Bump and Grind – Why Monster Hunter is less successful in the West, and how Capcom could fix that.
Article by Pete Duffy
The third generation of Monster Hunter drags the series back to western shores because well, why not? In fact you could say that three really has been the magic number. Unless you live in Japan in which case one and two were also pretty fantastic and if anything three has been nothing short of a crushing disappointment.
‘But wait!’ I hear you scream, ‘Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate has been recently announced, why are you addressing the third iteration?’ Because background knowledge is a beautiful thing and I have a word count to fill.
Monster Hunter, like all good things in life, started out on the Playstation 2 a hundred years ago in 2004. It presented a fresh take on the RPG minus the angst and hair spray, with more focus on an intricate item system and intense boss battles. It was a hit in Japan, and began spitting out sequels and expansions within a year. The west as a whole didn’t take to the title, although this probably had more to do with the minimal advertising that accompanied its localisation. The law of chance would dictate that you probably haven’t played Monster Hunter before, but if you have then ignore this patronising attempt at sarcasm and politely read something else.
It’s a shame then that the game was actually enjoyed by the three people in the UK that stuck it out through its sluggish opening. Players praised it for its elaborate combat system, and a stimulating premise. Although that premise amounted to ‘here’s a bunch of weapons. Go and kill something for sixty hours’. Emphasis here is placed on the singular ‘something’, as a lil’ bit of bump n’ grind was/is integral to the gameplay. Ruthlessly murdering the same creature multiple times was integral if you were to get that damned Wyvern Marrow or another Rathian Plate.
The reason Monster Hunter maintains this slow start is a series-wide emphasis on grinding. Much like the contemporary dance, the games focuses on monotonous repetition of the same or similar actions in order to obtain reward. This grinding hasn’t exactly garnered itself a positive reputation in recent years, with some seeing this as a symptom of the ‘dated’ JRPG. One example of modern developers reacting to the nationwide dislike of grinding can be seen in the latest entries in the Pokemon franchise. Levelling up has become a substantially quicker process with X and Y introducing the new and improved version Exp. Share that distributes experience and effort values across your entire squad. Generally perceived as a solo activity, rarely has the concept of grinding conjured up images of jovial cooperation with others (bar of course the odd shady club), but herein lies one of Monster Hunter’s major selling points.
It quickly became apparent that Capcom’s latest child was intended to be a multiplayer title, and even the monotonous collecting of items became more fun when done with friends. This was an issue for players unaware of the scope of the PS2’s online capabilities, and especially in families such as mine. The mere mention of the word ‘Wifi’ was enough to convince my mother that we all had cancer. As the series evolved it was eventually realised that the titles seemed perfectly suited for the PSP, offering easy access local four player multiplayer gameplay and online connectivity through PS3’s Ad Hoc Party service. Local Multiplayer allowed four players to connect their respective hunters without a wired broadband connection, at the same time pushing a level of social interaction that went a tad further than stumbling down a flight of stairs and switching on a router.
What certainly didn’t help during the PSP’s lifecycle, or what I have come to ceremoniously label ‘the dark ages’, was that at no point did collective gamers feel that the machine was worth investing in due to its disappointingly small selection of well-known titles. A memory springs to mind of a man playing Final Fantasy: Dissidia in a pub somewhere in Norwich, only to be accosted by another gentleman who half-heartedly asked what version of Fifa he was playing. Much in the same way Persona 4 Golden proved to temporarily boost sales for Sony’s Playstation Vita, in Japan Monster Hunter titles seemed to serve as a sort of yearly life preserver for the drowning PSP. Capcom’s extreme hunting series just seemed better suited to handhelds. Portability allows a drop-in drop-out gameplay style that consoles are currently unable to match, with quicker start up times and lack of reliance on a separate screen. This is clearly still rife amongst gamers; one of the selling points of the next generation is a focus on reducing the time players waste staring at a blank screen, as the loss of fifteen seconds is abysmal, with developers fearful that if humans were to become too devoid of stimuli then we’d all go insane and start burning things with matches.
Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate was a step in the right direction in regards to multiplayer, allowing the Wii U version online play. However the world is nothing short of a terrible place, and following numerous failed attempts on behalf of Capcom to bring the same level of online connectivity granted to its Wii U counterpart, it was revealed that the 3DS version of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate would not be capable of online play without access to a Wii U with a ‘packet relay tool’ installed, an act that is oddly reminiscent of Sony’s Ad Hoc Party. Whilst at first glance this may seem like a minor error, it is important to consider the very different reception the series has received worldwide. Monster Hunter still fails to hit it off in the western wold, where gaming remains more so a single player activity. Things are better, but not as good as they could be. Though players may cry out that online play is just as much a social activity, this is generally conducted without the face to face interaction that local multiplayer allows. In Japan, gaming is far more ingrained and accepted in culture than in the west, where news channels are quick to throw the blame onto video games for every major catastrophe, from school shootings to bad weather.
The fact that public gaming faces less social stigma in Japan when compared with America and the UK has made sure that gaming is solidly ingrained into eastern society, with many Japanese Monster Hunter players teaming up with people they meet on long coach journeys or trains where commuting is rife. In South Korea the treatment of pro-gamers borders on the obsessive, as fans follow their favourite gamers all over the country participating in tournaments, though thankfully nothing of this nature happens in the west. The local multiplayer function is explored far more here, wherein overseas this act seems more so reserved for friends and organised events. Therefore, this difference in multiplayer preference across cultures leads to a divide wherein western players without a Wii U are far less likely to engage in some monster mashing. Whilst many will still enjoy the excitement of taking down a Jhen Mohran by themselves (as the series has grown worldwide anyway to some degree, even if the western/eastern divide has grown exponentially), the fact of the matter is that many 3DS owners who lack both a Wii U and the friends interested in the game would rely quite heavily on the online functionality, and subsequently could be turned away by this issue.
This leads nicely to the news that literally tens of people around the UK have been waiting for; Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, the latest westernised edition of the much beloved series, will come to the 3DS fully capable of online gameplay, regardless of whether or not its owner decided to buy Nintendo’s latest financial flop. There are several reasons that this is fantastic news, my own personal euphoria aside. With this level of connectivity on what is undoubtedly the most successful recent console, Monster Hunter may be finally realised as a solid multiplayer title, given that this time people might actually bother to try it. The 3DS continues to grow in popularity, and Capcom trust it to carry the sequel to 2013’s hunting experience without an accompanying Wii U edition.
In line with the series habit of expanding on a current generation, the version of Monster Hunter 4 that the west will receive is an expansion of the original Japanese release. The 2015 dating is unfortunate, but not unexpected. Localisation for Monster Hunter has always been a lengthy process; the games are often released in Japan a year or more before western players can join in. However there is multiplayer region locking in place that prevents western and eastern players hunting together that, although seemingly restricting, is understandable given that a lot of eastern players will be ridiculously overpowered. Like a medieval hue and cry taking on the SS, albeit with more silly hair cuts.
Now go out and buy Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate so I have somebody to play it with. What do you mean you haven’t heard of it? Well I guess that you could say the fact that so many people haven’t played it is truly ‘monstrous’! Hahaha get it? Monstrous? Hahaha. Kill me.