In November, the 8th Generation of Pokemon is going to be released. The franchise has been around now close to 25 years, and is indisputably, the head honcho in the monster collecting genre. So much so, that it’s easy to forget that Pokemon is neither the first nor the only game to feature, in some manner, collecting, raising and fighting creatures against one and other. While some series occasionally pop their heads up to try to unseat Pokemon, such as plucky underdog Digimon or the younger upstart Yokai Watch, which is actually neck and neck with the King Mon in Japan, others are extremely obscure, and for one reason or another, are only known to weirdos like me who specifically seek these kinds of things out. Here are a few franchises that you may never have heard of, or completely forgot existed that at some time or another, competed against Pikachu for top Mon.
Monster Rancher was a series of games that did just what it said in the title, which was take care of a bunch of monsters on a type of farm, finding, raising, breeding and training for battle. Originally for the Playstation, with the first three Monster Rancher games making it stateside, it had a decent shot of at least competing if not unseating against Pokemon since the anime, dubbed by Nelvana, was on Fox Kids around the same time as the Pokemon and Digimon animes. And the anime was pretty interesting, taking its plot and settings from a combination of the first two games, featuring a boy from our world named Genki, who is transported to the world of the game to help a girl named Holly and a ragtag band of monsters locate the disc of the Phoenix, the only monster who can vanquish the monster conqueror Mu and restore order. The show explained the game’s main gimmick, which was new species of monsters could be obtained by inserting various music CDs into the Playstation, with their data translated into new kinds of monsters. The game had better graphics than the original Pokemon games by virtue of being on the Playstation, and a more interesting combat system that was closer to a fighting game than a turn-based RPG. There are probably two main reasons why this game didn’t take off bigger in the US and even almost faded away from the Japanese consciousness. While the game looked better, because it wasn’t portable it didn’t have the same social aspect Pokemon did, it meant you couldn’t take it to school and trade with your friends. Also, the gameplay was sort of dull, more like a 3D spreadsheet for taking care of your monster livestock, with only any real combat from hours of careful maintenance of your monsters. After Monster Rancher 4 on the PS2 and a few sparse titles on the GBA and DS, the games stopped being localized and there haven’t been many new games in Japan. This is changing now that a new Monster Rancher mobile game has been announced, so it’ll be interesting to see what replaces the CD aspect for unlocking new species.
Before Pokemon took over the world, the big bads in the JRPG game were Final Fantasy and its bruiser rival Dragon Quest. In Japan, whenever a new Dragon Quest game came out, productivity would plummet for the next few days after. So when Pokemon started carving into that sweet, sweet Dragon Quest money, Enix tried to fight back with its own monster catching franchise, localized as Dragon Warrior Monsters, originally a spin off of Dragon Quest VI. This time around instead of killing slimes and goomen, your aim was to catch and befriend these monsters. In Japan, this worked fairly well, with the franchise continuing on sporadically and the original games released as remakes for the DS, while in the US, the franchise only went as far as Dragon Warrior Monster 2. Only fairly recently has Dragon Quest started getting the same kind of attention as it would in Japan, and is still fairly obscure compared to Pokemon, so from an American perspective, the Monsters games seemed like a Pokemon clone. Even though the game’s breeding system was a lot more elaborate than Gold and Silver, which had only just introduced the mechanic—may also have contributed to its downfall. While breeding Pokemon allowed to access new species and for pro players was the best way to train a champion team, casual players didn’t need to major in biology to get through the game. Breeding was far more intrinsic to Dragon Warriors Monsters, and thus required the player to spend time and effort breeding powerful enough monsters to beat the game. Something American kids and even older players may not have had the patience for.
Invizimals is a particularly fascinating franchise, because unlike the other monster franchises I’ve listed thus far, this one was never Japanese. Instead, developed by a Spanish gaming company backed by Sony, this is a western take on the genre that was incredibly innovative. Rather than set in an alternate world or some far-off land, Invizimals’ lore instead claims that amazing creatures known as invizimals live in our world, but can only be accessed with special technology. This PSP franchise required the system’s camera to record to world around you in order to find the creatures, catch them and battle against one and other. The original games also used live action recordings to convey the story to the player. Combat was also a lot more in depth than Pokemon’s, as player actions could determine if their creature’s attacks had any strength or not. It was incredibly novel, but perhaps a little too gimmicky for its own good. Because catching the animals required things in addition to pushing buttons such as whistling, blowing at the microphone and using your hands, catching certain creatures could be incredibly difficult and tedious. Yet the franchise manages to truck along with the occasional NA release as recently as 2015, but doesn’t have nearly the same following as it does in Europe, and is nowhere near as recognizable as Pokemon remains.
Spectrobes and its sequels were Disney’s attempt to go into the mon market. Developed by Japanese company Jupiter and published by Disney Interactive, the anime-esque games used the DS’s touchpad to institute the franchise’s gimmick, players had to dig at the screen and blow away dust to find the fossilized critters. The monsters were necessary to help protect the galaxy against an invasive alien race and aided the protagonist characters. But beyond the main gimmick, the games weren’t particularly innovative, trying to mostly keep itself up by being behind the Disney banner, with the company not trying all that hard to market them beyond a few vague commercials. It definitely has a cult following, bless ‘em, but there hasn’t been a new game produced for the franchise since 2009.
Fossil Fighters came out around the same time as Spectrobes and has a similar premise: use the DS’s touch pad to dig out and clean up fossils in order to unlock monsters for battle. Unlike the imaginary critters of all these other franchises, the creatures from Fossil Fighters ‘Vivasaurs’ are just revived dinosaurs based off of real existing species. Also, unlike Spectrobes, the franchise is still ongoing. A Fossil Fighters game was released for the 3DS in 2015. Even though dinosaurs are really cool, there wasn’t much unique in story or combat to really set this franchise apart.
Without a doubt, most of the monster catching franchises have been firmly marketed as boys’ games, with masculine coded colors, surly looking creatures and a heavy emphasis on battle with even Pokemon not giving a female avatar until Pokemon Crystal. Despite the fact that having awesome pets that can beat up your bully is a power fantasy all children (and probably quite a few adults) have, female players are usually an afterthought in marketing or design. Moco Moco Friends is a break with this tradition as a creature catching game firmly feminine-coded. The game screams ‘girl!!!!’ with plushie themed monsters, candy colored settings and cutesy girl witches as the player character and her rivals. In the game, witches are the only people who can deal with Plushikins, magical animals that can be quite dangerous if not tamed. As an apprentice witch learning to control your magic and tame the Plushikins, you stumble across an unknown Plushikin species and a mysterious rift of dark magic. It came out at the same time as Yokai Watch, so it got lost in the hype. It is also incredibly niche, and though an E rated game, localized more towards anime fans than kid players since while the game is translated it’s not dubbed in English and retains its original Japanese voiceover. The combat, leveling up and evolution systems are novel as almost all battles are three on three, and the game’s goal is for the witch girl to become a master witch rather than who has the strongest Plushikins, but obtaining new creatures can be annoying as it’s entirely random if the monster you fought will join you or not. Items help increase the odds, but rarer creatures are still more difficult to obtain.