Once upon a time, Monster Rancher games practically rained from the sky. But since 2006's Monster Rancher EVO, the steady outpouring of games in Tecmo's prolific franchise dried up for Western audiences. At long last, you can head back to the ranch with Monster Rancher DS. This new entry doesn't tinker much with the core mechanics of the earlier games in the series, resulting in a game with solid fundamentals that also feels dated and unremarkable by today's standards. Coupled with graphics that look like they belong in a game from 10 years ago, this new entry feels too old fashioned to really impress new players. But while it lacks a wow factor, the business of training monsters can still be absorbing and rewarding for those with patience who aren't looking for too much challenge or action.
The Monster Rancher series has long lived in the shadow of the more popular Pokemon games, but aside from their shared focus on a wide variety of strange monsters that frequently fight each other, the two series have little in common. Monster Rancher places a focus on training your monsters and then enrolling them in battles so that you can earn money and climb the ranks to become one of the elites of the monster ranching world. Monster Rancher DS makes a halfhearted effort at storytelling with some rivalries and crises that mostly play out in conversations between your bubbly assistant Cleo and the characters who visit your ranch from time to time. But there's no consistent, overarching narrative beyond a vague sense of encouragement to climb the monster ranching ladder.
Before you can start climbing that ladder, you need a monster to train. Some previous entries in the series famously had players insert any CD or DVD into the console as part of the creation process. Obviously, this isn't possible on the DS, but the creation options here are no less unusual. You can either speak (or just make noise) into the microphone on the DS or use the stylus to draw or write something. There's generally no clear connection between anything you say or draw and the monster you receive, though, so it ends up feeling less like a fun way to randomize monster creation and more like your input is essentially meaningless.
But, of course, creating a monster only takes a moment; the real meat of the game lies in raising your monster back at your ranch. From a series of menu options, you choose whether to have your monster spend that particular week training, resting, or participating in one of the tournaments or league battles that frequently roll around. Training improves your monster's attributes, which in turn raises its chances of emerging victorious in battle. These training exercises aren't minigames. You just make the decisions; you don't have any direct control of how well the monster performs. If you select "run," for instance, a brief animation of your monster scurrying around a track (or trying to) is shown. If the monster fails, you can lecture it, and if it cheats, you can scold it; you don't want it to get spoiled, but if you're too hard on it, it may become stressed. This process of trying to maximize your monster's potential and keep it happy while making sure it's rested up for each battle you participate in is certainly nothing new. But it can still be gratifying when your monster is finally capable of winning one of the official cups, carrying you one step up the monster ranching ranks.
The battles play out with a diagram on the lower screen indicating the distance between the two monsters, as well as important stats like your monster's current amount of "guts" (the energy that allows it to perform attacks) and the likelihood that it will land a hit with the currently selected attack. The top screen shows the battle as it happens. You can take control, issuing orders to your monster and trying to maneuver it slowly toward or away from its opponent to switch among your close, medium and long-range attacks, but fights are rarely exciting. Much of your time is often spent waiting for your guts to regenerate so that you can perform another attack, and it's not uncommon for fights to drag on until the clock runs out. At that point, the monster with a higher percentage of life remaining is crowned the victor. There is an option to let your monster handle the battle on its own, which typically works fine when you have a statistical advantage over your opponent. Strangely, watching a battle can sometimes be more engaging than issuing orders during one, as you sit back and root for your monster to fight in a smart way and emerge victorious.
In addition to training at your ranch and battling, there are a few activities you can pay to take your monster on via the guide service in the nearby town. Drills are an effective but rather expensive way to raise some of your monster's attributes and learn new attack techniques, and they take the form of a simple board game where rolls of the dice determine just how much growth you're able to squeeze out of them. There's also errantry, in which your monster explores an open area, finding items and battling wild monsters. You can try to guide it around by tapping the area map on the touch screen, encouraging it to head in a certain direction, but that's it. The lack of direct control of your monster here and throughout the game does help foster a sense that this is an independent creature you're taking care of, which sometimes makes it all the harder when your monster starts aging and you need to say good-bye. Those old monsters haven't outlived their usefulness entirely, though. They can be combined with other monsters to create new breeds, and while it can be a bit of a letdown starting from scratch with a new monster after investing so much time in an earlier one, experimenting with various combinations and creating monsters that are more powerful than their predecessors keeps things fresh as the years go by.
Sadly, the somewhat dated feel of the gameplay is matched, if not surpassed, by the visuals, which fail to take advantage of the DS's capabilities. The monsters, arenas, and other environments lack detail to the point of ugliness. With the exception of the artwork for characters and the town you frequently visit, everything looks fuzzy and undefined. The monster designs are outlandish and interesting, but they lack the visual detail and clarity that would make actually looking at them inherently pleasurable. The sound is equally poor, with grating exclamations of delight or dismay from the monsters and short, simple melodies that repeat ad nauseam.
If you have friends who are also pursuing the storied tradition of monster ranching, you will appreciate the option to battle or combine monsters, and there's also an option to battle on Wi-Fi, though online competition is extremely scant. Despite its old-fashioned gameplay and downright disappointing visuals, Monster Rancher DS can be absorbing at times in its unassuming way. The in-game weeks and real-life hours can fly by as you go about the lighthearted business of training your monsters, and although the battles themselves lack excitement, it's rewarding to see monsters improve to the point where they can win championships that were previously out of reach. It's just too bad that these old monsters haven't learned any new tricks during their absence.