I hate Monster Rancher. No other series turns me into such a complete vegetable, helpless to do anything but sit in front of my PlayStation 2 devoting hours upon hours the way this one does. I'm usually a very responsible guy, but this game made me late for work, delay much-needed showers, skip meals, and put off anything that wasn't staring me dead in the face. As a matter of fact, I even turned this review in late, and it was all because I kept telling myself "I need to win just one more tournament."

Hi, my name is Brad and I'm a Monster Rancher addict.

For those unfamiliar to the series, Tecmo's electronic controlled substance (A.K.A. Monster Rancher 4) is the latest in a long series that debuted on the PlayStation back in 1997, and spawned several sequels on the PlayStation 2, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance.

In a nutshell, Monster Rancher is set in a world where ancient people magically encoded monsters onto relics called saucer stones. After discovering these stones in modern times, raising decrypted monsters and battling them in arenas becomes the most popular form of entertainment. Naturally, it becomes your quest to be the world's best monster breeder. Starting Monster Rancher 4 with a small ranch, an assistant, and one cheerful little animal to raise, you're on your way.

Often mistaken for a pretender in the oppressive shadow of corporate giant Pokémon, the two games really have nothing in common besides monsters as a central theme. Gameplay consists of navigating a series of menus to establish a strong regimen of training, feeding, rest and discipline. After getting the hang of caring for critters and learning how to get the desired results out of them, there are five ranks to battle through before completing the story mode, and one more beyond that for ambitious players. Don't' be fooled by the saccharine exterior—playing Monster Rancher 4 is a very deep and methodical process, its inner workings well-hidden behind deceptively bright visuals and cheery tones.

As you may have guessed from my introduction, I find Monster Rancher 4 to be an extremely compelling, almost compulsive experience. Why? It's not the graphics, which are quite primitive compared to almost everything else on the market. It's certainly not the thin story mode with its still-frame characters and poor translation. In my opinion, its magnetism is generated by the unique quality of personal investment that comes from being so closely involved with your furry, scaled, and feathered friends.

By managing every aspect of their existence, there comes a sense of ownership that you don't usually find in other games. You give your creatures guidance and praise, and when they bring home a trophy you feel directly responsible for their victory. If they fail, you wonder where you went wrong. The game as a whole is also enriched by the monsters' own character traits, something other similar titles lack. Golems are stoic and loyal, while segmented Duckens come off as slightly insane. Serpentine Nagas can be fickle, and the robotic Henger likes antiques. Toss in the competitive and reworked elements of battle, excellent artistic design, and deep stat mechanics, and you've got something that strikes a very resonant chord.

Bringing the game to a pleasantly "meta" level, Tecmo has again employed the Monster Rancher series' most brilliant innovation, and likely one of the most creative ever to grace videogames: the ability to generate new monsters by inserting and scanning "saucer stones" you own—i.e., any game, music, or film CD and DVD you have laying around. (To be clear, the more than 300 creatures you can receive are pre-programmed and then unlocked by entering activation codes gleaned from the discs, they are not randomly generated from the actual data contents.) Grabbing a dusty CD you haven't listened to in a while and getting a fierce creature from it is a rush, somewhat akin to digging in the recesses of a neglected couch and finding a twenty-dollar bill.

To make this enthralling feature even spicier, Tecmo has created special rare monsters available only from specific discs. For example, it's possible to get a one-eyed Suezo from many different CDs, but the Owlden is only available from scanning Harry Potter. Cute (and haunted) photographer Miku only comes from a copy of Fatal Frame (her game of origin) and there are also parody appearances from Rygar and Kasumi from Dead or Alive, among others. Nods and in-jokes like these really show Tecmo's sense of humor and love for their fans.

I love the Monster Rancher games, and 4 is no exception. However, I have to be honest in reporting that I don't think it's the best of the series. Technically, it features many departures from its previous formulas, almost all of them achieving mixed results. As a longtime veteran of these titles, I can definitely go into detail about every single new tweak, but I don't have room to roll out the laundry list here, not to mention the fact that my nitpicks wouldn't mean much to newcomers. For the sake of brevity, let me say that while I found it to be slightly drier, shallower, and more sterile than its predecessors, this is still an extremely solid Monster Rancher experience. (And for those who enjoy Monster Rancher 4, I strongly encourage you to track down the earlier titles, especially Monster Rancher 2.)

Skipping my obsessive-compulsive scrutinization of its finer points, the biggest shift to be found in Monster Rancher 4 is that instead of having just one, it's now possible to have up to five monsters at the same time. While this may initially seem like a dream come true for Rancher fans, taking care of that many charges simultaneously is overwhelming and burdensome. It's a real chore to attend to five sets of training and tournament needs while trying to remember which monsters you were supposed to scold, which ones needed naps, and which ones liked watermelon. Personally, I still favor the single-monster approach, although having two wasn't bad at all. Any more than that, though, and you're asking for a headache. On the plus side, the greater numbers in your stable mean that there are now opportunities for dynamic new tag and group battles that were never possible before, offering a wider variety of fight opportunities.

The other major change to the formula is that new attack abilities for your trainees are gained by doing light-duty dungeon crawling and random battles. This "adventuring" aspect of the game is something that's been continually re-jiggered ever since the first game, and although this more active style is a step in the right direction, the dungeons themselves are dull and only slow the game's already-leisurely pace down. I hesitate to criticize it since I really do feel it's an improvement, but this part isn't quite there yet.

In my opinion, nothing kills a good series quicker than stagnation. So, for those changes and others, I applaud Tecmo for trying to shake up the series in a positive way despite the lukewarm results. However, there is one area where I feel they committed a serious error in judgment: the game's optional S-rank.

Finishing the story mode is a piece of cake, and battling your way through E, D, C, B and A ranks are par for the Monster Rancher course. Historically, finishing the S-rank has been the game's "real" end point and it's always an uphill battle, but in Monster Rancher 4 it's so difficult that it's ridiculous. Instead of competitors who showcase the results of extreme (but achievable) training methods, the developers artificially boosted the stats of all S-rank opponents so high that it's literally impossible to match them. I can personally vouch that S-rank can be beaten, but the inflated challenge deals out so much failure along the way that it will crush the heart and spirit of all but the most dedicated.

That disappointing issue and a few other minor rough spots aside, the last thing to mention is the most obvious one: the "love it or hate it" nature of the game itself. With its distinct essence of stat management and detail-oriented, menu-based play, it's got a lot in common with the kind of "dating" or "train simulation" games that never see the light of day in the U.S., yet somehow it arrived and managed to find a niche. People expecting another Pokémon or some kind of action platformer will find the Monster Rancher experience to be a highly unusual and possibly unpleasant one, but those looking for something a little off the beaten path would do well to sample its charms.

As for me? I love the stuff and would even go so far as to call it a true delicacy of gaming. However, like most delicacies the world over, it's an acquired taste. The rating is 8 out of 10

Brad Gallaway
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