With a game on the scale of Monster Hunter, so accumulative and expansive thanks to decades of Capcom’s best minds working on the series, where do you even start. Most writing about the games doesn’t, instead focusing on the general aspects that might be understandable to the man in the street. But that doesn’t cut it here. Monster Hunter: Generations is one of my favourite games of the year because of the specifics. The path that led here. The hunter I am now. And the value of crab meat.
I’m talking Shogun Ceanataur, a high-level monster variant that’s ultimately modelled on a hermit crab - the shells it uses are the skulls of other, much larger, monsters. But we’ll come back to our katana-clawed crustacean chum, again and again. One of the rhythms of a new Monster Hunter is moving from Low Rank (LR) hunts to High Rank (HR) hunts and - after tipping over your Hunter Rank at 8 - being unleashed on the best the game has to offer. But reading a sentence takes a few seconds, while those two jumps take dozens of hours. For a noob.
If you’ve been through Monster Hunter before you know the drill and focus in on what matters. Google search ‘key quests’ - the ones that advance rank, left unmarked in the game. Rinse through the early ones. Meet up with friends and batter through multiplayer LR key quests, upgrading gear but not really aiming for anything, until HR. At the launch of a new title, with all the old crew back in town, you do it in a few sessions - and it’s a pleasure to be back.
In HR, the ballpark is out of the way, and you start to think about building an armour set. This isn’t a long-term plan but a practical one: before building a proper HR set out of spiny plasma-spewing dragons, I’ll build a low-tier HR set so I die less on the way there. A few weeks after the game comes out, friends are more sporadic, and one of the beauties of Monster Hunter’s lobby system is you can be specific. I liked the look of the Shogun Ceanataur’s armour and, when I had a rare evening set aside for hunting, established a room for like-minded hunters.
In truth, the character limits meant my room was called DA CRAB FARM. Snigger all you like. My visitors, over the next few hours, were delighted. “OMG dream room” said one. “Need crab” said another, rather bafflingly. They'd certainly come to the right place. Among the world's thousands of hunters was my own temporary band of hardcore nutters, dedicated to destroying one kind of crab - over and over.
This might sound dull. Indeed one of the most unfair charges thrown at Monster Hunter is that it’s a grindy game, simply because people don’t understand what the word means. Grind is performing the same actions again and again for a reward. People used to mock MMOGs in particular for their “go kill 10 rats” quest design. But Monster Hunter has never been anything like this, for the simple reason that the monsters are not predictable. Every time you face them, the fight is different: sometimes remarkably easy, often rough, and sometimes shocking. Monster Hunter's creatures fight more desperately as they get in trouble, with flails and rage-induced swiping that will flatten a noob looking to get a few more hits in but sail past a seasoned hunter.
Elements of the monsters are learnable, of course, because that's the nub. As we fought the Shogun Ceanataur, over and over, I learned the tells for its claw swipes, the face motion before it spat forwards, and the cues indicating it would soon be bashing sideways. Initially it would still get me sometimes, even cart (KO) me. But I’d kill more and more, and build up the resources I needed for the temporary-dream armour set.
Soon it couldn’t touch me. I was dancing back and forth around the claws, diving off them and slamming down from behind, cracking the thing’s shell after a few minutes, and destroying it at record speed. This clearly wasn’t the first rodeo for a few of my companions, too, who tormented and slashed the beast every bit as effectively. I began by trapping the crabs but, after a few hunts, these fights would only end in death. When a monster, after maybe a 15 minute battle, finally slumps to the ground, it is a moment of great catharsis. The four hunters converge on the corpse, hunker down, and begin carving. Each one offers up a congrats with the chat shortcuts: “Textbook hunting!”
Then back to the hunting hall, and off again. Between the hunts, hunters would come and hunters would go, but every time the new group would have a meal and set off - and every time, we’d beat that crab just a little harder. Soon I was trying out new hunter styles on it, practicing my Adept Gunlance dodges - and getting smacked occasionally for the trouble.
I crafted the armour as I had the materials and, by the time I had nearly enough to make the final piece, the crab farm was as busy as ever. At this point I was the master of the crab, capable of confronting it with no more than a fork - and this is Monster Hunter’s genius. I could fight a Shogun Ceanataur blindfolded: I know how it moves, I know how it thinks, and I know how to nail it. As I battered this monster I learned everything about it: my motivation was better gear, but the outcome is both that and a deeper understanding of how these creatures work.
My crab armour is beautiful thanks: coral blue plate and chainmail, fringed in silver. I looked like a medieval Power Ranger, and still wear it occasionally despite having long-since acquired ‘better’ gear. Point is that getting my Ceanataur set was its own kind of quest - something that I set myself and, through the kindness of strangers, achieved.
That’s the beauty of Monster Hunter. Fans talk like this game is endless, because it’s basically true. But that’s not why we play it. As anyone who’s ever had a fine meal knows, being a Monster Hunter isn’t about conquering the world. It’s about having a good time with your mates, scoring some fine threads, and finding your hunter's story. My love of Monster Hunter is long-standing, but each time it needs to be born afresh. Monster Hunter: Generations is one of my favourite games of 2016 because when I set my heart on a crab set, everything clicked and clacked into place. Forevermore, I salute DA CRAB FARM.