Monster Racers - Staff Review  

Running Down a Dream
by Zach Welhouse

Click here for game information
20-40 Hours
+ Clever monster design
+ Several in-game reasons to use lots of monsters
+ Close races get the pulse pounding...
- ... but there are so few of them.
- Other games have done more with the monster-collecting experience.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   The fundamental cultural drive to own the coolest, cutest, or all-around best pet is one that has served RPG creators well over the past decade-and-a-half. Monster-breeding games not only allow gamers to pick their companions and tweak their particulars into a uniquely pleasing arrangement, but then prove once and for all that their dudes are better than the dudes of all comers. For all of the talk of love and friendship in games like Koei's Monster Racers and Pokémon, competitions always serve as the mechanical core. Monster Racers makes this divide between beliefs and results incredibly apparent by preaching love and peace from one side of its mouth while centering its actions on one of the most binary forms of competition of all: the race.

   The only consideration in a race is whether the monster racer is able to make it to the finish line first. It is heartbreaking to see a well-loved electric platypus waddling as fast as it can in its stubby rubber boots, unable to defeat the cold, muscular precision of a volcano-triceratops. Heart does not equal victory, despite the game's cheerful plot of pro-environmental unity. Training is required in Monster Racers, as in most monster-breeding games, and training means grinding. Whenever monsters meet for the first time, they must race to see who is best. This race is in real time, and takes about a minute to complete.

   Although there are plenty of compelling variables in monster racing, the same strategies will carry a racer to victory most of the time. Racing consists of holding down right on the d-pad to build up speed, while avoiding obstacles such as flaming rocks, pit traps, and the attacks of other racers. Every monster can jump, ram enemy monsters from behind, or use a specialized charge attack to zoom ahead with increased damage and speed. Moreover, every course has multiple elevations, and most contain several different terrain types such as grass, sand, and ice. Selecting the proper monster for each race becomes an important strategic decision, as does knowing the course so that the locations of traps and power-ups become second nature. Races are fast-paced enough that they cannot be won with a lazy eye and a rubber band on the right button. However, despite all of these moving parts, the process for handling every race feels similar: pick the monster with the best terrain modifiers, get to the front of the pack, and stay there. Deviations occur, but not enough to mask the formula’s linearity.

Meat builds up your turbo bar! Meat builds up your turbo bar!

   In order to enter into that formula, the player must first recognize that the shifting demands of each racetrack requires a constantly changing team of racers. In other words, becoming attached to the first team of three monsters available is a recipe for tears. Even with careful breeding for powerful traits, some of the more unique races will require spending time with monsters that would otherwise be regulated to benchwarmer status. Each of the seven continents has a "local monsters only" cup race, as well as a themed race for bred monsters, small ones, or ones that the game designers deemed cool. The electric platypus, for the record, is not very cool, no matter how hard he tries. The multitude of races packs a large number of discrete events into such a short game, making the feeling of progress a distinct one. Not only are there levels to gain and statistics to cultivate, but four trophies to win on every continent.

   Vast numbers of short sprints against unprepared monsters aren't the only way to train, which is a blessing. Monster Racers also boasts a breeding system -- although "Dr. Frankenstein's lab" would be a more appropriate term, given the trappings. Breeding combines any two monsters to create a new monster that contains elements of both parents. For example, breeding the slow, ice-traversing Yakatak with a much faster Magmare could result in a tougher Magmare, a Magmare who's able to handle ice, or a quicker Yakatak. The process is imprecise, but nevertheless interesting. All monsters have two slots for immediately accessible affinity skills and eight slots for skills that can be acquired through training. Breeding mixes all of these skills together, resulting in a child that could have more and/or better skills than its parents.

   One of Monster Racers' less concrete joys is that it takes place in the real world. Racing robotic gorilla across the Great Barrier Reef or hunting aliens in the Grand Canyon provides a level of story engagement that the characters and situations are unwilling to provide. The dialogue is occasionally witty or marked with insider references, but it's brief and straightjacketed by both monsters and racing. The plot never extends beyond the drive to become the best monster racer, even after the ending answers the cloying secrets that are littered throughout the plot. A sturdier connection can be found in besting the Australian champion and setting off to see how Koei interprets the Chinese Open. In all likelihood, this level of identification ties back in to the escapist nature of monster-breeding games. Being the very best, like no one ever was, is one thing, but it's a far better to wow the American model and show the snooty European aristocrat who's boss.

Gino is excited about everything! Gino is excited about everything!

   Unfortunately, a lot of this worldwide representation is done in the form of generic-looking graphics. Other than the occasional race backgrounds that show prominent national landmarks, there's little to differentiate the forest around the base of Mount Fuji from the generic forests of Magical Madeupistan. Monsters fare much better graphically. Most of them stick to the formula of mixing an Earth animal with a fantastic element like being made out of rocks or having wings, but the execution is commendable. The monsters sprites display character and a pleasant degree of animation. No game requires its players to observe the wobble of the poisonous mucus on the back of a jumping bile-hippo, but Monster Racers is bettered by it.

   The music is functional, but repetitive. While a few memorable hooks stick out, such as during the pre-race patter, most of the tracks are cheerfully unremarkable. Sound effects are similarly bland, save for the racing monsters' battle cries. At the start of each race, each monster announces its presence with an appropriate growl, honk, or screech. If poorly implemented, this could have resulted in a sonic disaster; luckily, the monster calls match the detail work experienced by their sprites. The individual monster calls are unique, and they pull their weight in characterizing the breeds.

   Despite the apparent effort that was put into Monster Racers' monsters, it never escapes the tentacled shadow of the Pokémon phenomenon. Monster Racers' fatal flaw is that it draws so much from games that have come before it without ever justifying its own existence. The dialogue is more spirited than most Pokémon titles, and the battles are foot races instead of standard turn-based fare, but these elements are not enough to lift the game from pleasant, retreading mediocrity. Collecting and breeding monsters has been done better in other games, and the racing, while a fun twist, feels more like a well-developed mini-game than a primary draw.

   While Monster Racers is an enjoyable way to while away a car trip or fill the time between longer, more substantial games, it is ultimately an inessential addition to most game libraries. Fans of collectible monsters or shaving off seconds in time trials may be more forgiving, but this reviewer would rather just play more Pokémon.

Review Archives

© 1998-2017 RPGamer All Rights Reserved
Privacy Policy