Monster Hunter and Conquering Barriers

Monster Hunter World is currently available for Playstation 4 and Xbox One.

The first time I played Monster Hunter, I bounced off it hard.

The original game from 2004, to be quite blunt, has aged like a carton of milk left out in the sun, and a cursory look through reviews put out around its release would suggest that it didn’t go down much smoother back in the day, either (at least not for western audiences).

But the series did well enough for itself to persevere, be it for the novelty of online play at the time or its early core of Japensese fans giving it legs – the latter would certainly suggest why its second wind was found on portable consoles for a long while. And after iteratively improving itself over the course of the following decade, Monster Hunter has turned out to be the seven-million-players-and-counting hot juggernaut of this year’s first quarter. That’s something that honestly never would have happened if the game’s designers weren’t going back to the drawing board with each release, weeding out the problem points for players, and expanding their scope in include better approaches and new tools.

And that, in its way, is amusingly on-brand for the series.

Monster Hunter has long held the stigma of being “hard to get into” or just plain obtuse, requiring a lot of up-front time investment and even the guiding hands of other players to really get a feel for the appeal of the core gameplay loop. Speaking from five years with the series and hundreds of hours combined now, it’s rightly earned all those fingers being pointed at it; before Monster Hunter World (the most recent entry to date), I’d never seen anyone last more than a few hours with the series unless some existing fan was in the room offering counsel and encouragement. It took me until 3 Ultimate (the first title where the multiplayer was practical for me) to get my teeth into it, myself.

lagombi
Lagombi, the Feral Bunny Huntérmon.

As much as the game’s core feels the same now as it was back on the Playstation 2, warts and all – the same loot-driven progression, the same focus on preparation and building your knowledge, the same lumbering pace to its action – what Monster Hunter has done so well is knocking down the walls between its main appeal and potential new players over time. It’s certainly not something that happened all at once, through.

Online play is miles easier now than it’s a commonplace feature, for one. Over time, the series has lost its reliance on twelve-digit room codes and enabled players to find each other almost immediately, in addition to streamlining the matchmaking process to half of what the user once went through. Granted, both World and the run of 3DS games still feel super-clunky compared to the standards Steam had in place eight years ago and even modern peers on consoles – there’s a fifty-fifty chance whether someone will have issues connecting every time I get into a session with friends – but it’s still leaps and bounds ahead of the mid-‘00s “solution” of plugging a proprietary network adapter into your Playstation for a chance to play with strangers.

While many aspects of the meat of game (the actual, y’know, monster hunting) are left for the player to play with and experiment, it’s also a lot less apt to boot you out into the field without as much as a word. Compare the first game – where Dual Blades weren’t even apparent to the player as a weapon option unless they’d made the right upgrade to some separate weapon type – to the in-line tutorials, training areas, and basic options available to the player from even before they’re free to choose their missions. And many of these are even less necessary now that the series has adopted modern sensibilities like mapping attacks to face and trigger buttons rather than the right analog stick of all things (which is now blessedly opened up to a freely-controlled camera that was lacking for far too long).

Compounding on this is mounds of in-game documentation previously found only through physical strategy guides or fan-operated information sites and Wikis. There are repeatable guides on mechanics, a thorough bestiary listing elemental vulnerabilities and drop rates – everything down to the convenience of seeing little damage numbers pop up so one can more easily feel out monsters’ weak points. Some of it feels disjointed from the actual play, but having it all logged and viewable at any time gives the player agency to reference it as much or as little as they need to get proficient, which certainly offsets the of buffet of accessory features like the slingshot, environmental hazards, and hunting gadgets that affords advantages to the industrious without being the focus for any real length of time.

Even more subtle elements, notably long-term pacing, are something that Monster Hunter has improved about itself since way back when. Where the first game’s version of giving you time to find your legs would involve undergoing rote fetch quests for hours before your first proper “hunt”, there are around a dozen quests in the entirety of World that don’t task you with hunting one of the monsters that the game is known for, and they’re fairly spread out between the start and the end of the game’s content. It turns out that being able to play the game as advertised fairly early on keeps people invested; who knew?

All of this is a perfectly lovely tie-in to how someone coming in from the outside experiences Monster Hunter itself. Because, to be honest, we’re all bound to be pretty much garbage at it the first time or two around the block.

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Fairly trivial after a few tries, but will eat most first-timers for breakfast.

With sixteen distinct weapon types in the main games now (up from an initial six), each with a distinct control scheme, secondary features, and feeling of weight, chances are pretty low that you’ll pick the weapon that you’re most happy with the first time around (doubly so if you pick one of the doubly-complicated bowgun options). The movements will feel uneven, its one-off mechanic (be it charged attacks or playing music or a multi-stage combo meter) won’t seem to work quite right for you, or it’ll either be hard to hit where you want or you won’t get the impression that you’re even impacting the monster at all.

It’s only after trial-and-error that you’ll find your niche and really be able to dig in. It took me too long to admit that, despite normally liking tank builds, the Lance just went way too far in that direction. So I went back to the demo and made myself sample each weapon, one by one, until I arrived on the Hunting Horn, one of the closest thing the game has to a support build – and it turns out that it’s more of a “heavy with buffs”, carrying the satisfying heft of a hammer with a stamina-draining affect on top and some nice little support spells on the side that happen to help teammates. A nice find, and something that truly bolstered the enjoyment I was getting out of playing.

You get this on a quest-by-quest basis, too. As is the way of these things, you start off fighting monsters hardly bigger than yourself, and ones that you can shrug off half-a-dozen strikes from before needing to chug a potion. But as time goes on, you’re given less room for error, more elements are in play to keep track of, and there’s all-around a higher chance of things going completely sideways at any given moment. Yet you never feel out of your depth, because even though you may never have encountered this particular monster, you’ve still been training for it in ways aside from the obvious familiarity with your moveset and knowing how traps work.

Many of the monsters are based off of similar skeletons, which as much as I’m sure that helps ease the load on modelers and animators having to draw up dozens of unique monsters, it also eases the load on the player from having to learn attack patterns from scratch. Already beaten the Rathian a dozen times? Then you’ll already know how to react when the other flying wyverns rear up for a hip-check in the same way – it’s just three or four unique attack patterns to react to each time rather than its full set of twelve. And as for the one-off wierdos, they tend to either move very slowly, occur very early on, or are intended to be extra-challenging because they break established design patterns.

Learning the game’s intentions over time goes a long way, too. By acknowledging that your survival revolves around being in a safe space at a safe time, having a good grasp on your own limits, and being patient enough to regroup (and retry when you fail), you naturally fall into a pattern that will aims you at eventual success. And the game subtly points you in that direction by giving you nearly an hour for each hunt where going full-bore rarely takes more than fifteen – fighting at full speed is for the experienced hunter or overconfident sucker.

Other games have found success in building on an older core, too, to be certain – the Pokémon series has been making gradual tweaks and updates to its mechanics for two decades now, Minecraft is an almost unrecognizable entity from what it was in its browser-based days by way of a long-tailed ramping up of its scope, and now the “games as a service” model has made it commonplace to see iterative design within a single title like with … well, name any still-active MOBA, really. But few have quite so much to show for it as Monster Hunter.

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With apologies to Mr. Watterson.

And sometimes both we and the series take a step backwards. The underwater arenas in 3 and 3 Ultimate were almost universally panned, many of the experimental features introduced in Generations have been dropped or minimized, and even World has missteps like overshooting the density of cutscenes and dialogue for a game of its structure. You’ll likely get greedy the first time fighting a new monster and try to dive right through that tail-swipe rather than take the extra ten seconds to play things safe and learn the timing necessary to get through unscathed. But in both cases, we keep on coming back and retrying from different angles until we find solid footing to continue with and build on.

Monster Hunter asks us and itself to be better at what we’re already trying to do. It shows us that every failure is qualified with elements that did work, and that we can salvage and rework into our inevitable route to success. And sometimes, it just asks that we dig in and keep pushing on until we’ve done what we set out to do.

 

C’mon, Capcom. I came here to turn a wyvern into a pointy hat, not to learn valuable life lessons.

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