Why I’m More Excited for 'Monster Rancher' Than 'Pokémon'

It’s rough around the edges, but more personal

Key Takeaways

  • Both the remake of Pokémon Diamond/Pearl and the ports of Monster Rancher 1 & 2 look great.
  • Monster Rancher has much less mass-market appeal than Pokémon and can feel a bit plodding.
  • Monster Rancher’s biggest strength is its smaller scope and far more personal stakes.
Opening screen screenshot from 'Monster Rancher' & 'Monster Rancher 2.'

I’m far more excited about Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX than Pokémon Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl because I miss feeling a personal connection with my critters.

This in no way means that I’m not looking forward to the Switch remakes of Diamond and Pearl, just that I’m looking forward to playing Monster Rancher again that much more. Pearl is my favorite Pokémon game, honestly, and I can’t wait to check out a modern reimagining of it. But Monster Rancher has held a very special place in my heart for almost 25 years.

And I mean, I get it. Pokémon was lightning in a bottle, giving the world exactly the kind of monster-collecting RPG it didn’t know it needed, then building off that for decades. It’s a fun series with fantastic creature designs and mechanics that are as accessible as they are unexpectedly deep. I prefer Monster Rancher precisely because it’s not most of those things.

A Very Different Monster Battler

Monster Rancher takes a much more personal approach with its structure: you live in a small town and have a new ranch where you plan to raise monsters. That’s about all. You’re not traveling around the country to "Be The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was"—you’re trying to carve out a modest life for yourself.

A screenshot from Pokemon Brilliant Diamond.

In lieu of exploring and fighting gangs and capturing wild animals, you’re slowly eking out a living and possibly improving your home, little by little. Though exploration is an option, kind of, by sending your monster on expeditions (but it’s still local). And yes, you still get to make imaginary creatures fight each other for your benefit, but it’s always via a structured tournament.

Your days aren’t spent hiking between towns, but rather in training—like, actually training—your monsters slowly, over several in-game years. You get to decide what stats you want to focus on and choose when they’re ready to fight in a tournament. You pick out what to feed them (hopefully something they like!) and figure out when to let them rest or push them a little harder. You’re not just getting into a random fight and watching them gain levels; you’re incrementally plotting out their growth.

The Ranch Is Where the Heart Is

It’s the monster training that’s stuck with me the most after all this time, and the reason why I still prefer Monster Rancher’s Gobots to Pokémon’s Transformers. Monster Rancher is more deliberately paced, not as accessible, and less interesting to look at. But it also has something Pokémon games don’t have, despite how much the fiction tries to play it up: Monster Rancher has heart.

A screenshot from the Monster Rancher games.

So much of Pokémon’s world-building in the games and the show revolve around how these creatures are friends and how much everyone loves each other. However, barely any of that comes through when you’re actually playing the game. Having a little picnic with my Croagunk is cute, but mechanically, the game still treats it as a tool for winning battles or getting around physical barriers.

Conversely, Monster Rancher makes me care about my monsters because they’re my monsters. I raised them from a baby. I trained them over the course of years. I fed them, kept them healthy and happy. I watched them grow up, and they, in turn, learned to trust me. And in some cases, sadly, I watched them pass on as the years caught up to them.

I know it’s all just numbers and polygons, but it really felt like I had spent virtual years building these relationships, and it always hurt to say goodbye. I don’t get that from Pokémon, no matter how attached I may get to my Vespiquen or Empoleon. They helped me win fights, sure, but I didn’t really know them. I didn’t glean a personality from them. I didn’t get to watch them grow up.

When Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl come out this November, I’m going to be thrilled. I’m going to play at least one of them, and quite possibly several times over. But now it’s just a placeholder until December when I can get my hands on Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX. Not because I think Monster Rancher is the objectively better game, but because I’ll get to see (and make, and meet) my old friends again.

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