Last Updated on July 13, 2019
The Monster Hunter series turns 15 this year, and with its latest installment selling over 10 million copies worldwide, I think it’s safe to say the series has made a big impact on the games industry as a whole.
But it wasn’t always this way. The games barely sold enough to make sequels viable in Japan, and in the west, the game was hardly marketed. So how did this series turn into a household brand? And if the basic premise of the game is still the same, how did it not get popular sooner?
In this series of articles, we’ll be taking a deep dive into the history of Monster Hunter, starting with the very first installment on the PlayStation 2.
Monster Hunter was released in Japan on March 11, 2004 on the PS2, with a North American release in September that year, which, unlike common localizations, actually included new content in the form of a new weapon type, the Dual Swords.
The game was originally one of three efforts to take advantage of the PS2’s networking functionality, the other two being Resident Evil: Outbreak and Auto Modellista, both of which generally garnered poor reviews and poorer sales. Monster Hunter scored marginally better. Let’s take a look at why that is.
We begin our tale in a small village in the middle of who-knows-where. Our protagonist (you) wakes up from a nap dressed only in their underwear and is given absolutely no direction.
Asking around the village, someone tells you to talk to the village elder, a tiny old man in oversized robes who tells you to go out and kill some harmless herbivores for their delicious flesh, and that it will start you down the path to becoming a true Monster Hunter.
That’s about it for the story in this game. There isn’t much reason for why you do what you do. Becoming the best at what you do is enough justification for the game. As a veteran of the series, it’s a nice change of pace from defending yet another small town from yet another elder dragon who wants to chew on it like a dog with a squeaky rubber ball. But it might not have been enough of a hook for newcomers to the series.
To put it simply, the game has not aged well. The graphics were great for its time and the monster animations are still amazing to this day. But the controls are janky at best and border on controller-snapping frustration at worst. The right analog stick had been used for camera control for years by this point. But for some reason, they thought it would be a great idea to instead use it for weapon attacks. Camera control is instead mapped to the D-pad, and pressing L1 to center the camera.
So if you want to move the camera whilst on the move (the most common time to want to move it), you either have to stop, move the camera, then continue, risking becoming Rathalos chow in the process. Or you have to reach over to the D-pad with your other hand, which is just about as awkward as it sounds.
Rare item drop rates are also drastically reduced when playing single-player, making farming tedious and crafting high-tier weapons and armor a nightmare in modern day where the servers have been shut down for over a decade. Back then, if you didn’t have friends who played the game, you were screwed.
But once you get past the initial gathering quests and the awful fishing minigame, and you finally stare down your first Velocidrome, there’s a certain feeling that you can’t really get from most games of its time.
The rush of facing down an opponent twice your size, the adrenaline pumping through your veins as you learn the monster’s moves and how to counter them, and the satisfaction of a hunt well executed at the end of it all.
Every move the larger monsters make can knock you around. There’s a weight to every action that makes every fight feel epic and impactful. There wasn’t really anything like it at the time and it was played enough in Japan that the servers there only shut down in 2011, well after later games in the series had already been released.
On the bright side, you don’t have to slog through the weird controls, boring fishing and frustrating drop rates to enjoy what the first Monster Hunter game has to offer because Monster Hunter Freedom exists.
Originally released as Monster Hunter G in Japan, it was intended to be an expansion to the original, with more monsters and content. It was later ported to the newly released PSP, and with the portable console’s single analog stick, they now had an excuse to have terrible camera controls. The game was re balanced slightly to accommodate people with no friends, and the network function was replaced with local wireless network play. This is the game that fans consider to be the definitive 1st generation Monster Hunter experience.
Unfortunately, it’s still a bit of a slog. You can skip the tutorial in Freedom and go straight to the Velocidrome hunt, but you’ll find yourself sorely lacking in items if you do. The two star quests are meant to be done once you have some better equipment and a few stacks of potions in your box, so skipping straight to them after starting out with only enough zenni to buy basic gear isn’t the best idea.
On top of that, the hunts and monsters still aren’t balanced. Bullfangos are a cakewalk when you fight them one-on-one, but fighting five of them in close quarters is a nightmare, and the game expects you to do this twice in a single quest.
Some areas also boast thick foliage that gives low visibility, or fog that makes it impossible to see more than ten feet in front of you. This is intended to make the game more challenging. But it ended up frustrating me often, particularly after my camera rammed face first into a bush for the 50th time. It’s hard to enjoy a quest when your screen is nothing but various shades of green.
If you just want to see what the series was like during its genesis, give it a go. But much better Monster Hunter games have come out since then. We’ll be looking at one of them next time, in the 2nd generation retrospective.
Alyssa Katze is a fiction author and journalist, born and raised in Seattle, WA. Their hobbies include eating, sleeping, and getting tilted at MOBAs.