Monster Hunter: Generations Ultimate

Monster Hunter is Capcom’s flagship IP.  I don’t think most Americans realize just how popular the series is in Japan, or for how long it’s been that popular.  Most of us here in the States know Capcom from Mega Man, Street Fighter, or Marvel vs. Capcom, but Monster Hunter is far and away more popular than any of those properties, overseas.  This is an important point to grasp when you think about both Monster Hunter, and the Capcom style of sequel development.

If you were to play the original game on PS1 today, what you’d see is that the bones and soul of the series is absolutely there, recognizably intact.  The graphics are a bit blockier and blurrier, some monster designs are slightly different, there’s fewer weapons, and the maps are simpler, but it’s still Monster Hunter at its core.

Each game in the series has had a new town, with new NPCs, all of whom are written with a lot of charm and attention to the details of their personalities.  Each game’s village setting is unique, from the dirt-road European charm of Kokoto or the biting arctic winds of Pokke, to the hyper-Japanese onsen town of Yukumo, or the laid-back island life of Moga.  Each village is surrounded by a set of maps that express a unique identity for that game, while still conforming to some established tropes.  There will always be a Volcano map, for instance.  There will always be a Village Elder, always a wacky Quest Gal.  The smith will always be a gruff manly stereotype, and so on.  These are the touchstones of the series.

Each game has also featured 2 monsters that stand above the rest, which I’ll call the Flagship and the Big Bad.  The Flagship monster is the one that features on the game’s box art, and usually features prominently in the early story.  For instance, in MH Tri, Lagiacrus was the flagship monster.  He swoops in to harass you on a mission where you’re supposed to be harvesting livers from an herbivore monster swimming just off the coast, and having that early experience of being overwhelmed and running away, then getting stronger and coming back later to take him down, is a major touchstone that all the games in the series use.  In MH Freedom 2, that game’s flagship Tigrex comes in to mess with you while you’re harvesting Popo livers, for instance.  Conversely, the “Big Bad” is the main elder dragon of the game, and serves as the main late-game antagonist, usually the final boss of the story.  In Tri, for instance, it was Ceadeus, a giant underwater elder dragon causing earthquakes that threaten to destroy Moga village.  Tri actually does a better job of telegraphing its Big Bad than most games in the series.  Usually, they tend to just kinda show up out of nowhere.  Whatever they are, they represent the possibility of your village being completely destroyed in the blink of an eye out of nowhere.  Japan never did get over being nuked (and why should they?  would you?).

For those who play World: the flagship there is Nergigante, though they changed the box art to feature Rathalos instead for the West, for some reason.  Incidentally, this was the first time in the series that the flagship wasn’t on the box.  My personal theory is that that’s why Nergigante is so mad and hungry all the time; he was robbed of half of his cover appearances!  Notice also how he came out to harass you while you were hunting a “lesser creature”, though in keeping with World’s over-the-top nature and lack of liver-harvesting quests, it’s an elder dragon instead of herbivores.  The Big Bad of World is Xeno’jiiva, hiding beneath the New World, representing ultimate destruction and coming (mostly) out of nowhere at the end of the game.  The same familiar story beats are still there, even in such a dramatically different entry in the series.  The main thing they did with World’s story was put a ton of animated cutscenes in there, something that doesn’t really feature in other games in the series.

I first came into the series with Monster Hunter Freedom 2 on the PSP (called Portable 2nd in Japan) a long time after its release.  I ended up getting Freedom Unite relatively soon after that.  Unite was a localization of Portable 2nd G, so named because it added “G-rank” quests to Portable 2nd.  G-rank has been the series’ traditional 3rd tier of quests, situated above high rank, which adds quite a bit of life to the game.  Monsters are more aggressive, their animations are faster (leading to shorter openings), all their numbers are higher, they often get new moves, new gear, etc.  I’ll confess, though: I never made it that far.  MHFU was notoriously unforgiving and difficult, and I was really bad at it.  Never made it out of high rank.  But I still count the time I spent bashing my face against the game as time well spent, and I think back on it with fondness.  I still remember Khezu teaching me how to play by repeatedly carting me, while Bullfangos charged back and forth, ruining my openings and knocking me around.  For some reason, these are positive memories.  Old-school hunters will understand, I think.

The game being on the PSP didn’t make it any easier, that’s for sure.  Load times were atrocious, and the camera was a nightmare, being mapped to the d-pad beneath your left analog stick.  Hunters who cut their teeth on this era of the series will remember “the claw”, the hand position required to both move and adjust the camera effectively as you hunted, which probably gave us all arthritis.

Portable systems completely dominate in Japan for an interesting set of reasons: overpopulation in the cities, long work hours and commutes, and tiny housing.  You simply don’t have the space in your residence, in Japan, to set up a home console with a giant HDTV and a fancy sound system like you do here in the States.  Even if you do have the space, everyone’s walls are so thin, and you share them with so many neighbors, that privacy is non-existent.  The Japanese culture of not making a fuss or being a burden means that you probably aren’t going to be just cranking up your volume regardless, you’re going to want to be quiet in your place.  And you’ll be working pretty long hours, commuting on public transportation long distances, in need of some way to amuse yourself during that time.  Portable systems and headphones are the natural choice for your main gaming system.  Capcom, being a Japanese company, developed many of its best early entries in the series for portable devices.  They’ve broken with this trend in recent years with 3U and 4U, but even those were simultaneous home/portable releases, not home-exclusive.  The Nintendo Switch represents a landmark fusion of portable and home devices, so Generations Ultimate is in a very cool and unique place in the series.

The home console version I spent the most time on before World was Tri on the Wii.  Just having a right analog stick for the camera was enough to get me to overlook the fact that that game only had something like 18 monsters to hunt, and no endgame whatsoever (including no G-rank).  I put hundreds of hours into that game.  That’s how good it was to just have a regular 3D game camera system.  I also miss underwater combat, but apparently everybody else on the planet hated it, because they rolled it back immediately.  Tri did eventually get an “ultimate”/”g-rank” update in the form of MH3U, but I never played it.  Unfortunately, I did eventually burn out on the series thanks to the dearth of monsters in Tri and my frustration at not having anyone I knew who was also a fan and would play with me (at least, not for very long, they all got bored with Tri pretty quickly).

In any case, the core loop and game feel of the series has remained largely unchanged throughout its many iterations.  Capcom’s iterative style of sequel development works for Monster Hunter where it fails and disappoints elsewhere, because of the way MH is meant to be played.  The game revolves around endless repetition of hunts and gathering missions to grind out materials, which are used to make armor and weapons, which are used to do more hunts.  That repetitive nature is offset by how much fun the hunts are to engage in, which is achieved by a combination of monster behavior and the pace of combat.

Monster Hunter is slow, even plodding, when compared to other action games.  Its gamefeel is unique in that it revolves around the creation and exploitation of openings at a relaxed pace, with weighty animations and large, heavy weapons.  The closest comparison as far as the style of combat animations would be From Software’s Dark Souls 1.  Each individual attack is highly damaging and slow to execute, leading to a deliberate, measured approach with high stakes attached to your every decision.  Unlike Dark Souls, however, this applies to your own animations more so than it does to the monsters.  Everyone has telegraphed windups and long recovery animations at first, but as monsters increase in difficulty, the openings get smaller and smaller.  This forces you to learn monster patterns and animations, to look for “tells”, to really get to know each monster until they feel almost like your friends.  At the very least, they’re respected rivals, but many of them (like Quropeco or Pukei-Pukei) are also very cute.  Each monster is lovingly designed around very strong central concepts that make them easy to understand.  Each weapon has a toolbox of moves that cover a variety of potential uses, but there’s not much in the way of long combos to memorize or skill barriers to execution.  Thus, an iterative sequel that only adds some new monsters or a new weapon type or two has a multiplicative effect on the amount of content in the game.

Monster Hunter World is a watershed moment for the series, a major departure in gamefeel toward something more “accessible”, more fluid and fast.  Capcom knew this, and they also knew that development would take a long time.  The changes they were making necessitated the creation of an entirely new engine for the first time in the series, which meant they couldn’t just import their old assets like they’d always been able to before.  To tide fans over while they waited, Capcom developed Monster Hunter Cross (“Generations” in the West), as a kind of “greatest hits album” of a game.

MH Cross was a celebration of the history of the series, using the existing engine and including just about every monster we’d seen up to that point.  They introduced “hunting styles” to make each weapon have even more variation, and “hunter arts” that used a special meter to do super moves.  They even let you play as your cat in an all-new “Prowler mode”.  You could revisit Kokoto, Pokke, and Yukumo, and say hello to all the NPCs you’d befriended throughout the games, and they introduced a new village, Bherna, and the concept of the “Wycademy”, an organization researching wyverns all over the world, as an in-universe explanation for the all-star cast of monsters and villages.  They also introduced “the Fated Four”, a new set of flagship monsters, one for each village.  That’s 400% more flagships!  Finally, Mizutsune could take his rightful place in Yukumo over the usurper Zinogre!  Fans of the series couldn’t ask for a better banquet to celebrate Capcom’s most beloved series.

And then they released Double Cross.  This is the “ultimate” version of Cross, and it surpasses all previous classic series entries.  You’ve got more monsters, more hunting styles, more hunter arts, better prowlers with more moves, more everything!  It wasn’t certain whether they would localize it or not, at first, but it has long been a dream of Western fans of the series that they would.  The announcement pretty much blew everyone’s minds.  It’s got 93 goddamn monsters.

Deviants are a pretty great endgame, in my opinion, far surpassing “literally nothing” in Tri, “RNG grinding for streamstones” in World, the plain old G-rank of Freedom Unite, or Apex monsters in 4U.  They’re just really great new fights with some interesting new moves, cool armor and weapons with special properties, and the grind isn’t too bad when compared to other MH endgames.  The only RNG you’ll be subjected to is the same materials game you’re already playing, and there’s nothing so irritating here as Wystone cooldowns and bouncing off of Apex Rajangs all day.  You really couldn’t ask for anything better, in my opinion.

So, this isn’t much of a review, is it?  My opinion is obvious and effusive.  Buy Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate, end of story.  This is a game with thousands of hours of content, the kind of thing you could devote the rest of your life to, and it would not be a wasted life.  It represents the pinnacle of the classic series, and quite possibly (given the success of World) the final send-off for old-school Monster Hunter.  It is absolutely worth your time and money, whether you’re a veteran hunter or a first-time newbie.  Expect a period of adjustment if your first game was World, but dive in regardless.  You won’t be disappointed.  World was a satisfying meal at a greasy spoon diner: quick, greasy, delicious comfort food.  Generations Ultimate is a full course meal at a 5-star restaurant.  With free garlic bread.  We will probably never see its like again.

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