The advent of the Pokemon series in the mid-1990s and the subsequent frenzy of popularity the charming Pocket Monster games have enjoyed ever since have spurred plenty of clones based on young kids battling with collectible critters for fame and fortune. Monster Racers' inspiration is obvious, yet embedded deeply in the game's carbon-copy presentation and revamped concept is a unique element that's strong enough to give the well-trodden genre some new life. Instead of engaging in lighthearted turn-based combat, the myriad beasties you capture and raise have a burning desire to race against each other when they come face-to-face. Pitting your best monsters against your opponents' gnarly critters in 2D platforming races is fun, and it's just the thing to liven up the adventure. Pairing this solid and seamless racing component with the some of the mechanics that make the Pokemon games so entertaining yields an addictive--if somewhat unoriginal--experience.
Monster Racers' setup will no doubt invoke some strong deja-vu for anyone who has ever booted up a Pokemon game. In addition to the bustling human population, the world is home to a cornucopia of exotic creatures that roam the wilds. Rather than fight, these curious beasts love to run, encouraging human racers to capture and tame them in order to compete for sport and glory. Each of the seven continents has its own champion racer, and annual tournament races are held to give newcomers a shot to win the titles. Playing as either a young boy or girl, you pick out your first monster racing companion and set out to obtain a highly coveted license that allows you to compete. From there, it's time to head off on a romp around the globe to capture and train monsters, race them in tournaments, and beat all of the reigning champs in order to become the top racer in the world. It's a tale that has already been told countless times before. The constant riffing off the Pokemon franchise is so blatant that there's even a Team Rocket-type group of no-goodniks that try to hamper your quest.
When you're not walking around the hub town areas to chatter with locals, progress the story, pick up important supplies, and dabble in fetch quests, you're roaming through dungeon-like wilds. Here you find other racers to battle, wild monsters to defeat or befriend, and lots of treasure to uncover. Instead of appearing in random encounters, the respawning wild monsters appear as round yellow stars that move in set patterns on the map field. Running into one triggers a race event, and you can select one of your three equipped monsters to compete with. These shorter 2D platforming races give you an opportunity to beat the wild creatures to gain experience toward leveling up your monster. They also let you use your monster to capture weaker creatures, if you can blast them with enough energy before the race is done. In contrast, races against other trainers you encounter during your travels are lengthier and more challenging and dish out a larger amount of experience. Larger tournament matches have four tiers of qualifying races, and you have to successfully win all of them in a row in order to wrestle a continent's title away from the current champ. These tougher matches feature longer races with four monsters racing at once.
Regardless of the type of challenge, the races themselves are action-focused and enjoyable to blast through. A lot of variety and subtle depth are also worked into the formula. Races have you directly controlling your selected monster against its beastly opponent using the D pad and face buttons. Unless you're trying to capture your adversary, the goal is to plow through to the finish line first, but there's more to it than simply charging a straight route to the end of the course. Stomping on opponents from above or behind deals minor damage and slows them down for a moment, but they can also thrash you back. The terrain changes frequently by throwing in inclines and slopes to navigate, barriers to jump over, and pits to avoid. There are often branching vertical paths in levels, and you can bound up or down between them. Some courses have other dangers to work through too. For example, water will slow most monsters down, while lava overheats them quickly. These fluctuations and factors keep things interesting.
Selecting monsters that have special terrain bonuses or elemental immunities can give you a strategic advantage on certain courses. Quick reflexes also help, since there are power-ups on the field that can make a huge difference in how far ahead you run. Some give you a burst of speed, while others boost your special ability meter that lets you trigger your creatures' inherent powers. Additionally, collecting the coins littering the tracks earns you some cash to spend in town to further enhance your monsters. The game's role-playing element comes heavily into play with each race, since leveling up monsters gradually increases their speed, jumping ability, strength, and other stats that can pump them up into living hotrods.
The campaign adventure is a colorful and exuberant affair. There's a lot to explore, and the 2D racing and the monster-rearing elements quickly become the most addictive aspects of the game. This extends to the local multiplayer matches as well. Connecting with up to three other friends in local wireless battles offers a combat-focused twist that includes attack items like missiles, lightning, and fireballs to trip up opponents in races. It's a nice feature if you want to test your top monsters against them in local competitions. Monster Racers' high-speed take on the foundation laid out by the Pokemon series is as strong as the game it boldly rips off. The graphics and presentation are crisp and pleasant, matching the overall polish and quality of the fun gameplay itself. The title's main shortcoming is that it's unoriginal, which leaves a bit of a bad aftertaste. But even that isn't enough to mar the fun that's hiding beneath the surface here.