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I have the rare ability to say I played Monster Hunter before it was cool. Normally, that sort of claim comes as part of some hipster mantra of street-cred cool, but when it comes to Monster Hunter it's more of a rueful confession. The PlayStation 2 original came and went in the U.S. and barely made a blip on the radar, and the only reason I even played it was because someone assigned me to review it for a magazine.
Back in 2005, Monster Hunter was a good idea whose time hadn't quite come. The concept was neat, but its core principles -- online play and questing for loot for crafting gear from -- were still largely foreign to the console-gaming audience. The online enough was enough to undermine it. If you don't remember PS2's Internet functionality, that's because (like the vast majority of its users) you never dabbled in it. But it was terrible, and my handful of online Monster Hunter sessions inevitably ended in disconnections and frustration. Instead, I went it alone, and as anyone who's played Monster Hunter solo and cold knows, it wasn't particularly fun.
In the years since, the franchise has gone on to become a juggernaut -- comparatively as huge for Japan as Call of Duty has become in the U.S. This may seem strange until you actually witness Monster Hunter in action in its native environment. No one plays it solo. They team up on long commuter train rides. They congregate in cafes or electronics shops in nerd-magnet district Akihabara. They hang out in crowded whiskey bars late into the night. Monster Hunter is a social experience, and that means most of us over here in the U.S. are simply doing it wrong.
The problem for us, of course, comes in simply finding someone to play with. Monster Hunter doesn't make itself particularly transparent to newcomers, which means the series' uptake stateside has been slow. At some point, the games hit a sufficient critical mass in Japan that cooperative play became a convenient option, and anyone interested in learning the ropes no longer had to go it alone. Over here, though, simply finding someone to play with -- let alone someone experienced enough to make the process tolerable! -- is as devastating a challenge as taking down any of the legendary monsters that populate the games' high-level quests.
I was lucky enough to have my very own expert on hand, though: My former 1UP.com comrade Jose Otero, who fittingly enough picked up his own Monster Hunter expertise from friends in Japan. With the release of Monster Hunter Ultimate a couple of months ago, I figured the time was finally right to rectify the wrongs of nearly a decade ago. I've made a few attempts to get into Monster Hunter since its PS2 debut, but between the lack of potential collaborators and the limitations of the PlayStation Portable (I'm not much into the "arthritic claw" approach to controlling games), it never quite worked. But with an expert on hand and both local and online play available on both Wii U and a Circle Pad Pro-equipped 3DS XL, the stars seemed aligned. This would be it.
The verdict? Theory proven: Playing comfortably with someone who knows the game makes all the difference for Monster Hunter.
The opening hours of every Monster Hunter game involve learning the ropes through slowly building quest lines to do trivial tasks. Despite the mundanity of these initial forays into the field, though, the games still inundate you with information, options, and stats. You begin the game by choosing a character "class" in the form of a weapon speciality. The weapons vary wildly in purpose and function, yet there's no opportunity to muck around with them and get a feel for them. Woe betide anyone drawn to the intriguing advanced gear, like guns and stat-buffing horns without realizing the limitations they entail and their heavy reliance on team-based play as support weapons. Essential tactics and even the basic controls are available from the start, but good luck sorting them out on your own without plenty of trial and error -- which is actually the point of the petty early missions, I suppose.
With someone along to guide you, Monster Hunter becomes a joy to play from the moment you first leave the city gates.
But with someone along to guide you, Monster Hunter becomes a joy to play from the moment you first leave the city gates. The concept of bootstrapping is a fundamental tenet of MMOs, but those work differently than Monster Hunter. They're level-dependent, revolving around cumulative skill upgrades and ever-growing integral power. This series is much more about your gear, as your character only grows modestly as the adventure progresses. The obvious difference between a one-hour novice and a 150-hour veteran isn't their experience level but rather that the vet has insanely awesome gear while the newcomer is still running around in crappy starter gear that most monsters can shred like paper.
The more important difference, however, is that the seasoned player knows what they're doing. They know monster behavior and the essential gear you need for different kinds of hunts. They know shortcuts, where to find important resources, and what kinds of creatures populate each area. They know when to go all-out and when to hang back and use debuffs. And, of course, they can do like Jose did for me and pull you into their advanced quests so you can start out by going toe-to-toe with big beasts rather than killing a few scavengers and picking a basketful of mushrooms.
In just three hours of hunting monsters with Jose, I had more fun than I'd experienced with my previous 40-odd hours of bumbling around in the various games over the past eight years. And, more importantly, when he finally headed home and I had to go solo again, I had a much better sense of what to do and how to win than I'd accumulated in all my time playing alone.
I suppose you could make the case that this speaks to a fundamental failure of design in Monster Hunter -- it doesn't communicate its goals and means very clearly -- but I don't think that's fair. The obscurity of the series' design and its tendency to throw new players into the deep end without a life jacket has stayed with the franchise through more than half a dozen iterations, and the upcoming Monster Hunter 4 doesn't seem in any hurry to change things. This is clearly how Capcom wants the franchise to work, and the design encourages socialization without strictly forcing it on anyone. You can go it alone in Monster Hunter if you really want... but the experience greatly improves when it becomes cooperative.
In an era where help forums and strategy wikis lay bare the essentials of every game, often transforming them into rote exercises in crunching numbers through prescribed action, Monster Hunter has somehow managed to preserve an old-fashioned essence that makes it work best not through simple instruction but through genuine mentoring. A few hours of discipleship at my friend's feet made me a far better monster hunter than I had been before, and now I feel obligated to get a sufficient handle on the game that I can pass it along to the next aspirant as well.