Monster Hunter has been an enormous franchise in Japan for years, but never really found legs in the US. Thankfully, that didn't stop Capcom from also publishing it here. And now with Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, it looks like both Nintendo and Capcom are stepping up to give the franchise a lot more visibility than it's ever had before.
Why is that necessary, though?
Well, for one thing, Monster Hunter is a deeply, profoundly inaccessible game. Right from the very beginning you're given the choice of which of the game's multitude of weapons you want to use. You don't know what these weapons are. There's a big fat sword, a big thin sword, two tiny swords, a sword and shield, a hammer, a lance, a gunlance, bows, rifles, and, like, a lute or something? You've also got six customizable armor slots but, thankfully, there's not much to be done there when you start the game.
The problem is those damn weapons. The choice of which one to use is, basically, the most important choice you're going to make in Monster Hunter. Each weapon behaves completely differently from the others with different moves, timings, strengths, weaknesses, and then there are the additional special abilities like the oh my god why is my long thin sword thing suddenly glowing white. AND NOW IT'S YELLOW. WHAT THE WHAT.
The long sword's power levels are never really explained in-game in any useful way. And for good reason: there's still so much other onboarding going on that just getting through the tutorial without getting into the nitty-gritty with weapons and items took somewhere in the range of 8-10 hours in Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. And there's the text. Oh, the text. These games are clearly lovingly localized, but there's still so much text. There's filler when there shouldn't be, there are tutorials when there shouldn't be, and then there are just random text boxes that like to sometimes pop-up the first time you encounter a mechanic — a pop-up which is describing a phenomena that you have yet to actually see and experience beceause a pop-up stopped gameplay.
Monster Hunter is, to put it kindly, rough. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate clearly took a number of steps to alleviate the learning curve (and provides a "Help" button at almost every juncture, containing further information), but there's still a lot to take in. I put 160 hours in Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate and, in starting MH4U, the tutorials taught me some basic mechanics I simply never knew about.
So, the general inaccessability is one thing. The other problem is that Monster Hunter can be ruthlessly difficult, scary, and, quite literally, intimidating. A new monster appears on-screen for the first time and occupies the entire frame, has a roar that stuns your character and shakes/blurs your screen, and causes the camera to shake with every step it takes... And you have to kill it with your two tiny little dual blades. And, oh Monster Hunter you card, there's the fact that there are no health bars displayed on enemies whatsoever. So, the end result if you're not paying attention is just one giant series of hitbox damage sponges and you either eventually die three times (and fail the mission) or kill the monster and experience the greatest sense of joy and relief that can be found in any video game.
Killing a new monster in Monster Hunter for the first time is one of the greatest experiences I've ever had in video games. And every new monster manages to top the previous one. My most recent kill in MH4U was a Shark on legs, basically. But this is the dialog that occurred (with more swearing, probably) as the fight went on: "THE SHARK HAS AN ICE SHIELD IT CAN SUMMON? The shark can go underground and pop up and try to eat me? The shark will wait until it looks like I'm about to attack right before it launches a quick sneak attack to knock me down? Oh what. What is happening. What in the fuck is happening on my screen right now. Why is the shark now a giant blob that just rolls around and eats things it rolls over? Oh, and of course it can use its blob powers to jump from point A to point B (causing massive damage if I'm under it). And, oh, okay, yeah, back to shark with ice shield. That's more manageab—HOW DOES HE ALSO HAVE A LANDSCAPE-SWEEPING LASER BEAM TOO? I'll just keep hacking away and MISSION COMPLETE. I love the world."
Monster Hunter is not Dark/Demon Souls. It does not try to screw you over. It presents as much telegraphing as it can while still making the game challenging and surprising. The difficulty is purely a matter of whether or not you can make sense of the enemy's behaviors and take it down before it takes you down. It sounds simple, sure, but keep in mind some of these monsters are ice shield wearing shark blobs with laser beams. They don't have problems mixing up their move set.
But the thing, above all else, that makes Monster Hunter the fascinatingly positive addiction that it is is the loot system. There are no surprises in your items — you have the recipe always presented, it's just a matter of finding the right monsters and hoping that you 'carve' (take from the monster's dead corpse haha I beat that monster dead yeah I'm awesome) the materials that you need. So, there's still that element of chance, but it's a chance buried in a certainty: the monster has something I need, and I can come back and kill it again and again and it will yield the same overall set of materials.
Take that approach and contrast it with Destiny — a game whose grind isn't really part of the core, interesting gameplay loop that players love (it involves picking up a whole lot of environmental objects to upgrade the rarer weapons/armor). A game where everything is based on an algorithm that you're not privy to, nor will you ever be privy to. It's a character customization black box, but without the frequency of rewards that you get from a game like Diablo.
And none of this is even getting into the cooperative play of Monster Hunter. Which I'm told has always been the big draw, is an absolute blast, completely changes the way you play the game, and, in general, is very good. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate will be the first time that I can play co-op with friends over the internet (as opposed to local play only). And I know it will be great but even if the game's winning formula somehow doesn't translate to co-op in a way that I like, I'm still looking at a game that will provide me with as many hundred hours of gameplay as I can handle.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate seems, to me, like the kind of game that won't be around much longer. It's content-complete at launch (though Capcom has DLC built into the UI and they had frequent free content releases for Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate), it's huge, it's deep, it's solo or co-op, it's unwelcoming, it's constantly demanding more from the player, and it's only playable on a handheld device. It's a little amazing that this game exists at all, given the current gaming ecosystem.
But: be thankful that it does, because it's a wonderful lesson in game design, level design, system design, economy design, investment design, and combat design. And it's just rad as hell.