I was sucked into the addiction that is Monster Rancher when the very first of the series took off in 1997. The game had me staying up all night and skipping classes for days. I wouldn’t even eat. To say the least I was extremely excited and impressed when Monster Rancher 2 came out a couple years later. It was an awesome sequel. Again I was excited when the third installment, aptly named Monster Rancher 3, was released. Graphically the game was a step forward, but to my dismay, the game was a large hop in the wrong direction. So here I am now presented with the fourth installment in the series, Monster Rancher 4, and I can safely say that this one is a bounding leap beyond any of its predecessors.

The Monster Rancher series has never been known for its graphical splendor. Ironically, one of the drawing factors is finding all the different monsters and seeing how they act, move, and fight. Monster Rancher 4 doesn’t have any OMG!TM moments or special effects that will blow you away, but as far as monster variety and uniqueness, it completely obliterates its predecessors. I was extremely pleased to see that each monster, even in the same class, looked very unique. For those of you that have played the series before, you’ll know that most monsters come from a certain main breed and that all monsters are a cross of one breed with another. The special traits they had visually, due to any crossbreed monster were very detailed and made the sub-breed very apparent. Taking into account the amount of different monsters there are available in the game makes the developer’s task seem extremely daunting.

Training is much more animated. Each exercise is played in full 3D with your monster’s level of tiredness fully apparent. This is much improved over the 2D animations previously used for training exercises.

Character interaction is very similar to previous iterations. Conversation is played out by still cartoon figures on screen with accompanying text for speech. The characters are drawn in an anime style with more detail then before. In fact the introduction to the game is an anime short played along a song. Pretty Neat! So although the game isn’t graphically splendorific, it is a serious improvement to the series.

Again, the series isn’t known for it’s special achievement in sound either. It has its own special flavor of sound and music that you come to love and recognize. The menu selection sounds are exactly the same as previous games and for those of you that have played any of them, you know that it is a series trademark. I know it sounds weird but all you Monster Rancher junkies know it to be true!

Battle sounds are comparable to previous iterations of the series with some improvement. Music throughout the game is also very similar to its predecessors. Light, playful music for the Ranch scenes and Patriotic battle tunes for tournaments and fights. The new adventure mode music is neither annoying nor inspiring. Overall the music is average, but the game sticks with its trademark sounds and that makes us cult followers happy!

Controls for the game are very basic. Since most of the game is driven by menu selection, there’s really nothing to it. I never had a case where I accidently did selected something I didn’t mean to.

Battle controls are also very simple. Move the analog stick to move your monster towards or away from its opponent. Attack with the circle, X and Square buttons. Special maneuvers use triangle, combined with the Analog stick or D-Pad. Advanced battles have more than one monster per side, and this brings in the L and R buttons. Since the battles are relatively slow, it is very easy to learn and control the battle sequences. The new adventuring mode (more in the gameplay section) puts you in a 3rd person type environment where all you really need to do is move around and press ‘X’.

The general idea of the Monster Rancher series goes pretty much like this: You start the game as a Monster Breeder with no experience. You’re given a ranch to begin your life as a breeder. At the ranch you raise monsters by training them for battle, taking them on adventures to discover new monsters and items, feeding them right, and generally just taking care of that particular monster’s needs. By doing this correctly, your monster will take you to the top of the battle competitions, and help you unlock bigger, better and cooler monsters. In order to get these monsters to your ranch you have to get them off your CD’s and DVD’s! That’s right, you go to the shrine in town and put in your favorite (or not-so-favorite) CD’s or DVD’s in and the game reads them to generate a monster! This is probably the most notable feature of the game. With over 320 monsters to unlock, you can bet you’ll be using a large chunk of your entertainment library. Monster Rancher 4 contains all of these basic series principles but makes some big changes to how they are done, which seriously improves the series.

Training your monster has been changed drastically. You no longer choose a training exercise and watching your monster fail, succeed or do really great. Instead, you set up an exercise schedule, and each week your monster will perform a certain training exercise. The success of each exercise is measured by a percentage of the effort of your monster. After you’ve selected the scheduling, you accept the schedule and the game displays how well your monster performed that exercise.

After this comes ‘free time’. This is where you can scold or praise your monster, or give it items and food. You are only allowed a certain number of free time actions, depending on your breeder rank. So you are able to give your monsters food and items each week, instead of at the beginning of each month as in previous of the series. After free time is over, you are taken to the weekend screen where you can choose to compete in a scheduled battle, go adventuring, go to town, or just proceed to the next week. This is the general daily operation of the game.

Now get this, you are no longer limited to training one monster at a time. You can now train up to FIVE monsters at the same time. In fact this actually helps your monsters grow. As they can develop bonds which add to their training ability and can grant them special abilities in the game. This is a MAJOR addition to the series. You might think that this can get unwieldy, but the addition of the scheduling menu for training makes training multiple monsters a snap. In the end you don’t have to train more than one monster if you don’t want to.

Different training exercises become available as you acquire devices called training gadgets. These can be bought from a gadget peddler that visits your ranch on a regular basis. You can expand his selection by providing him with special stones found by exploring. The only thing missing to raising your monster is the birthday event. The game no longer has a birthday event for any of your monster’s birth dates. I really liked this in the older games and miss it here, but I will tell you that it is one of the only things missing that I liked from previous versions.

Exploring in Monster Rancher 3 was crap to say the least. Monster Rancher 4 has redeemed the series by adding a 3rd-person adventuring element to the exploring section of the game. When you go exploring you take your monster(s) with you and search randomly generated caves, jungles, etc. for items, special stuff, story quests and more. Think of it as a simplified version of Dark Cloud. This is so much better than the “area wandering” of Monster Rancher 3 and is a definite improvement to the grid exploring of the rest of the series (GBA and PS2.) Your monster will be more successful at helping you explore as it gains adventure experience by defeating wandering monsters in the areas. As your monster gains adventuring levels, it will gain various traits that will aid it in battle and give it special exploring abilities to even further its use in adventures. Adventuring is much more fun than it has been in any of the other Monster Rancher games.

The basics of battle have changed very little but much as been added to expand the battle system. Battles are fought in arenas around the Monster Rancher world. When in battle, movement is limited to changing distance from your opponent. Your monster is able to perform different moves based on range of the target. There are short, medium and long range attacks. The amount of attacks available depends on how many moves the monster has learned adventuring. Each of the attacks have special traits, and its damage and effects vary depending on the specific move in combination with your monster’s abilities. As you progress in the game, you can modify these attacks by using different combinations of buttons and attack series. Additionally, you eventually learn how to use more than one monster in battle, and can join in all kinds of different types of battles.

One of the not so great characteristics of the previous in the series was the lack of effort it took to become a top breeder. This has been fixed. More time must be invested to achieve S-class. You won’t be able to do it with your first or second monster. Related to this is the depth of the storyline, as progressing through it is required to get to the top. The story isn’t EPIC by any means, but it definitely is an improvement on the series.

Every single aspect of the game has been upgraded and modified to make the Monster Rancher experience much much better. Tecmo has completely redeemed themselves from the mess that was Monster Rancher 3. Monster Rancher 4 is the best, by far, in the series to date.

Monster Rancher 4 isn’t really a game that has an end. With over 320 monsters to unlock, hours and hours of storyline, and the chance to pit your monsters against your friends’ monsters, there really is no true end to the game. With the leaps and bounds of improvement on the series and the wonderful entertainment, this can bring to those of ANY age the value of the game is very high. ‘Nuff Said.