Monster Hunter (or Mon Hun as it is affectionately known) is a household name in Japan. Since the series' debut in 2004, Monster Hunter has sold over 21 million units across ten games (and another slated for next year). On top of that, the series has had an anime, manga, novels, a card game, and even Hello Kitty tie-in campaigns.
Yet as successful as it is in Japan, it can’t pick up that same steam in the western market (the latest iteration to be released worldwide sold 4.13 million copies in Japan alone, but only a combined total of 1.21 million copies throughout the rest of the world). After having experienced Monster Hunter on both sides of the ocean, here are some reasons why I think that may be.
Difficulty and/or Complexity
The games aren’t easy, in fact I’d say they can be downright unforgiving. Fights can be long and tedious, sometimes you need to hit specific parts of that 50 foot tall menace, and even with amazing equipment one or two false steps can mean death.
But the difficulty doesn’t come from just the battles. There is a huge amount of preparation and micromanaging to consider before each encounter. Have you mixed and topped off your potions? Brought the proper materials to make that extra trap? Where do you plan on fighting, extreme climates that require extra drinks to stave off the elements? For that matter, does your equipment balance with the monsters affinity? It’s a ton to take in and can be rather daunting, especially if you take into consideration the game’s extremely steep learning curve.
Monster Hunter Tri for the Wii, with its tutorial phase, was a step in the right direction. Previous iterations tossed you into the game with little explanation. I was somewhere around 50 hours into my first title before I even really knew what I was doing. The game emphasizes trial and error to learn the ropes, but without other people playing around you (as is the case in Japan), it can feel quite futile.
Some of the most popular games stateside are shooters. Series like Call of Duty and Gears of War are of course successful because they’re fun, but more importantly they have instant gratification. We in the West have been conditioned to respond to just that. Every kill, every headshot is small but effective reinforcement.
Monster Hunter doesn’t have that. When you take on a hunt, you fight one massive beast that might kill you over and over again. Because there are no levels, there is nothing to reflect any progress in the game, no apparent growth, until you do finally beat him. Only at that point does your achievement become tangible, as you harvest your fallen foe for the sake of new equipment.
It’s an amazing feeling, but it’s also a lot of work to get there. In general going a long time without reinforcement deters one from continuing an activity, especially if you can’t see any progress towards that next milestone. This is exactly why casual games have become such big hitters in the game world — small but frequent rewards.
The newest versions of MH, with the exception of Tri, don’t have an online option. There is ad hoc, but that is not enough for the kind of sharing and cooperation MH should be able to accommodate.
Internet in Japan developed in very different ways from what you might consider normal. In the early days, oppressive phone companies limited dial up access with exorbitant costs, causing the consumers to focus instead on Internet access by cell phone. The availability of home Internet in Japan today has improved a great deal, but the install base is still rather low compared to Western countries.
The Japanese way of life tends to emphasize staying in one place, keeping the same friends close for the rest of one’s life. People visit each other more often, or simply live close enough to do so. The kind of networks that enable Americans and other Westerners to stay in touch with friends across the world are in lower demand in Japan. The ability to play online has not been a priority for the majority of the Japanese market until very recently.
A lot of western fans say one of the reasons for Monster Hunter’s failure is that there hasn’t been enough marketing, but really there hasn’t been enough good marketing. The American Monster Hunter Tri commercials were simply dreadful. The US “spokesman” comes off as brash and awkward, yet because he’s the face of the game we are associating his character with ourselves by playing it.
Monster Hunter doesn’t take itself seriously, but it doesn’t treat itself like a total joke either. Not finding that balance can be a real turn off to many potential players. At this point Japan barely needs to advertise the game, but they have a great understanding of which parts are meant to be cute and which parts are cool. They can target their audience with precision.
Compare this still from the American *MH: Tri* commercial to...
This image of a Japanese Hello Kitty crossover promotion.
I know there are a ton of other potential reasons for lack of Mon Hun Fever in the West. And if reading any of these turned you off to the game, then maybe I’m on to something. But while it isn’t for everyone, it is a brilliant series, and anyone who does dive into it will be extremely glad they did 100 hours down the road. Western consumers are missing out on a prime example of a beautiful world.