Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.
This week we’ll be chasing down every last detail about Monster Hunter. Cover art is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Monster Hunter (2004)
Monster Hunter 2 (2006)
Monster Hunter Freedom 2 (2007)
Monster Hunter Tri (2009/2010)
Monster Hunter 4 (2013/2015)
Monster Hunter Generations (2015/2016)
Monster Hunter World (2018)
Monster Hunter Rise (2021)
During the 1990s, Capcom shifted from producing a near-constant deluge of new intellectual properties (IPs) to the refinement of their already-popular series; Mega Man spawned Mega Man X and Mega Man Legends while Street Fighter seemed to receive iterative revisions every few months. By the end of the decade, the company’s portfolio was becoming so stagnant that producer Yoshiko Okamoto resigned from Capcom and founded Flagship in 1997 as an effort to stop churning out sequels on a near-annual basis. Resident Evil (1996), however, reminded Capcom how successful new concepts could be. Sony’s hugely popular PlayStation 2 would serve as the catalyst for an experimental batch of franchises built from the ground up for a hardware generation that had just begun to harness the power of the internet.
Monster Hunter (2004)
Monster Hunter was one of three Capcom Production Studio 1 games – also including Auto Modellista (2002/2003) and Resident Evil: Outbreak (2004) – that relied on the online capabilities of the PlayStation 2’s network adapter. The project represents Kaname Fujioka’s directorial debut following years of work as a character and object designer for the Darkstalkers franchise. Ryuzo Tsujimoto, on the other hand, would take on an outsized role as the planner and primary architect of the game’s multiplayer functionality. After nearly four years in development, Monster Hunter launched in Japan on March 11, 2004 and in North America on September 21, 2004.
The central gameplay loop of Monster Hunter is, like Capcom’s other popular action titles, deceptively simple. Players create an avatar and set out to battle monsters from a third-person perspective, after which they can use those monsters’ harvested body parts to improve their gear upon their return to a hub town. Combat requires the player to choose one of five weapon types – sword and shield, dual swords, greatsword, hammer, bowgun, or lance – and gradually improve their preferred implement by applying gathered monster parts to an upgrade tree. Character progression is fully tied to equipment rather than the leveling system common to contemporary action-role-playing-games (ARPGs).
The details are where Monster Hunter‘s idiosyncrasies begin to define it, for better and worse. With camera controls assigned to the PlayStation 2’s directional pad, unlike other 3D action games, the right joystick is used to execute offensive attacks. Monsters are divided broadly into two categories: small creatures that harry the avatar on the way to their primary quarry and oversized foes that can only be defeated through highly technical one-on-one combat. Weapon sharpness must be restored using a whetstone mid-combat as it degrades with each strike. Like the oldest Castlevania games, animations can’t be canceled once initiated; players must instead carefully input actions based on split-second observations of a monster’s movement and attack patterns. The hardest enemies are best-tackled with a team of like-minded adventurers gathered in an online lobby accessible from the hub area.
Monster Hunter sold well in Japan but failed to take off in North America, a fact that Tsujimoto attributes to its multiplayer mode’s emphasis on teamwork over individual achievement. Monster Hunter G (2005), a revised Japan-exclusive PlayStation 2 version featuring additional end-game content, was ported to the PlayStation Portable (PSP) in 2005 and the Wii in 2009 under the name Monster Hunter Freedom. The PSP version would prove even more popular than the original due to a revised control scheme that moved attacks to the console’s face buttons and the ability to play ad-hoc cooperative multiplayer sessions with nearby players. While the original Monster Hunter would fall dramatically short of Capcom’s expectations, selling only 280,000 copies worldwide, Monster Hunter Freedom moved over 1,000,000 units less than a year later. This success would bifurcate the franchise into home console and portable releases for the foreseeable future.
Note: Cover art sourced from Kogath
Monster Hunter 2 (2006)
Monster Hunter 2 was developed for the PlayStation 2 by many of the same Capcom Production Studio 1 team members that had worked on the series debut. More designers are present in the credits, but the project was led once more by director Fujioka and planner Tsujimoto. The iterative nature of this Japan-exclusive title, which is built directly on the game engine of its predecessor, made it possible to publish it less than two years after the release of Monster Hunter.
Its most significant new mechanical features are the introduction of environmental variations and slottable decorations. The former consist of a day/night cycle and seasons that impact monster behavior, as well as the presence of certain gatherable resources, while the latter can be crafted using collected monster parts and added to weapons or armor to enhance their statistics. In addition to a laundry list of new monsters, like the Chameleos (a chameleon dragon) and Hermitaur (a monstrous hermit crab), players also gain the ability to wield longswords, hunting horns, bows, and gunlances for the first time.
More of the same was enough to stoke fans’ excitement in Japan, where Monster Hunter 2 sold much better than the original home console game. It was not enough to justify an English localization, however, so the game was never released in North America or Europe. Happily, international fans would soon have another opportunity to hunt their favorite large beasts on a very small device.
Note: Cover art sourced from Monster Hunter Wiki
Monster Hunter Freedom 2 (2007)
Unlike Monster Hunter Freedom, which is functionally a remastered portable version of its home console cousin, Monster Hunter Freedom 2 is a unique entry in the franchise. Capcom Production Studio 1’s Yasunori Ichinose retained his directorial role from Monster Hunter‘s previous PSP outing, but Tsujimoto replaced Tsuyoshi Tanaka as the portable sub-series’ producer. This likely reflects the fact that Monster Hunter Freedom had dramatically outperformed Monster Hunter and Monster Hunter 2, as Japanese audiences had begun to express a preference for handheld devices during the early years of the new millennium.
The new PSP game’s snowy home base of Pokke instantly distinguishes it from earlier adventures set in warmer environments; of course, players eventually find jungles and deserts too as they gain access to higher-value missions. As a reaction to criticisms received about Monster Hunter 2, specifically the limited-time nature of certain hunts, seasonal changes are dropped entirely. Day and night do not cycle dynamically anymore, and are instead determined by the player’s selected quest.
Game mechanics are heavily influenced by Monster Hunter 2. This means that Western players have access to that game’s four new weapons for the first time, while the only new monsters added are Giadrome, Akantor, and Tigrex. The latter serves as the title’s flagship monster, appearing prominently in its promotional materials and kicking off its simple plot. Monster Hunter Freedom 2‘s biggest contributions to the series’ ongoing evolution are climbable surfaces and the ability to harvest certain resources – including honey and mushrooms – in bulk as players explore each area.
An expanded version of the game titled Monster Hunter Freedom Unite was released in Japan and South Korea in March 2008 and in North America and Europe the following year. Aside from improved graphics and additional monsters, it introduced Felynes that fight alongside the player character. These adorable companions became so beloved that they joined legendary monster Rathalos as the Monster Hunter’s most recognizable mascots.
Monster Hunter Tri (2009/2010)
Due to the costs associated with developing high-definition games, Capcom shifted production of Monster Hunter Tri from the PlayStation 3 to the Nintendo Wii in 2007. Fujioka and Tsujimoto retained their respective Monster Hunter 2 roles as director and producer. The resulting game, which launched in Japan on August 1, 2009 before making its way to the rest of the world in April 2010, debuted a new engine but carried forward many of the graphical assets and animations of its PlayStation 2 forebears.
Abandoning Monster Hunter Freedom 2‘s frigid hub for an island paradise, however, allows Capcom Production Studio 1 to present the liveliest environments in the series so far. Monsters now interact with one another based on their personality types while bodies of water introduce the ability to engage in swimming and underwater combat. Many of Monster Hunter Tri‘s new enemies – including flagship monster Lagiacrus – are found in these aquatic settings. Aside from Rathian, Rathalos, and Diablos, no old monsters are included in the game.
The bow, gunlance, hunting horn, and dual swords are similarly absent from Monster Hunter Tri. In their place is a new weapon, the switch axe, which can be transformed from its slow-but-powerful axe mode into its swift sword mode if enough energy is accumulated in a gauge beneath its sharpness meter. Armor options are expanded through the addition of an upgrade system; players can now use materials to enhance armor rather than crafting replacement gear if they’re particularly invested in an item’s appearance or stat boosts.
Monster Hunter Tri sold millions of units in Japan and even broke previous sales records overseas, finally beginning to overcome the regional differences in social gaming atmosphere and population density that had previously restricted success outside of East Asia. A Japan and Korea-exclusive expanded edition called Monster Hunter Portable 3rd, which integrated all weapon classes back into the game but dropped swimming and underwater combat, was released for the PSP in December 2010 and then for the PlayStation 3 in August 2011. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, the most complete version of the game due to its inclusion of aquatic locations and all weapon classes, launched in Japan on the 3DS and Wii U in December 2011 and December 2012 before arriving in North America and Europe on both platforms in March 2013.
Monster Hunter 4 (2013/2015)
Poor sales of the Wii U meant that Monster Hunter‘s return to home consoles would be short-lived; the PlayStation Vita would be similarly eschewed due to a rumored three-year exclusivity deal between Nintendo and Capcom. As a result, Monster Hunter 4 was the first series entry developed from the ground up for the 3DS. Tsujimoto’s team made use of the console’s in-person StreetPass multiplayer and online capabilities to respectively appeal to Japanese and Western players.
A localization effort led by Andrew Alfonso was likewise aimed at finally pushing a Monster Hunter title to sell 1,000,000 units outside of Japan. Nintendo served as a consultant on the project, offering assets for crossovers with their IP (including Metroid) and resolving any technical hurdles that Capcom encountered when customizing their engine for the under-powered platform. Monster Hunter 4 was released in Japan on September 14, 2013 and followed up the following year with Monster Hunter 4G, an expanded edition that would be published in North America and Europe as Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate in February 2015.
While aesthetic updates are apparent, including more numerous in-engine cutscenes than ever, Monster Hunter 4‘s biggest changes are mechanical. Stages are designed around verticality for the first time, allowing players to climb tall cliffsides and attack monsters from above rather than move between relatively flat surfaces. Two new weapons are also added to the roster: the charge blade functions as a reversed switch axe, as it charges energy in a defensive sword mode before unleashing explosive blows when axe mode is activated, while the insect glaive grants increased mobility and the ability to fling an autonomous Kinsect at foes. Kinsects were built on an abandoned bird companion mechanic that would be revisited years later in Monster Hunter Rise.
Monster Hunter 4 and its expanded edition collectively sold over 7,500,000 copies worldwide. Tsujimoto and Alfonso’s hard work had paid off, as Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate became the first series entry to break the long-coveted 1,000,000 sales figure in the West. While some fans mourned the franchise’s retreat from powerful Sony consoles, shifting priorities to the 3DS seems to have been a prudent decision and would set the tone for the next several years.
Note: Cover art sourced from Monster Hunter Wiki
Monster Hunter Generations (2015/2016)
Monster Hunter Generations, designated internally as Festa (“Festival”) during development and originally published for the 3DS in Japan under the name Monster Hunter X, was designed as a celebration of the series’ first decade. While it introduces a handful of new enemies – including flagship monsters Astalos, Gammoth, Mizutsune, and Glavenus – it primarily focuses on revisiting classic content from prior games. Director Yasunori Ichinose and his team emphasized refinement rather than new mechanics or weapons.
In a nod to its status as a culmination of four generations of Monster Hunter, the game features four village hubs and four fighting styles available for each weapon type. Guild Style is a default stance similar to previous titles, Adept Style allows the use of counterattacks, Aerial Style encourages mid-air combat techniques, and Striker Style makes it easier to perform Hunting Arts. Hunting Arts, weapon-based skills that can be activated once the player character has accumulated enough energy in a corresponding gauge, include stat buffs and powerful attacks.
Though Monster Hunter Generations is mainly directed at returning players, a new gameplay experience was added midway through development in an attempt to appeal to new players. Prowler Mode lets players control Felynes for the first time and features simpler mechanics than the main campaign; the stamina gauge is omitted, the player character can burrow underground to avoid attacks, resources can be gathered without using an extraction tool, and temperature effects are mitigated. In the main campaign, meanwhile, hunter-partnered Felynes known as Palicoes can now carry the player character’s spare resources to town and free up inventory space once per mission.
Monster Hunter Generations was so commercially successful during its Japanese launch that it enhanced sales of Nintendo’s New 3DS by 362% from the preceding week. It also performed well in North America, becoming the best-selling game of July 2016. An enhanced edition called Monster Hunter XX was released in Japan for the 3DS on March 18, 2017 and was then remastered in high-definition for the Nintendo Switch in August 2017. An overseas localization of the latter, while initially denied by Capcom at E3 2017, was eventually published in North America and Europe on August 28, 2018.
Monster Hunter World (2018)
Monster Hunter World was designed from the start as an entry point for new players. The timing was ideal, as Nintendo’s exclusivity deal with Capcom had expired and Tsujimoto was eager to bring the series back to cutting-edge home consoles using Capcom’s MT Framework engine. Tsujimoto’s team discussed which returning monsters would be most popular for long-time series veterans, but otherwise looked at its newest project as a major reinvigoration of the franchise. Monster Hunter World was announced at E3 2017 and released worldwide for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in January 2018; a Windows PC port followed seven months later.
As the series’ first title developed for high-definition home console hardware, Monster Hunter World represents a major graphical leap from earlier titles. Areas are now fully open rather than being divided into small zones between which the player character tracks monsters. The central village of Astera, situated on an unexplored continent called the New World, is more populous and lively than previous hubs. Monsters now battle one another for dominance, an emergent interaction that observant players can exploit to take down tough beasts. Hunters can even mount monsters or trap them using dynamic environmental features.
Monster Hunter World was a blockbuster milestone for Capcom, selling more units than any earlier game produced by the studio. Cross-platform and cross-region multiplayer made possible through the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One’s strong network capabilities ensured a parity and partnership between Eastern and Western players that had never existed before. A standalone expansion titled Iceborne, released worldwide to universal critical acclaim and massive sales in September 2019, includes more story content, more monsters, and an entirely new arctic region to explore.
Monster Hunter Rise (2021)
Monster Hunter‘s return to a multi-platform home console setting had been more successful than Capcom could have anticipated, leaving Nintendo fans to wonder if their preferred hardware might be abandoned in favor of more powerful technology. The announcement of Monster Hunter Rise at a Nintendo Direct event in September 2020 confirmed that this fear was unfounded. With Tsujimoto leading production and Ichinose reprising his role as director for the first time since Generations, the new game was designed to incorporate much of what players enjoyed in World on the comparatively scaled-down hardware of the Nintendo Switch. This process was facilitated by the flexibility of Capcom’s RE Engine, which is more scalable than the MT Framework’s C++ programming language. UI Visual Illustrator Inouchi similarly focused on ensuring that text and icons were legible in the Switch’s handheld mode while Sound Director Kosuke Tanaka stripped away World‘s heavily layered music in favor of “convey[ing] everything with one concentrated effect.”
In Monster Hunter Rise, the player creates a hunter who defends the Japan-inspired Kamura Village from flagship monster Magnamolo and others. NPCs, particularly Quest Maiden Hinoathe and Hub Maiden Minotothe, are more infused with character than ever before. At juncture points in the story, the player even engages in a tower defense-style minigame in which they must rout an onslaught of multiple oversized monsters using mechanized weaponry.
The campaign is otherwise similar to earlier series entries, as it features a combination of monster hunting and resource gathering quests of increasing difficulty. Gameplay incorporates numerous refinements, including the ability to run up walls and ride canine Palamute companions. The most noticeable new mechanics, harnessing monsters and hurtling through the air like Spider-Man, hinge on the addition of a new tool called the Wirebug. All changes contribute to a more graceful sense of mobility than had been present in any prior title.
Monster Hunter Rise launched around the world to rave reviews on March 26, 2021. While the based game has already been lauded by fans and newcomers alike, a planned PC port and the Sunbreak expansion will expand its scope even further when they launch in 2022. Until then, players will need to be satisfied with Capcom’s reliably steady stream of incremental content updates.
Note: Cover sourced from Monster Hunter Wiki
Monster Hunter spinoffs can be broadly divided into massively multiplayer online (MMO) titles, traditional role-playing games (RPGs), and other miscellaneous titles that don’t fit into a clear category. Many of these games are exclusive to Japan, but exceptions will be noted below.
Though the franchise had been oriented around online multiplayer from its debut, Monster Hunter Frontier Online dramatically expanded its emphasis on cooperation. Players create an avatar and join hundreds of other player-controlled characters in a persistent, regularly-updated world featuring dozens of monsters to take down and guilds to join. Gameplay recalls contemporary core series entries aside from a large hub town designed to accommodate its massive player base. Its initial Windows PC release in Japan during June 2007 was followed by a Korean localization in 2008, an Xbox 360 port in 2010, an enhanced edition called Monster Hunter Frontier G that launched on PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii U, and PlayStation Vita in 2013-2014, and a final version called Monster Hunter Frontier Z that was published for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and Wii U in 2016. Servers were shuttered in 2019 following over a decade of service.
The series’ second MMO, free-to-play Monster Hunter Online, launched exclusively in China during August 2013 following a brief July 2013 beta period; a fan translation made the region-free game unofficially available to English-speaking audiences in 2016. Developed by Chinese studio Tencent for Windows PCs under the supervision of Capcom, the game leveraged CryTek’s CryEngine 3 to deliver a refresh rate of 60 frames per second (fps) five years before Monster Hunter World would bring this level of performance to home consoles. Gameplay resembles core series entries aside from the persistent online world and cosmetic microtransactions. Sadly, as with Monster Hunter Frontier Online, servers were shut down in 2019 and the game is no longer accessible.
The first traditional RPG produced by Capcom for the Monster Hunter series was Monster Hunter Stories, which was released for the 3DS in Japan on October 8, 2016 before coming to the West in September 2017. The narrative-heavy game features turn-based combat and sees the player character, a rider rather than a hunter, battling monsters to save his homeland from a plague known as the Black Blight. Its sales and critical success were strong enough to merit a graphically-enhanced port for mobile devices in 2017/2018 and a sequel several years later.
Monster Hunter Stories 2 was developed at Capcom under the direction of Kenji Oguro and published on the Nintendo Switch and Windows PC in July 2021. In contrast to Monster Hunter Rise, which had been released on the Switch only several months earlier, Stories 2 is built on the MT Engine and consequently features less smooth performance than its core series contemporary. The plot is distinct from its predecessor, focusing on a rider and his recently-hatched Rathalos partner as they aid a mysterious wyvernian girl named Ena. In spite of its technical issues, Stories 2 launched to a largely positive critical reception and massive sales.
Monster Hunter Riders, a free-to-play turn-based RPG released on iOS in Japan on February 29, 2020, is inspired by the Monster Hunter Stories sub-series but falls short of its source material. Instead of offering a large world to explore and a tight combat loop, Riders features no overworked traversal and requires frequent microtransactions to level up a party of monsters. A gacha-style slot machine likewise offers players the opportunity to acquire new party members if they’re willing to gamble using real-world currency. While nothing has been officially announced, negative critical reception has made the game unlikely to be localized outside of East Asia.
Aside from these large-scale spinoffs, a host of less traditional Monster Hunter titles have been released on handheld devices by Capcom over the past two decades. The first of these, Monster Hunter Diary: Poka Poka Airou Village (translated as Felyne Village in English-language sources), is a life simulation that gives players the opportunity to play as a Felyne avatar. Gameplay is reminiscent of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing series. The original version of the game, which was released for the PlayStation Portable in 2010, was followed by an expanded edition on the same console in 2011 and an enhanced port to the 3DS in 2015. None have been localized outside of Japan.
Monster Hunter Dynamic Hunting, on the other hand, was released for iOS and Android devices worldwide in June 2011. This first-person fighting game seems to have been heavily based on ChAIR Entertainment’s Infinity Blade (2010), as it sees players swiping at their screen to strike monsters and evade incoming attacks. The player’s performance is then ranked at the end of each encounter, conferring materials that can be used to upgrade their weapons and armor.
Monster Hunter Smart, a free-to-play action-adventure game that resembles a simplified version of Monster Hunter‘s core series entries, was initially released in Japan for iOS devices on September 3, 2015 and soon rebranded as Monster Hunter Explore. Missions are similar to those in Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, including the ability to engage in four-person multiplayer. A soft-launch in the Canadian App Store in April 2016 seemed to presage a worldwide localization of this relatively popular mobile spinoff. Unfortunately, the Canadian version was delisted within three months and the servers for the Japanese original were shut down in 2020.
The franchise’s strangest spinoff yet is Monster Hunter Spirits, a Marvelous-developed collectible card game that made its way to Japanese arcades in June 2015. Players scan real-world cards into the arcade cabinet to determine their avatar’s armor, weapon, and pet monster before engaging in turn-based battles that imitate the aesthetic of Monster Hunter Stories. An oversized joystick is used to execute combos in combat. Depending on the player’s performance, they are awarded printed cards at the completion of their chosen missions.
Monster Hunter has gone from an experimental niche property to Capcom’s best-selling franchise in less than 20 years. Much of this is down to the explosion of networked devices, given the series’ emphasis on cooperative gameplay, but it also reflects Ryuzo Tsujimoto’s dedication to incrementally improving each title based on fan feedback. Monster Hunter World and Monster Hunter Rise have established a new benchmark that future entries may struggle to reach, but history suggests that Monster Hunter‘s best years are still ahead.
What do you think about Monster Hunter? Which is your favorite series entry? How about your favorite monster? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series! If you enjoy the articles or the show, please consider backing us on Patreon.
As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #110: Luigi’s Mansion – October 8
- #111: Dead Space – October 22
- #112: Assassin’s Creed – November 5
- #113: Breath of Fire – November 19
- #114: Advance Wars – December 3