There was a time, back in the late '90s, when geeks and doe-eyed adolescents would accept anything from Japan with open arms. It was a time when DragonBall Z, Final Fantasy and Hello Kitty were in their prime, and a time when Japan-crazy teens would pay top-dollar for Pocky, just so that they could experience a sliver of the culture. Times have changed, and "Big in Japan" is not the game-selling bullet point that it used to be. A perfect example is the Monster Hunter franchise, which, despite its runaway success in Japan, has never really taken off in the West. Nevertheless, its latest title, Monster Hunter Tri, has piqued the interests of many American Wii owners asking the age old question: "Can I start with the new game, or do I need to go back and play the first two?"
Luckily for newcomers, there is almost no story to the Monster Hunter franchise, so you can throw any trepidation about prior plot points out the window. The games act more as a simulation of the day-to-day life of an average, dinosaur-slaying wage-earner, trying to make a living by taking whatever temp jobs he can get. Tri gives hunters a little more motivation than previous titles, by putting players in charge of restoring a fishing village that has been ravaged by earthquakes and sea monsters. From time to time, you might check in with villagers or deliver some resources to fix up the farm, but that is about as deep as the story ever gets. Don't expect for a villager to recall something that happened in Monster Hunter 2, because nothing happened back then, either.
The biggest improvement in Tri, and perhaps the greatest draw for new players, is that for the first time in Monster Hunter history, the designers took the time to teach you how to play the game. Previous entries in the series started off by dropping you in the middle of a village with a suit of armor and some weapons and essentially saying, "Okay, there are monsters out there! Why don't you hunt some?" The first several missions of Monster Hunter Tri ease new players into the harsh, strategic combat, and capturing and gathering mechanics. By the end of your fourth or fifth short quest, you feel like you're ready to take on the mighty Lagiacrus (not that you know who that is right now).
The premium retail edition of Monster Hunter Tri comes bundled with the Classic Controller Pro, and with good reason. Sure, it's technically possible to play with the Wiimote and Nunchuck, and an enthusiastic Capcom rep told me that he prefers playing it that way, but I can only assume that he was actually thinking of Wii Sports. Waggle controls are pretty much as unintuitive and unresponsive as I've come to expect for most action games on the Wii, so I assume the nice folks at Capcom included them as a formality or an office gag. The Classic Controller Pro allows players to use the series' traditional controls, which, while taking a lot of practice to master, are more manageable than in the past; thanks to improved camera controls mapped to the second analog stick.
The main attraction for veteran hunters is definitely the online play, which, for the first time since the original Monster Hunter on PS2, allows American players to form a cross-continent hunting party.
Don't expect for a villager to recall something that happened in Monster Hunter 2, because nothing happened back then, either.
Although multiplayer games can serve as the backbone of your Monster Hunter experience, be warned that neither Capcom nor Nintendo has this whole "World Wide Web" thing figured out. The on-screen keyboard is painfully unintuitive for chatting, and from what I can tell, everyone using the alternative -- the tinny Wii Speak Microphone -- lives inside of a steel canyon. [You can, as some of our commenters pointed out, make use of a USB keyboard. -- Ed.] The lack of communication makes it difficult to carry out a strategy and a silent quest can feel a little too similar to an escort mission. There is also a split-screen arena mode that lets you hunt with a friend from the same couch, but it uses pre-built avatars rather than your in-game characters, which makes the matches feel pointless.
The five previous installments of the franchise have been incremental updates, building new environments and quests in the same engine, but Monster Hunter Tri was built from the ground up for the Wii platform. The new game sheds a lot of tired assets from the previous games, but the end result is that there's a lot less game here. Don't let that fool you, there's still a lot to do, and the missions in Tri are more varied than in previous games. They offer a new sub-quest system, which gives you bonus cash and items, as well as temporary supply items that make your current main quest easier. Still, long-time fans may find themselves burning through the offline story mode faster than they're used to.
If you've never played a Monster Hunter game, or you tried one once and just didn't "get it," I suggest checking out the much more accessible Monster Hunter Tri. Worst case scenario: You get a nice Classic Controller Pro and a new life experience. Best case: You'll have done your part in finally spreading Monster Hunter Fever to America.
This review was based on the retail version of Monster Hunter Tri provided by Capcom.
Sean Kirkland is a freelance writer living in beautiful downtown Los Angeles California with his dog, Otter. He can usually be found co-hosting the Tech-Gaming Podcast, or co-eating a taco.