Sunday, February 1, 2015

My Life With Monster Hunter: A Confessional  


This post has been a long time coming.

Back when Monster Hunter 3: Ultimate was still going strong, I was convinced to write words about my history with the series and why I enjoy it so much… but I just never got around to it.

Mea culpa.

Now that we’re literally days away from Monster Hunter 4: Ultimate, there's no possible excuse for procrastinating any further.

To anyone who’s been waiting, my apologies for the delay. Also, this piece is dedicated to @J_Monster, who can take down an Azure Rathalos in approximately 42 seconds.


…So, Monster Hunter.

My history with the series has been a strange one, although I suppose that's fair since the series is somewhat strange itself.

A very rough start.

I can clearly recall seeing the very first trailer for the game back in 2004 or so.

Although it wasn’t clear at the time how much was gameplay and how much was staged for show, the concepts were outstanding. Seeing hunters run through a forest with enormous weapons while fighting huge monsters? That was absolutely up my alley. And the suggestions of multiplayer? At the time I wasn't sure how it could possibly work given the limits of the PS2 technology, but I had already been a huge fan of Capcom for years by this point, so I was more than ready to see what they were going to deliver.

When the game actually came out… Well, let's just say that ‘disappointment’ doesn’t even begin to capture those feelings.

F*** this guy.

Although it wasn’t quite the all-out action I expected, the balance of going into town to craft items and take care of inventory before going out to kill monsters in the wild was fine. However, in this first iteration, attacking was controlled by moving the analog sticks. As anyone might guess, it was a pretty insane system. Worse, the game explained absolutely nothing about how it worked, or what was expected of me. I struggled through blindly until I made it to a desert area where the sand-swimming Cephadrome whupped my ass with impunity, so I threw up my hands in frustration and called it quits.

Better, but still lacking.

I didn't pay any attention to the various PSP versions that came later, but at some point on Twitter, I recall Dakota Grabowski running a contest and offering Monster Hunter Tri on the Wii as one of the prizes. I was lucky enough to win, so I figured trying a free copy to see how far the game had come was no great loss.

(So ultimately, getting back into the game was all his fault.)

Anyhow, it turned out that Tri was a huge improvement over the PS2 original, and good enough to get me to play to the end of the singleplayer campaign. However, I still walked away from it unsatisfied. Despite rolling credits, I didn't quite understand all the systems, and I didn't feel as though I got the experience that I was after. This “Big Monsters+Big Weapons” formula in Tri was missing something, so I turned to the most recent PSP version hoping that it would score where the others didn’t.

Dat Nargacuga!

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite was considered to be quite good in certain circles, so I tracked down a copy of that, and to be frank, Freedom Unite was absolutely amazing – it was just miles and miles better than what Tri delivered. This little UMD (remember those?) came packed with hundreds of hours of content, a vast menagerie of deadly creatures, and systems that were deeper than pretty much anything else I had seen at the time. It made Tri look shallow and dull, and I finally started to get a taste of what I was after.  

300 hours, yo.

Of course, it’s worth noting that to play effectively on the PSP, a person had to master "The Claw" -- a ridiculous hand contortion needed to move the d-pad and analog nub at the same time. It is an absolute testament to the quality of that game that I put up with doing The Claw for over 300 hours, and I doubt there are any other games that I’d ever do it for again.

So, to sum up my Monster Hunter journey: I saw a really cool trailer ten-ish years ago, tried different versions of the game and was let down with all of them, and then finally came across a technically deficient handheld version that sucked me in and never let go.

But what exactly was it that sold me so hard once I got in?

Well, I think what I like most about the series is that there’s such a strong vision that connects the art design, the combat, and the world. It was clear to see in the original trailer, and it’s the sort of thing that I haven’t commonly seen in games over the last thirty years.

Hey, quit eating that honey, you slob! I need that!

I found it quite fascinating to be able to go into a wilderness area to collect resources which were found in logical, natural places, and be able to observe monsters going about their business. For example, Honey is used to create Mega Potions to restore life on a quest, but to get the honey, a player needs to find… Beehives. It seems totally obvious, but the average game would have the honey in the nearest shop and make the player earn money to buy it. There are dozens of other instances like this, from going out to mine for ore, fishing for piscine parts, and so on. (Also, it’s totally common to see ants collecting the honey, or even a hungry Arzuros raiding the hives once in a while.)

An instantly-identifiable dragonslayer. 

It was also amazing to see that the artists and designers at Capcom took so much time to incorporate this idea of the natural world being such a factor into the player’s weaponry and armor. Rather than spending gold on an arbitrary piece of gear, every single thing the player wears or uses in battle is a trophy of previous successes. Very often, it's visually obvious to see where gear comes from just by looking at it – The scales and clawtips on a Rathalos helmet could only have come from the flying dragon itself, Khezu armor is just as pale and flabby as the cave-dweller is, and in general, the numerous bits and bobs from slain beasts are interwoven in all the designs. This expression of being a hunter speaks volumes about reinforcing the idea of the player’s role in a natural world.

Taking this same idea further, it’s over-the-top impressive that the developers crafted so many non-essential details to observe, and even made a whole library of cutscenes to flesh out the game’s ecology. Hang back in the shadows, and a Volvidon will use its long tongue to grab insects. The Barroth hangs out in mud pits, and the right bait on a beach will catch a Plesioth. As far as the videos I mentioned, most don't even appear during the game at all, but are instead found in an extras menu! This scene of the Qurupeco fishing is a favorite. That so much time and energy was devoted to creating these clips of the animals stalking their prey or having a goofy moment in their home territory show that the devs went the extra mile when approaching world creation, considering how it might really be if this nature existed, and imagining what if.

That same level of care and detail extends to the game’s technical side. For example, each weapon type has an amazing amount of depth. People coming to the series without taking the time to understand how it works often complain about how slow it feels, or how they can't get the same kind of ‘action-y’ feeling they might get from a God of War, or something similar – and that’s correct. Monster Hunter is not that game. However, each weapon is incredibly rich and strategic, and they must be understood to be appreciated.

Even Snake loves the Greatsword!

For example, when I tell people that my favorite weapon is the Greatsword, the first thing they inevitably say is "Oh my god, it's so slow"… Which it is, but only in a certain sense.
This massive blade is the signature weapon of the Monster Hunter series, and rightfully so. It's immense, intimidating, and absolutely effective when wielded properly, but like the other weapons, it requires work. Instead of swinging it around like a barbarian entering the fray, it's best used when the hunter knows where the prey is going to be, and even then, only to deal one or two massive slices before being sheathed as the hunter dodges away. This sort of "sniping" tactic isn’t what people expect, and is much more nuanced than one would assume at first glance.

The same goes for all the other weapons, from the way the Longsword encourages aggressive play in order to activate its special buffing power, or the way the Light Bowgunner needs to learn the elemental weaknesses of the monsters he's hunting in order to maximize the gun’s lower firepower, but greater flexibility. Each weapon is a complete experience unto itself, and the combat amply rewards people who find a favorite and fully engage.

Be afraid. 

The monsters that are hunted with the weapons demonstrate just as much depth. Upon seeing one for the first time, it's always overwhelming and maybe even a bit frightening. Learning their patterns and habits the way a real hunter would is fantastic – Which places do they frequent? Where do they go to hide? -- and a battle that seems impossible soon becomes easily accomplished with a little bit of thought and the right loadout. Perished from the poison of the Rathian’s tail sting? Bring Antidotes next time. Having a tough time taking down two Tigrexes at once? Hope you’ve got some Dung Bombs in your pack. Each creature has its own specific behaviors, and numerous details in its attacks, its physical makeup, and in its environment that (again!) reinforce the idea that this is a natural world that all makes sense when put together.

Stick together.

Of course, a large part of Monster Hunter is the ability to hunt with friends, and although I’ve enjoyed and completed all of the single player campaigns, this is probably the only game where I truly, truly enjoy doing the multiplayer with other people.

Never leave home without it.

Working out team strategies about how to tackle a big monster adds yet another layer on top of an already-deep game, and going into battle with each player having their own specialty is amazing. Who’s in charge of traps? Did you bring a paintball? Distract the beast over there while I sharpen my blade. There's just so much opportunity for different dynamics, and so many ways to see the battles play out based on how many people are in the party, what weapons they're using, what resources are available, and what environment the battle is in.

The best thing is that little moments of emergent gameplay constantly pop up, and everyone who's ever played for any length of time inevitably has their own stories – that time a companion Felyne knocked a monster down at just the right moment and saved their ass, when they pulled off an incredible hit that knocked a dragon out of the skies, or when a split-second dodge escaped a crushing blow.

Some people describe Monster Hunter as quasi-MMO -- and perhaps that's true -- but the roots of the experience are squarely centered in Capcom’s action game history. The series has never lost sight of the exciting, visceral thrill of going up against a massive monster and emerging victorious, and I’m glad.

Looks impressive, but I hope you know how to fire it.

Of course, grinding out items to get better gear is absolutely important, but even more important is the player’s skill. Having a big sword is great, but the game demands mastery of a split-second sort. Without intimate familiarity with the prey and the knowledge of how to play the game, the kind of gear one has doesn't matter at all. I’ve seen some incredible players achieve incredible victories while their characters are nearly naked, proving that skill is absolutely integral to a successful hunt.

So, why do I love Monster Hunter so much?

I hope this brief writeup has gone some way towards explaining my love of the series. It really is a unique, monumental title that not only created its own genre, but continually outdoes itself with every new iteration. It keeps getting bigger, deeper, more nuanced and more complex, and unlike so many others, remains engaging on nearly every level.
I really can't think of many other games out there that come together in such a perfect package, so when all is said and done, I guess that’s why you could say I'm a fan.

And I am.


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1 comments: to “ My Life With Monster Hunter: A Confessional


    Awesome Brad! Totally with you there, although I wasn't as disappointed with Tri as you were.

    Really enjoying MH4U, it's done a lot of things that I wanted, like better tutorial, more story, and item sets... it's like they made this game just for me! :)