With its simple presentation and focus on multiplayer
competition, the Monster Rancher series has begged for a decent handheld
version. Though Tecmo produced a few series spin offs for the Game
Boy Color, it took the more powerful hardware of the Game Boy Advance
to draw a true portable version of Monster Rancher out of the company.
But while Monster Rancher Advance does a wonderful job of reproducing
the look and basic gameplay of the series, Tecmo's ambitionless implementation
of the formula results a game that falls short of the charm and depth
we've come to expect from the franchise.
The premise is the same as it ever was: players
are put in charge of a fledgling monster ranch, this time run by a
squabbling brother and sister duo named Zest and Aroma. Though the
game offers a new location (Age Island) and a new breeding association
(AGIMA), the changes are mostly cosmetic. Once again, players are
given control of the ranch and freedom to create, breed, train, and
battle their monsters as they see fit, with the ultimate goal being
to train a creature to reach to top of the tournament circuit.
Due to the fact that GBA is cartridge-based, one
of the Monster Rancher's main hooks -- the ability to randomly generate
monsters from a CD or DVD -- is understandably missing. Instead, monsters
are created by entering text strings; the further you move up the
tournament ladder, the more characters you're allowed to enter. As
with Monster Rancher 3, all the creatures you find are saved in a
book and can be generated again at any time. While it's not quite
as addictive as the disc-based system, it's still entertaining to
plow through all the words and names in search of an ideal monster.
The rewards, though, aren't nearly as interesting. There are relatively
few unique monsters, and the different breeds of each type are more
or less simple palette swaps. The special traits from Monster Rancher
3 make a welcome return, however, and there are many unique and powerful
ones to discover over the course of the game.
Unfortunately, while the core breeding and battling
concepts are just as fun as ever, there's very little new in MRA and
a whole lot that seems to be missing. The biggest new feature in the
gameplay (other than its portability) is the addition of coaches.
All the training is handled by monster coaches and, as you progress
through the game, you can replace the default trainers with your own
creations. A monster with a high rating in a specific stat will give
a substantial training bonus when coaching that stat. Essentially,
coaching offers a way to carry your progress over to the next monster,
without having to resort to the long process of selective breeding
(which also makes a return for MRA). Other than this, "new" features
are few and far between. Monsters no longer die of old age and new
attacks are now learned through special battles with teachers, which
play out like every other battle in the game.
The battle system itself is more or less identical
to the one used in the previous games. Players are given limited control
over their creature during combat and can move it left or right and
activate attacks based on range. The battles use similar presentation
to Monster Rancher 3; each attack is accompanied by a short cutscene,
which keeps the simple battles visually interesting. However, after
four installments, the fighting system is beginning to show it's age.
It's easy to forgive Tecmo for not taking any real chances with the
first portable installment of the franchise, but sooner or later the
series is going to need a rework.
MRA certainly could have used a little innovation
because the basic game has been severely stripped down from previous
installments. As single player games, Monster Rancher always excelled
because of the myriad events and goals that were there to distract
players from the often dull routine of raising up monsters. But, other
than a few conversations between Zest and Aroma and a couple of invitational
tournaments, MRA offers little in the way of variety - no exploration,
no ranch upgrades, only four secret monster types, and no real special
events. Considering that the graphics and sound are almost on par
with the PSone installments, it's a shame that more time wasn't spent
getting the gameplay up to the same level.
Thankfully, Monster Rancher Advance does excel
at one of the most rewarding aspects of the series: multiplayer. Thanks
to the portable nature of MRA and the ability to link four GBAs, the
game offers one of the most robust sets of multiplayer options in
the series (though each player does need their own cart). In addition
to the standard one on one battles, players can also participate in
new "tag battles" which offer the ability to switch monsters on the
fly, just like Capcom's Versus series of fighting games. The creature
warming the bench will slowly recover health, and the feature adds
a bit more strategy to the series' simplistic, but enjoyable, multiplayer
battles. Also new is the ability to wager items, money, or monsters
on the outcome of a battle, another easily implemented, but rewarding
Down in the lab
Unfortunately, drawing those other players into
the game is the toughest part about MRA. The implementation of the
basic Monster Rancher premise is so bare bones and by the book that,
as a single player game, it never offers the variety, addictiveness,
or playability of the previous installments. Longtime Monster Rancher
fans, or those who can fish another player into competition will still
find a lot to enjoy in Monster Rancher Advance. But if portability
isn't a major draw, most players will be better served with one of
the more full-featured previous installments.
Review by Zak McClendon, GIA.
|Monster Rancher Advance
||Game Boy Advance|
|Monster Rancher Advance and Tsugunai ship