There are usually one or two games per year that defy classification. These original games sometimes break through and do very well, although more often than not, they fade into the background and slide into the category of "sleeper hit." Monster Rancher most definitely falls into this group of games.
The premise of Monster Rancher is simple. Picture that old Barcode Battler toy merged with a Tamagotchi, except instead of cutting out and saving barcodes to generate monsters, Monster Rancher reads a small segment of any CD and uses the data to generate a fighting monster. Some CDs will yield giant golems or dragons, while others will give you palsy little eye creatures and other not-so-impressive beasts. After creating a monster, you must train it to fight in the ring. You control every aspect of the monster's training from diet to what stats it will be striving to increase. Monsters can be frozen for later use, or even combined with other monsters to form hybrid beasts with multiple powers. The point of the game is to become the greatest monster breeder around, and there are rankings and other stats that will clue you in as to how well you're doing.
Most of Monster Rancher is menu-based, with the exception of the fights themselves. There are two different options for fighting, each with its own benefits. Beginning players will want to let the monster fight all by himself, with no input from the player. This makes the game more stat-based, with a liberal amount of luck sprinkled on. If you choose to control the monster, fighting can be very difficult, but it's also possible to win fights against higher-class monsters, if you get good at it. The control in the fights is a bit flaky and not quite what you'd expect. The L1 and R1 buttons move your monster back and forth in the ring. The D-pad and buttons are used to select attacks from a menu in real time.
Graphically, Monster Rancher is pretty good. The monsters are very animated, showing pain, joy, and confusion. The sound is decent, but the looks and sounds of Monster Rancher are easily overshadowed by its superaddictive gameplay. If it sucks you in, you'll lose weeks of time. You'll actually feel a loss if (and when) your star monster passes on. You might start to relate better to your monster than to actual people.
Monster Rancher isn't for everyone. If you've got a large collection of CDs, and the patience to sift through them, trying to find a worthy beast, then run out and buy MR right this second. If you like a little more action in your gaming, then you might want to skip Monster Rancher.