In Japan, they play Monster Hunter everywhere. You’ll see groups of people in parks and cafes, or on packed commuter trains, handheld consoles clutched in their fists, battling creatures together.
This strange game series, a combination of role-playing adventure and hunting simulation has sold over 30m copies since the first title arrived on PlayStation 2 in 2004. Five years ago, it single-handedly saved Sony’s PSP console, with 2010’s Monster Hunter Portable 3rd shifting 5m copies. But somehow, it is yet to really crack the western market. The game can seem obtuse with its intricate combat systems and upgrade mechanics, and its multiplayer mode is based around fun and co-operation rather than the deathmatch-style competition we’re used to in the West.
But Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate – the latest title in the series, released on 3DS in February – is a game so beautifully planned and executed in every aspect that it will take your breath away multiple times in every sitting. It is a whole world jammed into a game cartridge the size of a stamp.
The core of the experience is hunting enormous monsters. Around this, there are all manner of extraneous activities that feed into and out of your hunting career, but this is basically a game built around boss fights. Perhaps the appeal is somewhat subconscious; we are, after all, a species of hunter-gatherers that nowadays do very little of either.
Upon either killing or capturing one of the game’s 51 large monsters (there are also smaller species), you carve them up and use the body parts obtained to make better armour and weapons. Your hunter begins in rather sad-looking basic togs, with one of each weapon type, but soon those early hunts lead to beautifully-designed (and much more effective) gear. Taking down a Great Jaggi, and then seeing the claws and tough skin reworked into a snazzy chestpiece, is a simple thrill that – as the monsters get tougher and the stuff you can make from them gets better – becomes deeply rewarding in its own right.
This reward loop is at the centre of everything in Monster Hunter 4U, the diabolical twist being that what you get from a monster is randomised every time. This is at once a minor source of frustration and the reason the system manages to pull you in so effectively. You kill, you hope for a specific item, you get another, you try again. This skinner box-like compulsion mechanic is often characterised as “grinding” – but this is a woefully off-base analysis.
Grinding is an experience familiar to any gamer, and refers to repeating the same actions in the same way multiple times in order to acquire experience points, gold, or loot. In a role-playing game (RPG), for example, if you’re not at a high-enough level to kill a boss you’ll often circle around and kill the same enemies over and over in order to level up. Grinding is, generally speaking, a bad mechanic, or at the least a boring one.
What is often mistaken for grinding in Monster Hunter – killing large monsters multiple times – is in fact a completely different design ethos. The iconic Rathalos, a huge winged dragon that breathes fire and can poison hunters with its long tail spike, has a range of possible attacks, as well as two behaviour states (normal and enraged), and can fight in almost any environment the game has to offer. It can fight on the ground, or take to the skies to rain fire and dive-bomb hunters.
The point about grinding is that you repeat the same mindless actions over and over – but when you fight a Rathalos you will never do this. In each fight the beast will respond to the hunters in a different way, chain attacks together in different orders, and surprise you over and over with its resourcefulness in unusual situations. As you progress through the game you’ll begin hunting the Azure Rathalos and then even later the Silver Rathalos, which add new moves and increased intelligence and aggression to the mix. Essentially, you’re learning how to take it down, but there is no guaranteed route to success.
It should be obvious how beautifully this system aligns with the theme of being a hunter. The first time you encounter most monsters, they’ll batter you from pillar to post for daring to intrude on their stomping grounds. As you struggle against this you’ll learn their moves, make mental notes of a few tells, and realise you should have brought antidotes, or sonic bombs, or maybe even a different weapon. Soon, imperceptibly at first, the scales begin to tip. Soon it’s you chasing down the monster, tooled-up with the perfect gear and with the kind of experience that only comes from hard-fought victories, relentlessly attacking and dodging every offensive onslaught by reflex.
What you have done is mastered that monster. And then you move on to the next, which you’d better believe is bigger, spikier, and eats five of that first one for breakfast every morning. The point is that mastering a beautifully-crafted AI creature like this is not grinding. Yes, you fight the same monster multiple times, and if you want to make every item possible from a monster’s organic treasure trove you’ll need to fight it a lot. But though your kit may become more tailored, or your armour a little better, the improvement in your hunting ability is almost nothing to do with statistics – it’s about you. This is a skill-based system built around repetition, rather than a series of stat increases built around repetition, and the gulf between these is the difference between hundreds of average action-RPGs and one of the greatest in history.
The RPG element to Monster Hunter is perhaps not obvious, because there is little here we associate with traditional examples of the genre – the hero’s quest, the interminable cutscenes, the irritating characters and, more than anything, the linear progression. Playing the role of a hunter creates a more profound relationship between player and game, through the blindingly simple tactic of subtly tying everything together.
Take as an example having something to eat. One of MH4U’s great draws is the ability to play online with up to three other hunters, and set out together to take down a giant beast. These fights – where the monster is deadlier and has more health – are the pinnacle of what the game has to offer. You meet other players in a Gathering Hall where you can buy items, sort through your inventory, post quests, and share a meal. These meals, depending on what you have and how it’s cooked, confer various buffs.
No serious hunter, and you learn this quickly, ever hunts on an empty stomach. Which leads to the spectacle of four armoured players, each with an enormous weapon strapped to their back, sitting down together at a table and gobbling up a delicious feast cooked by a cat (don’t ask). This may seem like a minor detail but the sense of camaraderie it creates is enormous; especially when you consider the fact that, in five minutes, the guy on your left will be hanging onto the back of a beast for dear life, while the one opposite is running away to heal, and the last is cartwheeling away after being smashed by a paw the size of her own body.
I play lots of multiplayer games and, among them all, Monster Hunter has the nicest community: the pros help new players along, there’s no abuse, and when a quest is failed the atmosphere is subdued rather than toxic. It is no coincidence that this is the case in a game where such care and attention has been spent on seemingly incidental social details. Alongside those meals there is a series of gestures available to players, among which is the “Prance”. Choose this and your hunter puts both arms up and does jazz hands, while jogging jauntily in a circle. It is an absolutely ridiculous sight, unimaginable in any of the Highly Serious testosterone-rammed universes so familiar to gaming, and every regular hunting companion I have adores prancing at any opportunity: atop a defeated beast, in the hall before setting out, even during little lulls mid-hunt.
There are so many other important aspects to this game: the 14 weapons to use, each with a completely distinct moveset and fighting style, as well as enormous and bespoke upgrade paths; the much-improved single-player experience; the enormously-improved online connectivity; the best-in-class translation work, which gives every NPC more character in a few lines than most games manage in hundreds; the many minigames and idle distractions, all of which somehow feed back into the hunting; the peerless aesthetic, which ranges from ragtag travelling tents to the burnished gleam of a G-Rank hunter’s chestplate; the sheer variety of modes that offer hugely different takes on the core activity; the free DLC being released weekly, from costumes to quests; the new system that lets you “mount” monsters to try and briefly down them; the magnificent theme tunes of each monster, alongside gorgeous aesthetic touches like draining the whole environment’s colour when a Gore Magala is enraged.
I could go on. And on. But how do you summarise, let alone explain, a game that potentially contains thousands of hours of play? Monster Hunter is not an endless game: if you want a focused experience, you can probably crack through the single-player in 30-40 hours. But it is, especially in multiplayer, an inexhaustible one.
There is often some snobbery about the idea of sequels in gaming – perhaps thanks to the film industry’s general example of diminishing returns – but games are a medium that by their interactive nature are much more suited to iteration. The principle of tweaking and refining a system over multiple entries has led to some of the industry’s finest moments: Resident Evil 4, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Final Fantasy VII, Mario Kart 8 ... all classics.
Monster Hunter 4U shows where the best of them can end up. The PS2 original, released just over a decade ago, was great from the start. But from there, developer Capcom, one of videogaming’s greatest creative forces, has built on this foundation and then some. Monster Hunter 4U is a masterpiece.
This article was written by Rich Stanton, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 17th March 2015 10.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010