Collect ‘Em All: Other Video Games About Catching Monsters

Pokémon is undoubtedly the king of the mountain when it comes to the collectible monsters subgenre of RPG—or “Mons” games, as fans call them. And while it’s also currently the world’s leading multimedia franchise, there’s still something to be said about the many games that have grown up around it or even come before it. Many people will be quick to claim that Pokémon “needs competition,” but there are plenty of games that offer a world of experiences not found in Pokémon. So let’s talk about some of them!

Let’s start with one of the bigger ones, which many have referred to as “edgy Pokémon.” It’s a series that involves guns, slavery, and the butchering of humans. It also openly discusses what happens when humans and monsters get a little too close. That’s right, we’re talking about the hot new RPG that everyone’s going crazy about, the Megami Tensei series!

In 199X, Man Ended…

You might better know Megami Tensei by its more recent counterpart, the Shin Megami Tensei series. The original Megami Tensei (formally known as Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei) is an adaptation of a trilogy of novels written by Aya Nishitani. These also received an OVA adaptation in the 80s. There, a student and a classmate fight demons controlled by Lucifer. The protagonist, Akemi, is the reincarnation of the god Izanagi, and through the use of a computer program can communicate with and store demons. This would continue to be a theme through the rest of the Megami Tensei games, including its myriad spin-offs like the Shin Megami Tensei games and its further spin-offs like DemiKids, Digital Devil Saga, and Strange Journey. There was also the little-known spin-off named Persona, but it uses the tarot as a motif instead of post-apocalyptic cyberpunk imagery. It also doesn’t feature monster-taming as a mechanic unless you consider high schoolers to be monsters.

The MegaTen games are some of the earliest examples of “Mons” games, dating back to at least 1987. Megami Tensei was spelling out its dark themes for folks in massive neon signs flanked with civilization-ending nuclear explosions. Pokémon puts a ton of effort into spelling out the peaceful coexistence humans and Pokémon have with each other, with both species living together in harmony and seeking each other out. Megami Tensei holds no illusions about demons’ relationships with humans: they’re not friends, and it’s tough to say who would sell who out first for a single corn chip. Yes, the cute Pixie in the blue bodysuit, too. Demons will slaughter and devour humans the first chance they get, and humans only manage to tame demons by either bribing them with tons of cash or by outright enslaving them with computers. Even if a demon is somehow convinced to stand beside you, they will leave you to die at the first opportunity. In earlier MegaTen games, your Macca wasn’t just an in-game currency but a resource needed to maintain demons in your active party. Once your Macca ran out, demons would gladly slurp up your health in its stead. And even if you have enough Macca, demons will shrug and leave players upon losing a battle—instant game-over. This tradition has stuck through with the MegaTen games and its many spin-offs to this very day.

Humans are encouraged to be just as fickle with demons: theoretically, you could keep raising the same demons you find early in the game, but it’s just not practical. Demons have only so many skills to learn; eventually, their EXP requirements skyrocket. Sooner or later, you’ll need new demons for your retinue. And while you can always tame new demons, it’s also easier (not to mention useful) to fuse demons. The logistics of demon fusion is… weird. Demons seem okay with the idea of being combined into new gestalt entities, and it’s not like they hate humans more for treating them as fusion fodder. It’s also a shortcut for demons to get stronger. For the folks at home asking, “Hey, wait, can’t humans be fused with demons?” the short answer is, “Yes, they can.” The long answer is, “Yes, they can, but for the love of God, don’t do it.”

He who makes a beast out of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.

MegaTen has been all over with its influences. Having the whole gamut of human civilization’s mythologies to pull from, its many demons include familiar figures like the Angels of Judeochristianity to obscure names like the Inuit goddess Sedna. Longtime MegaTen artist Kazuma Kaneko‘s designs have endured with fans for decades, using a combination of clever imagery and modern fashion to bring the folkloric background of each demon to life, ensuring each one sticks out in your memory.

Plenty of demons’ designs go back ages—and the 3D models used in the PS2 MegaTen games have some mileage. But the series icons are varied. The smiling “hee-ho!” visage of Jack Frost is undoubtedly a fan favorite, with many unique iterations of Jack Frost made for individual games. Jack Frost could even be considered a mascot of Atlus at large. But most would turn to the humble Pixie for MegaTen specifically. Sure, she’s just as likely to abandon your corpse as any other, but folks look forward to the starting pixie who explains demonic negotiation to you. Her stylish blue bodysuit and modern hairstyle cut a good look. And while we just underlined the conniving nature hidden beneath that cute face, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (which features Dante from the Devil May Cry series) gives fans ample reason to keep that little Pixie with you to the end game. There is very little kindness in the MegaTen games: they are brutal in theme and difficulty, blunt in their brutalist architecture and morals. Contrary to popular belief, the MegaTen games can and will take advantage of your innate gullibility. But we appreciate the few rays of companionship we can find in the series. Thank you, Shin Megami Tensei.

Folks interested in trying out Shin Megami Tensei thankfully have many options these days. Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne has an HD Remaster, although you have to pay extra to get Dante (or Raidou Kuzunoha). Shin Megami Tensei V is also out on the Switch, with a newly updated rerelease scheduled to come soon to consoles everywhere. The 3DS also had a few SMT games, but you’ll have to dig deep for them, especially since the 3DS’s eShop is offline. Still, Strange Journey Redux, Shin Megami Tensei IV, and Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse are all worth tracking down. And if you want a lighter take on Shin Megami Tensei… you could try to track down the DemiKids games on GameBoy Advance.

The next Mons game we will discuss has been around since Pokémon‘s inception. Indeed, many have claimed that one is a rip-off of the other, even though their designs have been pretty convergent since their release. We’re talking about Dragon Quest! Even though Dragon Quest is best known as the big granpappy of Japanese RPGs, it has dabbled in monster taming plenty, going so far as to make it a central mechanic in two mainline games. It’s an obvious approach; Dragon Quest had Akira Toriyama designing its cavalcade of adorable monsters, so they might as well bank on it and give folks the chance to be friends with the adorable Slimes instead of pummeling them. It was also the logical extension of in-game lore, as plenty of Dragon Quest games had established that monsters had their communities and, in some cases, even could become friends with humans, provided there wasn’t an evil boss lording over them in the land.

It all started with Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride. The game’s hero had an uncanny way with monsters, which allowed him to befriend a Sabrecat in his childhood. Later in the game, a monster from the enemy party would occasionally stand back up after the end of a fight and ask to join your party. Monsters were a great way to round out your ranks throughout Dragon Quest V; your “main” party members would spend a long time out-of-commission for story reasons, making monsters reliable stand-bys. Monsters could equip their own armor sets and even learn unique spells… but monsters had drawbacks. Some monsters took a lot of EXP to level up, combined with low-level caps (they usually had high base stats to compensate). Some monsters were easier to raise but were quickly outclassed in later game sections. And worse still was the balancing factor of the Wisdom stat: monsters that didn’t have enough Wisdom would be too feral to follow your orders.

If this should happen to you, buy a lottery ticket.

Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation would be the only other mainline Dragon Quest to feature monster taming… but that was because the mechanics would go on to be used for a spin-off, Dragon Quest Monsters! Fittingly, the first Dragon Quest Monsters, sub-titled Terry’s Quest, was a tie-in to Dragon Quest VI—fans wouldn’t be able to appreciate the connection for many years, since DQ6 didn’t release in the US until the Nintendo DS remake. Dragon Quest Monsters operates in much as the same way as the mainline Dragon Quest titles, with a few exceptions. First, monsters have no equipment. Also, you can’t tame any new monsters in a new area until the Boss has been defeated. The Wisdom stat was replaced with Loyalty: monsters tamed from the wild would have a bit of a rebellious streak, and prospective tamers would have to feed them meat to keep them in line. But this was countered with the other means of gaining monsters: breeding. The extensive Dragon Quest bestiary was sorted into several “families” of monsters, like Slimes, Bugs, or Material monsters. By breeding monsters of specific families with each other, you could get unique monsters in return, like Cube Slimes or Rockbombs. This was also how you could breed your way to certain famous boss monsters from the Dragon Quest series, like Dracolord or Psaro’s “evolved” form. Later games would replace breeding with “fusion,” but it ultimately works the same. This was also a great way to get monsters to learn spells they normally wouldn’t.

Pictured: Kobi, a Slime and a CactiBall

There were quite a few of the Dragon Quest Monsters games, but few of them came to America outside of the three GameBoy titles. It’s a pity because many of them continued the tradition of being tie-ins to the mainline games. Dragon Quest Monsters: Caravan Heart on the GameBoy Advance featured a young Keifer from Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past. Similarly, the recent Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince continues the tradition by starring a young Psaro from Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen, years before he became known as the Manslayer. Thankfully, this last one was released in the US on December 1st of last year. No better time to check it out!

One of these will turn into a giant disgusting bug courtesy of the Secret of Evolution, and you’ll never guess which one it is!

As mentioned earlier, Dragon Quest‘s famed bestiary was made iconic by Akira Toriyama‘s timeless designs. Even though many of the monsters are bog-standard fantasy fare, like orcs or skeleton warriors, Toriyama breathed life into these salt-of-the-earth monsters with his charming art style—none more so than the humble, beloved Slime, what with its wide-eyed features and charming grin. While other RPGs of the time portrayed slimes as faceless threats, the Dragon Quest slimes are characters unto themselves, even being given their spin-offs via the Dragon Quest: Rocket Slime games. Indeed, most Dragon Quest Monsters titles will start you off with nothing but a humble Slime to start your farm. While Slimes are far from the most powerful monsters, they’re by far the most versatile family–and even the basic Slime can gain access to some eye-widening spells if you put the effort into it. Is it mostly a flex, quickly overshadowed by using any other endgame monster? Sure. Is it rewarding to see a Slime cast endgame spells after the hours spent raising it to max level? You bet it is.

Go easy on Suezo, he’s doing the best he can…

Taking similar cues to Dragon Quest Monsters‘s monster-raising is Monster Farm, localized as Monster Rancher in the US. While most consider it a distant C-lister compared to its monster-raising peers, it’s not for lack of creativity: Monster Rancher displays an entirely different take on monster-raising from any of its peers. For starters, raising monsters is less of an experience-based RPG affair and more of a flat-out athlete-raising sim. Ranchers will focus on a single monster at a time, choosing their meals each week and dedicating them to particular drills every day of their training. These drills will usually increase their stats, with later drills designed to raise multiple stats at the cost of decreasing another. But monsters aren’t just brainless blank slates to be ordered around: a monster’s mood is tantamount. A monster can and will lash out in a destructive temper tantrum if you’re too spartan with its training, which can and will cost you money in repairs. Or worse, a monster might decide to sleep until conditions improve. Time is of the essence in Monster Rancher, not only because of the many annual competitions you can enter your monster into but also because a monster’s life cycle factors into training. Freshly-born monsters grow slowly until they hit their prime, where their stats blossom seemingly effortlessly. But eventually, a monster will grow old and find it harder and harder to make significant headway from training. From there, your options are to store your monster in the hopes of fusing it for a new one later or letting it live out the rest of its career as a coach, wherein its experience will help you train a new monster.

Monster Rancher worries a lot about the logistics of raising monsters. You need a license to do just about anything, and you can only earn new benefits by gaining a higher rank as a Rancher—which you’ll only earn by winning higher-ranking competitions, which only come around at certain times of the year. You need money for food or repairing your ranch, which you will mostly earn from competing—unless you decide to take your monster on bizarre adventures in search of treasure (which can also be good training for a strong enough monster). Your reputation in competitions can also net you favors from other Ranchers, who can be convinced to help you raise your monsters.

Inside you are two monsters; one is kinda weird-looking, the other is a skeleton.

Competitions were also unique; instead of turn-based battles, Monster Rancher featured real-time affairs, where a monster’s positioning determined what skills it could use. Monster attacks were also fueled by their Guts, a stat that would regain over time. More Guts meant you could use stronger attacks, but some enemy attacks are designed to lower your Guts. Fights were also timed; even if you didn’t deplete your opponent’s health, you could win by TKO (i.e., having more health than the opponent at the end of a match). Due to these factors and because many opponents at higher-ranking matches were so relentless, Ranchers are forced to be diligent in training and choosing a good monster. You can’t just bumrush a match and hope to win through some arbitrary advantage: your monster had to have good stats and attacks. It’s not enough to have a monster with the will to fight; not every monster was born to be a champion, and sadly, some monsters would have a poor combination of stats and move pools that would all but guarantee them a future as nothing but breeding stock.

According to Monster Rancher 2, her chest gets more attention than her battles.

This is where we arrive at the one mechanic that most people will recognize from Monster Rancher: its unique method of monster generation. Unlike other monster games, wherein you’re expected to find monsters in the wild, monsters in Monster Rancher must be “freed” from special stone discs or tablets. This leads to a fun fourth-wall break: the so-called “stone discs” are actual discs as in your dad’s old smooth jazz CDs or even DVDs in later games. Monster Rancher took advantage of the PSOne’s RAM as a part of monster generation, letting people swap the game disc with a CD. From there, the game would scan the data from the CD (mostly, its ISBN data, not the audio files or anything like that) and use that data to generate a monster. Certain CDs would always generate the same monster. Later entries in the series took advantage of this feature to allow for promotional monsters: it was possible to generate Tiger monsters based on the wolves from Princess Mononoke (or Dances With Wolves) or Pixies based of Kasumi from Dead or Alive. Of course, this was for the PlayStation-based Monster Rancher titles; later games on other consoles would have to find newer methods to replace the CDs. The Monster Rancher games on GameBoy Advance instead generated monsters from keywords typed by players, while Monster Rancher DS required players to use their voice as a “spell.”

As for the monsters themselves, at least they’re an eclectic bunch. Monster Rancher features an inspired array of monsters. On the one hand, there are only so many “basic” monsters in the game, like the horned wolf-like “Tigers” (their name comes from a mistranslation of their Japanese name, “Raiga”), the stone Golems, or the woman-like Pixies. But many of the other monsters are also just plain weird, and due to how monster fusion works, you could get something like a Tiger with a stone pattern. It doesn’t help that the main contenders for “series mascots” are the Suezos and the Mocchis. Mocchis are cute enough, looking like a cross between a duck, an armadillo, and a platypus. Maybe it’s not threatening, but it’s cute enough to sell as a plushie. Suezo, on the other hand, looks like a Dragon Quest Slime as drawn by Louis William Wain: a one-eyed face standing on a single prehensile stalk that attacks by licking and spitting on things. Are they versatile? Sure—but they never stop being so ungodly weird to look at. Their fusions are also plenty cursed.

Monster Rancher had a dedicated following in the US, albeit a small one. The upside is that you can currently play the first two Monster Rancher titles on the Nintendo Switch right now! Best of all, you don’t need to jerryrig any complicated set-up to scan old CDs: the games have a complete archive of era-appropriate CDs. Just search a particular album name, and the game will bring up that disk’s data to produce a monster for you. If you’re feeling experimental, you can also try playing Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher, which replaces the series’ traditional monsters with the iconic kaiju from the Ultraman franchise. If you’re an avid collector of Ultraman toys, you can even scan some of them to your Switch’s Amiibo reader to produce monsters! Sadly, the actual Amiibo doesn’t work.

Speaking of data and scanning, we can wrap up with what could be one of the more prominent monster-raising franchises out there—and the one most commonly contrasted with Pokémon: the world of Digimon. Now, talking about Digimon can be a bit hard because most of what people know about Digimon comes from the anime. It’s important to remember that (unlike the other franchises here), Digimon didn’t start as a video game series: it started as a line of virtual pets intended to serve as Bandai’s “masculine” counterpart to their successful line of Tamagotchi! pets. The anime takes a great deal of inspiration from the actual pets, with many of the appearing Digimon being based entirely on the rosters of the available v-pets at the time. But it also goes on the lam in a lot of key areas, as anyone raising one of the Digital Monster pets can tell you. I can only imagine the surprise on a child’s face when they find that their diligently-raised Gabumon does not Digivolve into the wolf-like Garurumon and instead becomes the insectoid Kabuterimon.

I could go on for hours about the peculiarities of the Digimon v-pets, but they’re a world unto themselves. We’re here to focus on the games, and that is no mean feat considering that all of the Digimon games—even within the same series—are so wildly different. Take the Digimon World games on PlayStation, for example; the first Digimon World was a console-based take on the original v-pets, down to incorporating weight, care mistakes, and even poop to decide your Digimon’s new form. The second one was a dungeon crawler, albeit with RPG mechanics for your Digimon. This is the thing that has held the Digimon games back the most; while the other major Mons-games are consistent in their mechanics and approach,Digimon games vary practically entry-to-entry.

Would you believe me if I told you the weird slug was the one with the most dangerous evolved form in this whole screen?

The upside is that whether you’re playing the more v-pet-based raising sims or the more conventional RPGs (such as the beloved Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth), you’re in for a lot of fun number crunching. Infamously, Digimon have a wide range of forms they can grow into. While the v-pet sim games use food or care mistakes as a metric for growth, the RPGs instead use Experience values: with each Digimon being associated with a specific “type,” defeating enough of a specific type will earn your Digimon the associated type-experience and stats needed to “unlock” new forms. It’s surprisingly open-ended, as many games supplement experience earned in combat with passive experience earned from your Digimon being at daycare. This also means each of your Digimon can be incredibly versatile: provided you’ve gotten them the needed stats, moves, and Experience types, you could digivolve them into powerful form for a bit of grinding, then de-evolve them to digivolve back into an even stronger form. There’s a ton of open-ended strategizing you can pull off with your team of Digimon, and even if you’re not up for grinding, you’re likely to stumble upon your favorites sooner or later.

Regarding designs, Digimon is also versatile. Or possibly a mess, depending on your view. As mentioned earlier, Digimon was designed as a masculine alternative to Tamagochi, so the mascot-like Tamas were replaced with creatures based on kaiju or superheroes. This can be far more obvious if you look at the original pixel-sprites on the LCD screens of the v-pets (Devimon is a pretty blatant Devilman stand-in, and don’t get me started on Raremon’s Hedora-esque design). Still, Digimon as a franchise tends to have a pleasant mix of ugly-cute critters with big teeth and weird monsters with skin stitched onto their bodies. And, of course, the armored super-forms like WarGreymon or Valkyriemon, which you can only get after a ton of work. There’s a reason why there are so many jokes about Digimon turning into either fridges with guns on them or sexy women in chainmail bikinis. And even the evilest of all Digimon have those iconic big puppy-dog eyes. Sure, Myotismon is a bloodthirsty vampire, but he’s your bloodthirsty vampire, and he’d like it if you got him that farm-grown steak from the fridge. The steak was grown from a steak plant at a steak farm, by the way—no better way to get steaks.

The meat just falls right off the massive bone in the middle. This is what Digimon eats every day. Man, they’re so lucky.

Many other Mons games came up in the wake of Pokémon‘s success in the 1990s, each with its cult following. Some, like Keitai Denjū Telefang, sadly never came to the US (at least, not outside of bootleg carts sold as Pokémon games). Others, like the Medabots games, have quietly kept to themselves with their smaller fanbases. Some games took the idea of raising monsters and applied them to different genres, like the Alundra rogue-likes. And there are plenty of other games designed outside of Japan that took these concepts and ran with them, like the phenomenal Cassette Beasts, which can be found on the Switch alongside Pokémon. The world of monster collecting is vast and vibrant. There’s never been a better time to check out the stuff off the beaten path!

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