Whatever Happened to Monster Rancher
Raising creatures to fight one another was definitely a fad in the 1990s. Yes, Pokémon still exists, and Digimon is hanging on by a thread, but a couple of decades ago these games were everywhere. One of the earliest was Monster Rancher, known in Japan as Monster Farm. And it was released in the West before those Pocket Monsters were even called Pokémon!
In Monster Rancher, released in 1997 for the PlayStation, you had to raise a monster to get it stronger, so that it could win fights against other monsters. It had a unique gimmick, though, as you hatched the monsters from discs. Which discs? Any discs.
You went to the temple in-game and activated the altar. The game disc in your PlayStation would stop spinning, and you could then put any other CD inside the console. The game would then use the metadata on the CD to form a monster - some Christmas song CDs would give you a Hare named Santa! You could use music, games, copies of Windows 98, and even those free AOL discs that littered the landscapes of the 90s.
Of course, there was the possibility that two different CDs would make similar monsters, but there were over 200 obtainable creatures in the game. It was a lower chance than you having the same knock-off Tamagotchi as other people in your year group at school. Speaking of which, you could pop your memory card into your friend’s PlayStation to battle their monsters!
This first game really did set the tone for everything to follow. You had to train your monsters, making sure not to train them too hard without giving them a rest, and send them on jobs to earn money. Meanwhile, you’re feeding them with different foods to buff certain stats while the jobs and training increase others. Finally, you sent them off to have a fight, trying to raise your rank in each successive tournament.
The sequel, Monster Rancher 2, arrived in 1999 to much applause. With skippable cutscenes, more monsters (about twice as many!) and a different story, as well as some quality-of-life and graphical changes, it was pretty much more of the same. However, it was the only game in the series which was released in Europe - over a year later - so it was called Monster Rancher. It was only while researching this article that I realised that the one that I’d owned at the time was the only one actually released! I assumed I’d somehow missed the others.
Which makes it even stranger that the BBC showed the Monster Rancher anime! Because I absolutely loved it, despite hating Mocchi with a passion, so much that I despise him being used on almost every game’s case cover. It debuted in Japan in 1999, and starred Genki sucked into a far away world to do battle with the evil Moo. Though Moo as a villain would appear in later games, the dragon-type monster named Moo was only obtainable in Monster Rancher 2 - if you had a specific (rare) pressing of the Beck album Mellow Gold. Genki’s quest across the world of Pangaea was to find the Phoenix, the only monster capable of defeating Moo. Again, Phoenix was obtainable in the game, so long as you met certain requirements - but at least they weren’t CD-specific.
I’m not sure that every episode of the anime was shown in the UK. It was over 20 years ago, after all. For whatever reason, the one thing that has stuck with me all these years was a dragon telling Genki that he had clear eyes. I’d forgotten Mocchi saying its name at the end of sentences, I’d forgotten that Scott McNeil voiced Suezo, and I’d even blocked out the terrible theme song (monsters rule!). But the dragon saying “You have clear eyes” because Genki was standing his ground, staring him down, has been living rent free.
Back on the gaming front, Monster Rancher 3 (confusingly just called Monster Farm in Japan) released in 2001, this time for the PlayStation 2, and had much better - cel-shaded - graphics. You could now use DVDs as well as CDs to create monsters, but there were fewer types. Also, you didn’t actually have a ranch in this one. However, you could trade monsters with a friend, all you needed were two memory cards!
Monster Rancher 4 hit the shelves in 2003, and the biggest change was allowing you to raise up to five monsters at a time, upgraded from the single monster of previous entries. This allowed tag-team and group battles. There was also a rudimentary dungeon crawling segment, rather than just randomly sending off your monster to possibly fight against a wild creature. It contained more monsters than the previous title, but not quite as many variants as Monster Rancher 2.
The final entry of the main series was Monster Rancher EVO. It came out in 2005, and moved completely away from the ranching/tournament life. Instead, you work at a circus and have to put on shows. In between shows, you’ll have quests to do in each town you visit. Once you’ve solved whatever mystery you’re involved in, the circus moves on to the next location. It was much more of an RPG than a monster raising simulator, and people did not like it. If you think that EVO killed the franchise, you’d not be entirely wrong.
See, the main series has never received a follow-up, even after all this time. The PlayStation 3 didn’t get one, the PlayStation 4 never had one… However, there were some spin-off titles!
The first spin-off came in 1999, and was released on the Game Boy Color, called Monster Rancher Battle Card Game. A sequel was released for the PlayStation in 2000 - Monster Rancher Battle Card Episode II. Both took you away from raising monsters, and instead the cards had monsters on them. The first game didn’t have a story, but the second one gave you a reason to go around challenging people to a card game. Episode II was also superior in that you could use CDs to create monster cards - the Game Boy Color obviously lacking the ability to remove the game cart without consequence.
Hilariously, the Game Boy Color game came out before the actual Monster Rancher Collectible Card Game, which lasted about as long as it took to write that sentence. There were 99 cards (and 33 foils), and apart from an anime tie-in expansion, it was discontinued without fanfare. The Japanese version - Monster Farm Battle Card - had four expansions, but was only marginally longer lived.
Monster Rancher Hop-A-Bout (Monster Farm Jump in Japan) also came out in 2000, and this time completely removed the rancher and the ranch! You played as the monsters, having been abducted and are trying to find treasures to eventually get home. The “hop” of the title came from the fact that the monsters hopped from tile to tile, trying to reach the end of each level in the franchise’s oddest game.
A third title was released in 2000 - Monster Rancher Explorer! It was actually a reskin of a Japanese game called Solomon, which was a remake of Solomon's Key - the same way that Super Mario Bros. 2 was a reskin of Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic. The main monsters, Suezo, Hare, Tiger, and Mocchi, appear as power-ups as you run around trying to collect keys - if you can find them to unlock them, that is.
In 2001, Monster Rancher Advance saw the creatures hitting the Game Boy Advance. I mean, obviously. You created monsters by inputting words into a keyboard, and had to learn more words in-game to create more monsters. Apart from that, the gameplay was the familiar “raise monsters to fight other monsters” format.
Monster Rancher Advance 2 followed in 2002, and was more of the same - but it was backwards compatible. That meant you could bring your monsters over from the previous title via the link cable. Assuming you had two Game Boy Advance consoles. Also, its working title was Monster Rancher 2 Go, according to some assets that I found, and can find little other evidence of that fact.
In the mid-2000s there were some games released in Japan for mobile phones - Monster Farm POP, Monster Farm POP 2, Monster Farm POP Battle Online and Monster Farm Travel. After extensive research, I just can’t find out much about these, other than the fact that you created monsters by taking photos, and there were elements from the main titles.
Monster Farm Online came out for PC - a first - in 2007, and was discontinued after 11 months. Again, it was only released in Japan, as you can guess from the fact it was called Farm, not Rancher. They tried to pull a Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn in 2009, renaming it Monster Farm Lagoon, changing some systems and wiping the old world with a flood. Online created monsters using the internet, but Lagoon brought back the CD mechanic. However, it only lasted eight months before shutting down.
Monster Rancher DS came out in 2010 - but it was actually the second game on the Nintendo DS! It was a port of 2008s Monster Farm DS 2: Yomigaeru! Master Breeder Densetsu, rather than a port of 2007s Kaite Shabette Hajimeyou!: Monster Farm DS. No, I’m not making those titles up. Take a look at most of the anime titles from the 2019-2021 seasons.
In any case, Monster Rancher DS saw you doing the same thing as usual - raise monsters, fight them. The summoning mechanic this time was interesting, because you had the option of either drawing some symbols on the touch screen, or speaking into the microphone. For reference, drawing uWu results in a red Tiger. Unfortunately, for whatever reason Tecmo removed the ability to create monsters using the Game Boy Advance slot on the DS which was in the first Monster Farm DS.
An Android & iOS game came next, in 2011, called My Monster Rancher (or One Million Person Monster Farm in Japan). It was a very pared down version of the main game, with a lot of monetisation built in. Cooldown timers, creating new monsters, and what have you. It was closed down around the end of 2012, when the decision was made to shut down the developer Tecmo Koei Canada.
And there you have it - every Monster Rancher game, plus most of the Monster Farm titles. Okay, I suppose I can tell you about the rest of the Monster Farm games, too.
Koei Tecmo sat on the franchise for six years before almost out of nowhere, in December 2019, Monster Farm was released for the Nintendo Switch, Android and iOS! That’s right, they released the PlayStation game on multiple platforms - and only in Japan. It’s actually a remaster with better graphics, and you unlock new monsters from a database of half a million CDs, rather than something you already own.
That’s not all, as Monster Farm 2 released less than 12 months later - in September 2020 - also for the Switch, iOS and Android! So if you can read Japanese, you can buy them from the Japan eShop for about £20 each. Who knows, you might even be able to select Mellow Gold in the CD database and get yourself a Moo…
So that’s where we stand. Games like Dragonseeds, Jade Cocoon and Monster Seed came and went, but Monster Rancher stuck around for a good long while. Unfortunately, as of 2012 no new Monster Rancher titles have been released, and it doesn’t look like there are any on the way. But at least - as of writing this - all three seasons of the anime are on Amazon Prime Video, even if a copy of the PlayStation game will set you back £50…