Not Quite Like Pokemon
In the vast array of monster-collecting games, Monster Rancher (known as Monster Farm in Japan) is considered to be on the lower tier. Released on the original PlayStation in 1997, the franchise enjoyed cult popularity, but has, unfortunately, been almost completely absent from modern consoles even with its fame and unique mechanics. What could have caused this? And does the game have anything to teach us today?
I do not remember when I was first introduced to the first Monster Rancher game, but the experience of playing it is something I will never forget. Arriving just in time to capitalize on the monster-collecting boom of the late 1990s, Monster Rancher boasted a unique mechanic in its acquisition of new monsters. Instead of catching them in the wild or hatching them from eggs, monsters were summoned from discs that you found in-game as well as CDs that you had around your house. During the summoning process, you are prompted to take out the Monster Rancher game disc and insert a new disc into your PlayStation system for a few seconds while it reads the data. After that, you put the game back into the system and, lo and behold, a new monster appears!
To my young mind, this was astonishing. Every time I took out a cartridge or CD from a gaming system before, the game would crash; yet, here was Monster Rancher actively encouraging me to break this rule. In that way, it gave the game a unique mystique that hasn’t really been replicated since. All of a sudden, every CD in our house was fair game. Those AOL discs that you got for free at the mall? My older brother’s rap CDs that he kept hidden from our parents? Various computer games that were sitting in our garage in storage? All of these discs were capable of generating new and interesting monsters, and I was instantly hooked. I remember scouring the internet looking for information on which CDs unlocked which rare monsters, most of which I couldn’t obtain due to being more on the harder rock spectrum and my dad hating all of that music. Even still, it was always a magical experience trying out a new CD and seeing what crazy monster might emerge from it.
Once you have your monster, though, what were you to do? Battle them to the death, naturally. In many ways, Monster Rancher felt like a natural console progression from the Digimon Digivice toys where you raised your monsters and battled others. You train your monsters at your farm and enter them into tournaments, hoping to win and advance to the next tier. When you are not battling, you can undertake expeditions that will allow you to have more access to specialized monsters via the CD fragments you find. It was an interesting gameplay loop as you continued to train your monster to enter higher-level tournaments, and one that was certainly addicting as a kid with all the time in the world.
Where Monster Rancher gets serious, though, is the fact that the monsters that you raise, train, and battle with… will eventually die. They get older as you progress through the game, becoming unable to take the strain of the training and exploring and battling that you put them through, and soon die. This will happen whether or not they are at the highest level or have gotten the highest rank at the tournaments or were in tip-top health. Having not really experienced death (even animal death) at the age I played it, I remember feeling absolutely crushed when the assistant, Holly, told me that my precious monster was getting too old. When she announced this, I admit: I cried. All the time and love and effort I put into training this monster all seemed for naught because there was nothing I could do to keep it alive.
This was certainly unlike the Pokemon games that I was playing around the same time. Pokemon fainted, yes, but they never outright died and became unable to be used. Your monsters in Monster Rancher, though? No matter if you put them in frozen storage to preserve them, they would eventually be gone forever. You could always get a new version of the same monster, yes, but it was never quite the same monster.
I feel like this game taught me some very valuable lessons about death and the preciousness of life. Once my first monster died, I realized that I hadn’t been taking care of it in the way that I should have. I tried to do better with my next few monsters, making sure they had ample time to rest between training sessions to prolong their lives. In a way, Monster Rancher really taught me about stewardship, especially with animals, and how fleeting their lives really can be. Raising these digital animals was certainly not “real,” but the effect and wisdom gained from this experience certainly was.
Thinking about this game now, it brings to mind the verse in James: “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). This verse does not contextually apply to this particular situation, of course; yet, it brings to mind how quick our lives are. Not long after this game released, my family went through the sadness of our family dog dying of unnatural causes. It absolutely crushed me at the time because the idea of losing a precious friend like that had never crossed my mind.
Having now been responsible for many animals and even having to bury a few that I loved, the sadness and sobriety that brings is a reminder to not waste life or take it for granted. In a strange way, Monster Rancher was one of the ways that God used to bring the wisdom behind that verse to mind as I grew older, so I am very thankful for its providential place in my life. If you have access to it, take some time to play it and consider these things. Maybe you will also gain some of the same insight that I got from it.