The First Monster Hunters

By Kotaku on at

By James Busby

A herd of Aptonoth bustles across the great plain as rays of sunlight cast through the treetops. As they slowly plod toward the watering hole, it seems their arduous trek has come to an end. But they’re not alone. Amongst the foliage two Velociprey, small raptor-like pack hunters, are coldly assessing the herd. Suddenly they leap out of the brush and give chase to their unsuspecting prey. They catch up to a young Aptonoth and, after a brief skirmish with its mother, the beast is slain. The Velociprey begin to feast upon their successful kill, but their meal is quickly interrupted - the air seems to flatten under the beat of giant wings, as a Rathalos lands, snatches the carcass in his gigantic talons, and takes off for his mountaintop nest.

As the Rathalos begins to devour his stolen prize, a trio of intrepid hunters make their move. Two manage to sneak up to the dragon and launch a surprise attack, before the beast becomes enraged and chases them across the craggy mountain. They both run for their lives as the Rathalos follows in hot pursuit, but the monster doesn’t realise he’s heading for a trap: the duo leap over a rocky mound, narrowly avoiding a toothy demise, while the third hunter unloads an explosive round into the oncoming dragon’s face. The screen explodes into flames, and the Monster Hunter logo is left emblazoned in the centre.

This scene was the 2004 introduction that captured the hearts of the first generation of monster hunters. For many this was the start of new adventures and friendships that would span multiple games over the next decade, and ultimately find its home on portable platforms and social co-op. For others, it was an obtuse PS2 title that would simply be forgotten, its unusual demands proving too divergent from the then-mainstream action experiences.

Monster Hunter is a complex game that is often misconstrued as a simple hack-and-slasher with a tonne of grinding. This is far from the reality but MH certainly is different, and not least in how it places a certain burden on the player - every game in the series requires the player to seek out various details and subterranean mechanics that can easily be misunderstood or misused. For new players this can be overwhelming. The tutorials teach the very basics, while advanced mechanics and an understanding of how this ecosystem operates has to be sought-out by the player.

Monster Hunter Generations

This problem has plagued the series since its initial release, with even the most recent titles much-improved but still struggling to bed in new players. Monster Hunter Generations is the most accessible to date, providing players with optional weapon and hunting art tutorials. As a long-term player this is welcome, because any hunter understands the pain of recommending the game to friends, only to have them bounce off. My only hesitation is that MH has always been about learning and adapting to various situations which made the first game - before the wikis, the phone apps, the forums bursting with information - confusing but also a fantastical mystery. A puzzle where observation and patience could, after many hours, suddenly lead to enlightenment.

At its core Monster Hunter has always been about felling giant beasts to obtain resources for crafting weapons and armour. Upon either killing or capturing a monster, you carve them up and put their body parts towards making better equipment. Your hunter starts off in very basic gear, but this gradually changes and seeing a monster’s scaly hide fashioned into a beautiful chest piece is the kind of satisfaction you don’t get anywhere else - knowing the time, effort and skill that goes into hunter fashion. After a dragon has carted your hunter multiple times (hunters ‘faint’ when their health hits zero, and are taken back to base on a felyne-borne stretcher) there’s no small amount of joy when you eventually turn its head into a giant hammer. And as the gear gets better, the next bunch of monsters get much harder. This reward loop is something that has remained at the very heart of Monster Hunter, because Capcom got it right first time.

It is often mischaracterised as grinding. To make a full set of a given monster’s gear, players have to kill it over and over as the rewards you get are completely randomised. Breaking tails, chests, horns and claws can often increase your chances of receiving certain parts, but this doesn’t always guarantee you’ll get what you want. This mechanic would prove frustrating if hunts were a grind, but they’re not - instead they’re giant dynamic boss fights that play out differently every time. Just because you beat a monster once doesn’t mean you can do it again in the same way.

Take the monstrous lategame Deviljho, a gigantic Brute Wyvern that resembles a T-Rex, delivers bone-crunching bites and powerful blows with its tail, crashes into hunters head-first, and switches between two different behaviour states (normal and enraged). When enraged Deviljho becomes increasingly violent and aggressive, barely allowing hunters to breathe, and exhales a mysterious cloudy emission can often be a one-shot.

Deviljho can fight in most environments, chain together its attacks in different orders, and easily catch a hunter off-guard. It’s these ever-changing variables that make felling beasts in Monster Hunter a unique experience every time. Variants and subspecies take this point further, as they add new moves and heighten the aggression of the monster. There’s always a level of uncertainty when hunting new and old foes, but despite this, dying in Monster Hunter has always felt fair. Each monster has their tells, but it’s down to the hunter to take the right opportunities and - in the case of a Deviljho - avoid over-extending.

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The first generation of hunters used weapons that may look familiar to their modern successors, but they performed very differently. If the series has an iconic weapon it’s surely the ginormous Great Sword - but in the original it lacks the charge attack that would (from MH Freedom 2) later become the core of this playstyle.

This is a feature of Monster Hunter’s evolution - as the series has grown it has both accumulated and discarded ideas, but the underlying concept has stayed consistent. Long Swords (also called tachi blades) were just Great Swords that looked a bit like katanas but had the same attacks - in later titles it would acquire a key ‘Spirit combo’ and attack in quick flurries rather than ponderous swings.

Often you see Capcom’s designers looking at how a weapon is used, and then focusing their efforts on making it more effective in that role. Early adopters of the Hammer couldn’t deal stun damage, and would simply stagger their foe by inflicting huge amounts of trauma to the head. The Hammer is still all about bludgeoning monster cranium but, with the added KO potential of stun damage, the weapon gains another layer of strategic utility in conjunction with traps and paralysis.

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The weapons are one thing, of course, but the first Monster Hunter also featured various hunting tools. Knocking the Rathalos, king of the skies, out of the air with a well-timed flash bomb has always been a high-five moment, while fishing out a pesky Plesioth with a perfectly-timed sonic bomb still feels as great as it did in 2004. Utilising items and traps to control monsters has remained a fundamental part of the series and, because these tools are precious, their impact can come to feel seismic. Do you use your traps to continually lock-down a vicious beast, minimising its time enraged and the damage being dealt out? Do you save the trap to capture it and increase your rewards, but potentially miss out on rare carves?

The PS2 original may have been forgotten by many, but that core loop of hunting and crafting lives on now. Old foes are continually resurrected across the series, giving newcomers a chance to fight the monsters that the first hunters faced over a decade ago. The camaraderie of teaming up with three other hunters remains unmatched. The original online town of Minegarde is no longer with us, but new Gathering Halls carry on that sense of community as hunters post quests, buy items, share tactics, and have a big old dinner to prepare for the fight ahead. These interactions are meaningful because, like everything in Monster Hunter, they feed into the hunt, the overarching struggle between man and monster. By today’s standards, the original Monster Hunter seems barebones. But strip back Generations or 4U or any earlier title, and you still feel the power of this foundation - one that continues to evolve with every new instalment.