walking from one grand point A to one grand point B. Monster Hunter was the unassuming little brother of brassy, bossy, high-aiming, bigger-being, harder-falling charisma-fiends like Viewtiful Joe, killer7, and the holy Godhand.

Monster Hunter was also developed by — and this is very important — the same little team that (corrrectly) thought Resident Evil: Outbreak was an Amazingly Good Idea. Outbreak was an online game where you can’t voice chat, where you play out bite-sized TV-episode-length survival horror scenarios with people who you can only differentiate by the character they’re playing. Furthermore, each character has a specific purpose: the girl has the ability to pick locks, though is very weak in battle. The other players will have to protect her if they want to unlock doors and facilitate navigation through the scenario. If the girl dies, she becomes a zombie, in a little Pac-Man-like twist, and the player controlling her feels absolutely free to try to convert his former teammates to the zombie side, because A.) That’s what zombies do, and B.) It’s not like these people are your real-life friends, anyway — you can’t even chat with them.

Monster Hunter was not, immediately, a hit. As with Outbreak, a certain group of like-minded, forward-thinking individuals read scattered descriptions of it and immediately removed their shirts in reverence. What differentiates a game like Monster Hunter from a game like Godhand is that Godhand is compromised from the get-go: the guys behind it wanted to make something huge and iconic, and at the same time, they wanted to make a hardcore, explosively difficult game; somewhere along the line, as dictated by the flowchart in The One Spreadsheet that every Japanese game company marketing department shares on Google Documents, they reached the step where “If your game still isn’t Super Mario Bros. at this point, inject it with terribly forced, over-the-top, undoubtedly ‘intentional’ stupidity, so as to cultivate a ‘cult’ audience.” Godhand is probably Action Button Dot Net‘s favorite game of all-time, though you won’t find it on our list of the best games ever because we know it will come again, and at last, it will be perfect.

In the meantime, here’s Monster Hunter, a game that accomplishes exactly what it means to accomplish, a game that believed in itself for several years before suddenly everyone and their brother became No Longer Blind to its awesomeness. The game had gathered up a rabble-like group of online die-hards in Japan, and fell face-first to the floor in America. It’s downright shocking, in hindsight, that Capcom didn’t just tell the Monster Hunter development staff to go off into the broom closet and fuck themselves like they did to Clover Studio after that hilarious incident involving Godhand selling 5,200 copies in its opening week. It’s also mildly perplexing that they didn’t try to spin the game off into a Monster Hunter Battle Network EXE v.1.62 or something else involving decimal points and protagonists that enter CyberReality to hunt virtual monsters, who are actually computer viruses using decks of space-cards and contextually-explained turn-based menus (mounted on holograph-spitting wristbands). Rather, Capcom acknowledged the enthusiastic little cult crowd, threw them a bone with an expansion pack, and encouraged the team to go ahead and make a PSP version, if that’s what they really wanted to do.

Wild extrapolation ensues: something points to the scandalous possibility that someone in a high position at Capcom allowed the production of Monster Hunter to go on despite its ability to sell five million copies on day one and make the front page of the fucking Wall Street Journal because — GASP — they kinda just liked the game a lot on a fundamental level, and wanted to see it honed, sharpened. We will not speculate re: the identity of this man, because that alone would probably be enough for him to get the death penalty in this world where being human just isn’t permitted for a Japanese Serious Businessman.

Monster Hunter Portable was so perfect it was ridiculous. We can imagine the first wave of reviewers clawing away at it, scoffing every time the game swiftly dodged any possible mainstream criticism. The game was not, immediately, proclaimed from newspaper building rooftops as the Greatest Thing Ever, though this was probably because the reviewers hadn’t all logged at least a dozen hours in co-op with people they like on human levels. Monster Hunter Portable was released in the age of Brain Training and Animal Crossing, on the eve of self-bettering and/or non-game software’s temporary takeover of Conversation Topic #1.

Slow and steady, the word of mouth spread like wildfire. Eventually, Monster Hunter 2 was released on PlayStation2, further solidifying the presence as a “Japanese videogame series”. (Crucial point: the “2″ is pronounced “dos“, which hundreds of thousands of Japanese people eventually and simultaneously learned meant “two” in Spanish.) Not a year after Monster Hunter Portable came Monster Hunter Portable 2nd, which even further emphasized that this game was a series. And then, magically, as though it were the simplest thing in the world, Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G, an expansion pack of a sequel of a portable version of a home console game which already possessed an expansion pack and a sequel, was released and became the first PSP game to sell more than a million copies in Japan; a week later, it became the first PSP game to sell more than two million copies in Japan.

Monster Hunter is now, officially, an experience as ingrained in the Japanese pop-culture as Dragon Quest. Only — love Dragon Quest like we do — it’s even better, because it bizarrely encourages the player to get out of the house, and the player never complains.

We here at Action Button Dot Net salute the development team of Monster Hunter for their unwavering inability to compromise on their original vision, for their stalwart confidence in their sole concept, for the perfect joy-like friction of their game’s movement. And mostly, we salute Monster Hunter for its status as the best “hang-out game” of all-time.

There exist people in this world who will tell you that they play World of Warcraft because of the “social element”, or that they don’t play World of Warcraft, though if they did, it would be because of the “social element”. They’ll tell you that they play World of Warcraft because they get a chance to hang out with their online buddies (presumably while listening to Swedemetal in their underwear and quoting Duke Nukem over Skype with their guildmates). There’s something weirdly despairing about this; it might not be “nice” to extrapolate further. Instead, let’s just say that the gate into World of Warcraft Country is quadruple deadbolted: if you want to convince a real-life friend to join your clan, your friend has to love math, really love math, and be willing to own his own high-spec PC and spend six hours a night in his own underwear. Thus, it is perhaps difficult to convert the average human to the world of World of Warcraft. Monster Hunter, though, requires just a PSP (pretty cheap used) and a single disc of software; it is playable with no knowledge of analytical trigonometry even if you suck at pushing buttons, because your friends can help you; it is also portable, so you can play it on the train, when you don’t have anything else to do, anyway.

The original Monster Hunter Portable was envisioned as a kind of on-the-go pocket-sized grinder for your stay-at-home Monster Hunter 2 character. You’d get home, connect your PSP to your PS2 with a USB cable, and hop online to join your cult-fan buddies for some monster-hunting and text-chatting. Somewhere during the game’s production, the developers realized the amazing potential of the local multiplayer, and succeeded in fleshing it out thoroughly. When the game was eventually released, it was the farthest thing from uncommon to see a group of two to four somewhat dissheveled, pimply, backpack-carrying lovable Japanese Man Boys screaming at PSPs in restaurants serving exclusively greasy cuisine. With a time-lapse-like explosion, the same thing that happened to the videogame industry in general between 1991 and 2002 happened to Monster Hunter in about six months.

For the last year, in truth, it’s been nearly impossible to board a segment of Tokyo mass transit between the hours of one and seven PM and not spot a group of eight or more schoolboys with PSPs, happily grinding their axes in rotating teams of four while chatting about soccer or baseball. With the advent of Portable 2nd G — that is, with the release of the first series installment with three modifiers after the title — the Monster Hunters are becoming ubiquitous. Years ago, you might have never suspected that, one day, there would be a hardcore arcade-style action videogame that an attractive cosmopolitan man and his attractive cosmopolitan girlfriend would play together at Starbucks while discussing what they’re going to give so-and-so as a wedding present.

Truly, this game is the Son of Street Fighter II. Things are only going to get more interesting from here on out.

 

 

There’s a chance that the “more interesting” things might actually not have anything to do with Monster Hunter, and it’s just as well. Capcom, knowing and loving money, decided to yank the plug out of Monster Hunter 3 for the PlayStation 3 (it probably would have been released on the Xbox 360, anyway, which is no problem for us) and instead develop it for the Nintendo Wii. Its graphics will likely not look much better than the PlayStation2 games, naturally, and the online play experience will no doubt by gimped by Nintendo’s staunch no-chat policy. Nintendo has previously refused to allow any kind of inter-player communication for any games, even super-popular ones like Super Smash Bros.; with Monster Hunter, it’s a case of damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t. The Wii will no doubt open up the Monster Hunter series to millions of people who’ve never played it before, though they’ll be unable to experience the game the precise way it was meant to be experienced: in Starbucks, face-to-face with a colleague-turned-friend after work, talking about the boss’s new stupid pair of shoes. Quite frankly, what we’re saying is that the types of “newcomers” who will buy Monster Hunterbecause” it’s on the Wii are simply not, psychologically, the type of people to be able to enjoy playing a game that basically boils down to mindless ax-grinding if they can only do so by themselves or through Nintendo’s glory-hole-like online service (well, they’ve recently announced a TV-top-mounted microphone-thing, though who knows how well that’s going to be received; we maintain that face-to-face local multiplayer is what makes this game). Aiming the bow with the Wii Remote and winding the nunchuk and remote in a bike-pedaling fashion to roast meat will only be fun for so many five-minute bursts. After that, the honeymoon is over, and the same word of mouth that saw Nintendo skyrocket could very well spell a second-degree doom for them: “Yeah, that Monster Hunter game? I don’t see what the fuss is all about” will quickly evolve to “Yeah, Nintendo — I hear they’re not doing so hot recently”.

Let’s forget about Nintendo and Capcom for a while. It’s not hard to sweep them under the rug: after all, one of those companies held a press conference earlier this year to announce that its beloved characters were back, this time in a baseball gameagain, and the other company refuses to budget more than a total $10,000 for voice-acting despite spending Hollywood Prices on visual effects. Instead, let’s merely hypothesize about the good things, namely that the videogame industry has learned a megaton lesson from Monster Hunter. Savvy developers have been eyeing it suspiciously since just before the release of the first portable installment. Tenuous connection alert: Level-5 developed Dragon Quest VIII based on Enix’s specifications. In Dragon Quest VIII, for the first time in a Dragon Quest title, the player character walks beneath actual trees when he enters a forest. In previous installments, the main character walks over map squares painted with a “trees” tile. Dragon Quest VIII was a trumpet call signaling that someone, at last, understood that all of the “conventions” and “traditions” of videogames have only ever just been placeholders for More Interesting Things to come. Level-5′s next game, Rogue Galaxy, was a love-letter to Dragon Quest, presenting us with a wonderful concept not so greatly executed. It was baby-step in the direction Dragon Quest: The Action Game. It retained the numbers and status levels and item collection of Dragon Quest while trying to seamlessly contextualize the world. The minds behind Dragon Quest apparently got the idea, slapped Rogue Galaxy together with Monster Hunter Portable, tinkered with a prototype for a bit, and announced to the public that Dragon Quest IX would be a multiplayer action game for the Nintendo DS. The announcement came too soon: if only they’d waited for this year, and the explosion of Portable 2nd G, the people wouldn’t have screamed bloody murder, and the ankle-biting management at Square-Enix wouldn’t have insisted that the game be klonked over the head and drug back into turn-based-menu-battling territory. Much as we’ll still buy the game on day one and be sure to unzip our trousers before powering on the DS (so as to avoid zipper damage), we’re pretty confident (about 99% so) in prematurely deeming the game a failure of concept.

That’s okay, though — because we’re sure everyone else is listening, as evidenced by the fact that, at the end of July 2008, Sega will release a PSP version of Phantasy Star Online, from which Monster Hunter borrows as much spirit as Phantasy Star Online borrows from Diablo. Up, up, and up, the cycle will go; Monster Hunter is the torch-bearer for a new era of delightfully tired retreads. That is to say, it is the Dragon Quest of the Next Generation.

Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G is the best Monster Hunter game because it is the newest one. The games are only getting better because, in this game’s case, “better” expressly means “more streamlined”. It ranks in at #23 on the Action Button Dot Net Manifesto‘s list of the 25 best games of all-time despite possessing perhaps more potential to rank in at #1 than any other game on the list. How could this game rank in at #1? Simple:

1. It would have amazing graphics

2. It would be controllable with a dual-analog-stick controller (for aiming bows and arrows and the like)

3. It would be voice-chat enabled, for a home console, with a feature-identical portable version with which one can simply and quickly upload one’s character data

4. No NPCs in the game would ever speak a single word to the main character

5. There would never be any loading times

6. The quest sign-up system would be a lot smoother (ie, the quests would not need written descriptions; maybe there’d be just a star difficulty ranking and the name of the locale; the players can figure out what to do from there)

7. The inventory management system would have to be faster

8. Players would have to be able to do a few more things in town, with their money (have pieces of clothes dyed different colors, buy bigger houses, et cetera)

One point perhaps not entirely deserving of an entry on this list deals with the nature of the action: there’s a possibility that it could be hugely, monolithically better. Extrapolating on how this could happen is not something we’re about to do without first being paid a large sum of money. If you are a videogame developer and looking to make a superior clone of Monster Hunter, feel free to contact us with a price quote.

design by reroreroIn the meantime, there’s really nothing else to say about Monster Hunter, except to recap the cute anecdote about how when the first game was released in the West, Capcom cut out the blood because the monsters look suspiciously like animals, and showing blood gushing from animals in a videogame in America is in violation of some sort of anti-simulated-animal-cruelty regulations. Which is kind of hilarious when you consider the striking resemblance between real humans and the zombies in Dead Rising, which can be dismembered and decapitated in the American version. Of course, in the Japanese version of Dead Rising, when you swing a samurai sword at a zombie, he falls flat on his back and vanishes. Capcom and/or Sony Computer Entertainment America weren’t opposed to the idea of cutting meat off animals and roasting steaks on a miniature spit in order to recover your character’s health, though showing the animals experience any kind of quantifiable pain that wasn’t represented by raw numbers just seemed like too grotesque of a risk. What a weird world we live in.

–tim rogers

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13 Responses to MONSTER HUNTER PORTABLE 2nd G

  1. Diablo 2 does have something to do with skill. For the record, so does WoW.

    The problem is that the skill lies, mostly, in manipulating numbers. In WoW for instance, your efficacy lies not only in the more blatant number-juggling (choosing the right equipment, the right enchantments, the right gems, etc. – all before you are actually fighting anything), but in the management of a varied stock of numbers: skill rotations, consumable timers, hp and mana pools.

    Having never played Monster Hunter, I guess the idea is that the skill is somehow physical (let’s not play the “it’s a computer program, it’s all numbers” game); it is based on how you see your enemy, when you press the button, and knowing how your little animated weapon is going to careen outwards from your little animated body and collide with the little animated monster.

    In the interest of science, Tim, you should probably play Hellgate: London, which features a quasi-action mechanic that lies somewhere between the clicky number-juggling of Diablo 2 and, say, River City Ransom. It is, unfortunately, 1. lodged irreversibly in a spectuacularly ugly “Western” game design aesthetic (post-apocalyptic space marines), and 2. about to be abandoned by its developer in some truly hilarious game-industry business-political nonsense. I could send you my copy, I guess.

  2. so this game is great because:

    1. it puts action into a genre that typically revolves around numbers that you can actually see, thereby dissolving a “placeholder” and instituting one of the “better things to come,” and

    2. it is good to play portable games with friends, in the same room.

    am i missing anything?

  3. Great review!

    I would like to point out one more thing about Monster Hunter. It’s got astoundingly good art design behind it. The armor, weapon and monster designs are just phenomenal. They conceptualized great looking monsters then extrapolated armor and weapon and objects from their body parts. So cool!

    It’s more than just a great concept though, it’s the execution that makes it special.

    There are so many times when I’ve encountered a new monster or crafted a new item where i thought “wow, Ive never seen anything so cool before, Im surprised no one’s thought of that before”.

    This is the most visually refined game out there. There are few games with such smart, interesting, engaging, thoughtful art.

  4. somes:

    so this game is great because:

    1. it puts action into a genre that typically revolves around numbers that you can actually see, thereby dissolving a “placeholder” and instituting one of the “better things to come,” and

    2. it is good to play portable games with friends, in the same room.

    also the action is very well refined. it’s as sharp as a fighting game, amazingly simple to understand, pick-up-and-playable. the world of the game revolves entirely around common sense. tactics include getting a monster to chase you so your friend, who’s hiding in some trees, can shoot him in his weak point, et cetera. it’s not just that it’s an action game — it’s a sharp action game, and it rewards you for being skilled. and playing i with friends isn’t just good — it’s great.

    nobinobita:

    yeah, the art is really sharp. might not be some people’s “cup of tea”, though as what it is, they really poured their souls into it.

    kzkb1:

    no, you‘re fantastic for having actually read it.

  5. CubaLibre:

    I have played Hellgate: London.

    I did not like it.

    Send me your copy anyway.

  6. A friend and I have played Monster Hunter Freedom 2 for almost 300 hours. This review is basically an explanation of why my save has that many hours on it.

  7. Tim, this game finally came out in the US and I have finally “get it” after having played with friends.

    What kind of armor set were you packing before you moved onto another game? I am wearing a fuzzy Khezu armor with a long katana and doing class 3 missions.

  8. This review has basically summed up my life since MHFU came out in the US. It also has a way of bringing strangers together to become friends. One day at my university I heard someone talking about Monster Hunter while eating lunch and asked him if he played. Now I’m part of a group of at least 7 hunters that play daily in the student center. It’s an amazing game for meeting people with similar sensibilities.

  9. So how do you think I should try to get my friends to buy this game?

    Even better, how do you think I should go about getting my friends to buy PSPs?

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