I have not, and still don’t, have any particular interest in the Monster Hunter games, as I don’t care for their gameplay, but I did enjoy the spinoff, Monster Hunter Stories. Stories retools the series into a turn-based RPG, where the player befriends the various Monster Hunter monsters (‘monsties’) to use as mounts rather than killing them. Admittedly the game has a pretty flimsy story, it’s a bit too long overall, and the AI for the Monsties’ auto-attack is… less than optimal . I find a lot of charm in the game’s setting, which is more focused on a low-fantasy world full of hunting tribes. This contrasts with the more modern settings with sci-fi elements usually pervasive in the monster catching genre. Additionally, Monster Hunter is full of odd beasts, ranging from giant nightmare spiders, poison pompadour dinosaurs and vaguely phallic abominations. There’s just something very funny about treating these oft horrific creatures as functional pets and using them like horses to explore the game’s vast overworld.
I’m somewhat loathe to mention the Megami Tensei series in the context of monster catching games, since Megaten games don’t really function like traditional games in the subgenre, owing to the games having serious and philosophical thematics, with less focus on the monsters (‘demons’) themselves. Aside from the DemiKids spinoffs, which I still have yet to play. Shin Megami Tensei V noticeably puts a bit more focus on the monsters in the game (referred to as ‘demons’ in-game and referred to as such hereafter). Since V is structured more as an open-world exploration game, the demon NPCs are numerous and given more personality. For example, new maps give you a companion demon navigator who can scope out items for you. Amanozako, a stubborn but energetic demon who repeatedly shows up in different areas, is the most recurring navigator, but others include Pyro Jack, Hua Po, and Decarabia. I was personally fond of Decaribia, which speaks in flowery yet snarky tones to the protagonist and attempts to extort the player out of money if they attempt to use him as a navigator upon later return. As far as actual monster or -demon- catching goes, Megaten games generally don’t encourage the player to get too attached to their creatures, which are usually beasts and gods from various cultural mythos. Instead, they are intended to be fused into stronger demons ad infinitum on the reg to keep with the usual level-increasing game progression.
I feel that V took a significant step with its improvements, giving unique voice acting to demons and making it easier to fuse them with specific skills and increase element specialties, so particular demons can be kept around longer before the necessary fusion turnover. Sure, you spend most of V wandering an apocalyptic wasteland version of Tokyo while the human NPCs fret over things like the state of godhood secession, but you can also help a Yatagarasu with its ankles hurting and that’s why V might be my favorite Switch game.
Next,World of Final Fantasy, is a more straightforward attempt at a monster catching game for the Final Fantasy series. The game has a very unique mechanic, wherein parties are created by stacking characters on top of each other. The game’s twin protagonists, Lann and Reynn, can change between their normal “Jiant” forms and chibi “Lilikin” forms to create stacks. Stacks can be separated in a pinch or knocked over and separated, but generally parties work better if they can stay in stacks. The absolute delight of World of Final Fantasy is the incredible amount of overly specific in-jokes referencing various events from specific games. Many of the monster (‘Mirage’) collection entries have excellent jokes for just about everything. A random NPC references the Emperor’s iconic death cry from II and there’s even a coy joke questioning how the blitzball players from X can breathe underwater. Spoiler: they don’t actually answer this. While the gameplay gets kind of repetitive and grindy at points, there’s some bizarre unbalancing things that can toss the difficulty out the window, like being able to catch much-higher leveled Mirages, which can also power-level the entire team. The game gets weirdly self-serious and melodramatic towards the end, but there’s a strong sense of pure delight with World of Final Fantasy that makes it a huge treat for long-time FF fans.
In contrast, while I completely adore the varied creatures inhabiting the world(s) of Dragon Quest, from the dozens upon dozens of smiley Slime variants to the intricate and sometimes grotesque final boss villains. Unfortunately, I am middling on the Dragon Quest Monster spin-offs, which often feel like watered-down, grindier, and overall less satisfying versions of their parent games. Basically, they’re DQ games that live and die by the monster catching/battling with flimsy stories/characters. Normally, I’d be fine with this kind of setup (see Monster Hunter Stories), but I find these specific mechanics to be pretty bland and insufficient to hold up the rest of the game, particularly in the first Joker game. In the past, I’ve discussed with co-writer Franklin that DQ games run a lot on their charm with their party characters and stories, which is why I’m willing to be patient with the old-school grindiness in these games that did not get noticeably fixed until XI. Not many JRPG’s let you rendezvous with a gruff Cockney-accented pirate, a Russian princess proficient in martial arts, or a bumbling banker dad. Incidentally, the biggest issue I have with fan-favorite DQIX is the lack of a traditional party; all the party members are created by the player and are largely blank slates during the story. This carries over to the biggest problem I had in Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker, where, outside of the main story monster, the game is void of any other characters to get attached to. Sadly, creating the literal final boss of DQIII, Lord Zoma, was not enough to save the game.
After playing Monster Crown and taking a gander at many of the indie monster catching game, it’s interesting to note how many of the indie games take more directly after Pokemon, while a few others are attempting to dip into other genres, such as Metroidvanias, farming, and…open-world survivor crafting with guns or whatever the hell this is. I don’t expect the average indie dev to create something on par with most of the games I’ve discussed in this list, but in general I find it more appealing when monster catching games follow the mechanics of more modern JRPGS, rather than regurgitating base elements of Pokemon for the umpteenth time. Unique battle systems, open-world exploration, and clever writing tend to be the most important elements to me overall. There’s starting to be more attempts to break the mold in indie monster catching games, and I hope this shift keeps up for indie creators to make more interesting games.