Because Pokémon Isn’t Enough: Why I Grieve Monster Tamer Video Games

What if there was a video game where the player was tasked in raising one or more monsters to adventure, fight, evolve and maybe even breed them for better, stronger offspring? A game where you could participate in tournaments, undergo trials of endurance, and claw your way into old secrets of the world? A game where you could step into an arena with your friends to butt heads and show who was the better trainer and strategist?
Now what if that game was something other than Pokémon?
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Yeah, all of our hearts… and consequently our wallets. Well done, Nintendo.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Pokémon, and have since the release of the original Red and Blue versions. While I lack the patience to truly enjoy the competitive side of the franchise, I’ve dipped my feet and found it both fun and brilliant. Even if the campaigns have become far too easy for my taste, there’s still a quiver of whimsical delight in finding new Pokémon, forming your teams, running the gauntlet to retrieve the notorious gym badges, and undermining that generation’s rendition of morally one-dimensional criminal organizations—not to mention the other pleasant features strewn around the franchise like building secret bases and grooming Pokémon for stylish showdowns.
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One of DMQ’s many appeals is that, like the rest of the Dragon Quest series, the art design was generated by Akira Toriyama, the man responsible for the Dragonball series.

But the problem with Pokémon is the monopoly it has created over the genre of monster tamer video games. It’s gotten to the point where most competition has become completely extinct and the genre has transmuted into something that isn’t really a genre at all. Some brave video games will still play the taming card, but only as a small feature, such as a mini-game. Anything more is like picking out the wood for your coffin before you’ve expired. Final Fantasy XIII-2 tried to integrate some form of taming into the gameplay, but it didn’t really capture the same feeling as most games which specialized in the style. Outside of that, most tamer games retired their dignity on old handheld consoles and have since adopted a new home among the mobile gaming scene, where dozens try to emulate Pokémon with relentless mediocrity. No more Digimon World, Monster Rancher, or Dragon Quest Monsters to be found.
You need not look far to find a million criticisms and reasons for this abandonment. Of that above lineup, let’s take Digimon World for example. While every franchise failed on their own merits, this one struggled with one thing in particular: the ability to learn and build on past installments. The first Digimon World released for the Playstation 1 and captured the hearts of many fans of the anime series. The game could be buggy, presented sometimes arbitrary goals, and introduced more than one frustrating gameplay mechanic throughout its life, but it had spirit. Rather than Pokémon, where you fostered an entire team with expendable members, Digimon World gave you one partner at a time, one that you had to personally tutor, connect with, and care for their everyday needs such as sleep and food. Digivolution came with time, experience, relationship, and sometimes luck; it was not something you could attain by grinding the same grassy swathe for an hour. If you were a poor tamer and did not prepare appropriately for battle, or took on a greater challenge than your partner was ready for, they could come out the other side with lasting wounds, sickness, fatigue, a sense of hopelessness, and sometimes even die altogether, leaving you with a new Digimon to raise from infancy. The player could defeat Digimon and even recruit them to help restore the home of File City, adding a sense of growth and progression to the setting as well.
The problems came with Digimon World 2, which was nothing like its predecessor. Instead of improving on the quirky but already beloved mechanics of DW1, the developers threw them away entirely and opted for a turn-based dungeon crawler, which was generally not well-received. Digimon World 3 changed the formula again, some for the better, some for the worse, and everything changed yet again with Digimon World 4. There was no consistency. Instead of picking a staple game type and pouring their efforts into perfecting it, the developing teams chose to start from scratch over and over, making new mistakes rather than learning from old ones.
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A training session in Monster Rancher 4.

Others in this genre have run into their own problems, but as a whole, they’ve all got one thing in common. They were too ambitious. Rather, they were naïve in their ambition, trying to throw new things onto the platter without considering the reception of their fanbase. They took a largely successful formula, but modified it and placed it into a new setting which simply didn’t coalesce. Such was the case between Monster Rancher 4 and its successor, Monster Rancher Evo, the latter of which saw an incredible drop in critical reception and essentially ran the franchise into the ground. They tried something new, which had the potential to be good, but didn’t approach with the right frame of mind.
While these games struggled to find their identity, Pokémon was on another track, already comfortable in its skin and turning heads with every successive generation. Unlike all of these other failed products, Pokémon knew its formula and only made small deviations per installment rather than undergoing complete paradigm shifts. Any changes Pokémon made remained outside of the primary lineage. There’s Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, Pokémon Snap, Pokémon Stadium, and several other spin-offs generated by the franchise, but none of those are part of the central Pokémon gaming genealogy and thus have never inhibited its growth.
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If it ain’t broke…

Because of Pokémon‘s success, indie mobile developers have flocked to recreate the magic for their own games. If there’d been only one or two apps to pick from, maybe they would be worth your time, but a quick Google search reveals more than a dozen are vying for your interest, and those are the ones who have garnered at least a little popularity. While I cannot speak for everything out there, I have had a run with two or three mobile games of this likeness and found them all supremely lacking in substance. With the added burden of in-game purchases, most of them are better off ignored entirely.
So Pokémon rises, eating up the love of its millions of fans and inadvertently inspiring a horde of mobile games which will likely serve as fodder to increase its own popularity. In the meantime, all
of the monster tamers that were popular over a decade ago continue to sink further into an abyss from which it seems they may never recover.
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…don’t fix it.
As far as the scope of my research goes, the best we’ve gotten lately was a Nintendo 3DS remake of the original Dragon Quest Monsters back in 2012, and Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 the year before that, the latter of which actually received decent ratings, proving that not all hope is yet lost. Recent news has shown that Digimon‘s loyal fanbase still holds to their love of the franchise and has demanded the United States adopt the new Digimon game releasing for the Playstation 4 and Vita called Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth (‘Story’ will likely be replaced with ‘World’ once translations are complete). This is a game I can get behind. This is a game I will be rooting for, because a long time has passed since Digimon World 4, so there’s been time to reflect and maybe, just maybe, learn from past mistakes.
Because I love Pokémon, I want it to be challenged. Because I love Digimon, I want it to be the challenger. I want their conflict to create a spark, and I want that spark to remind people of a type of game which they’d forgotten existed.  I want all of the fallen franchises to be reborn.  I want new powers to rise.
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Let’s go, boys.

I want those games to come back stronger than ever, because they have a dormant potential and deserve one more chance.
God bless, indulge in some nostalgia, and never forget to smile.

Cooper D Barham

Aspiring author, marriage and family therapist, and active behavioral health technician, Cooper fills his world with God, music, videogames, anime/manga, drawing, reading, writing, and some physical stuff in between. If you ever want to talk about the big or little things of life, fire him a message. Helping others through tough times is both his passion and way of living. 'Got it memorized?'

1 Comment

  1. Nick on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    Totally agree with you. Games like Digimon World 1 and Monster Rancher gave me an entirely new perspective on monster hunting/breeding, etc, and was a true refreshment growing up as a kid. Even to this day I can’t stand behind Pokemon because of the boring formula. This is coming from a Pokemon veteran who became BORED OUT OF MY MIND. We need more substance and Digimon is the franchise to do it. Being able to actually breed, take care, feed, talk to, and basically interact with your Digimon in every way is so much more satisfying.

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