No decision too trivial in Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate

In his weekly column, writer Bob Mackey will alternate between two of his passions: the Japanese RPG genre and classic games. This week Mackey discusses his evolving thoughts on Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate.

It's only been a few weeks, but I can't help but feel a little ashamed of my last Joystiq post about Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. Reading it from my current, semi-experienced perspective, the piece feels like an excited first-grader telling a long and involved story about learning to tie his shoes. To be fair, my revised take on things comes from a slightly embarrassing wealth of invested time; I've sunk 30 additional hours into the game since my initial column, and when I sat down to write about learning the ropes of MH3U, I'd barely hunted monster one.

Looking back at the knowledge I picked up since then, and the numerous intricacies I've yet to figure out, it dawned on me why Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate has made every other game in my presence go completely neglected. Capcom has refined its specific brand of action-RPG into a trial-by-fire experience that requires constant hypothesizing and experimenting – pure brain candy for us unlucky folks whose minds crave constant stimulation.

Of course, you don't have to take it from me; real academic-type people have picked up on this same value of playing video games – even if said people haven't necessarily jumped on the Monster Hunter train yet. When I taught a college writing course during my grad school days, I used James Paul Gee's What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (yes, all academic book titles must be this clunky by law) to inform groups of mostly bored 18-year-olds about how gaming can actually increase our problem-solving skills.%Gallery-178777% In his book, Gee posits that traditional schooling can often be a waste, as it focuses on instruction outside of context; as an example, he proposes making students learn the rules of basketball via textbook instead of on-the-court practice. To simplify the point of Gee's amazing book, video games make for excellent problem-solving exercises because they require (and encourage) players to figure out the meanings of everything around them, and later, use these meanings to solve the numerous problems presented. Sure, video games might not excel in teaching the innumerable facts most students forget half-a-second after handing in their tests, but that's what smart phones and Wikipedia are for.

Keeping all of this in mind, Monster Hunter's hunts – battles against massive creatures that can take up to an hour to finish off – act as fantastically complex problems in which every variable matters, even if bystanders may view the game as a simple exercise in smacking dinosaurs with a sword hundreds of times. Since the game doesn't tell you much about these beasts outside of what you can assume from their habitats of choice, the first blind run at any hunt usually ends in tragedy – though with the bonus of learning your enemy's move set, strengths, weaknesses and its interplay with the environment. This basic information acts as a vital ally in deciding your armor, weapons and buffs for the next attempt. The fact that Monster Hunter actually forces me to stop and think about the tiniest decisions stands out as a real rarity in modern games, and the reason why diving into this long-running series can feel so overwhelming; each fight contains so many variables that no element of your character can go neglected. And god help you if you forget whetstones.

I spent a few days playing some local co-op MH3U with a good friend, and we managed to come up with a fitting analogy about getting ready for a hunt: It's like packing for a camping trip. In the game, we'll find at least 10 items invaluable for any fight, while a few will inevitably be relegated to battles featuring specific monsters with certain weaknesses. But regardless of our combined experience, we always end up forgetting something, which results in a mad scramble of diving through menus in order to exchange items before being stomped into oblivion.

Criticizing Monster Hunter for the length of its battles has some merit, but I honestly can't imagine the game playing out any other way. To Capcom's credit, after a few minutes pass, it's easy to forget that you're fighting a collection of polygons with a very specific pattern of behavior instead of a real dino-thing. In games with human enemies, distancing yourself from your character's actions often comes easy; even in the best possible cases, your garden-variety faceless grunts have the mental capacity of a sea cucumber (and we love them for it). Going up against Monster Hunter's biggest foes almost feels like a hands-on version of a Pangean nature documentary – listen closely, and you'll hear the sprightly voice of David Attenborough chirping away in the background.

Like animals in the wild, the massive beasts of Monster Hunter are programmed to respond to your various actions with specific postures and actions, and most of the fun comes from successfully predicting (and hopefully avoiding) enemy behavior after entire battles spent muttering "oh god what is it doing now?" And yes, knowing that bombs literally made of poop can make Godzilla-sized monsters flee in disgust – well, these are just things you have to figure out for yourself.

Strangely enough, the next step on my path to Monster Hunter greatness won't feature my butt parked on a couch for 50 more hours – well, if you want to be a stickler, I guess part of it will. This Saturday, I'm headed to an all-day Monster Hunter clinic hosted by Capcom. With any luck, I'll bring back treasures and secrets, the likes of which only the Monster Hunter elite have seen. Or maybe I'll just spend the entire day playing video games with teenagers. Whatever the case, I'll at least be able to deliver one more article about my journey to Monster Hunter-hood before you all get sick and tired of reading about it. And maybe – just maybe – I'll soon be able to convince myself that other RPGs exist. Though now that a recent Wii U patch will let me play Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate without leaving the comforts of my bed, Capcom may find itself liable for the complete atrophy of my physical form. Pray for me, friends.

Bob Mackey is a freelance writer based out of Berkeley, California. Since 2006, he's written a semimonthly column for the comedy website Something Awful, and his work has been featured on outlets such as 1UP, Gamasutra, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and Cracked. You can follow him on Twitter at @bobservo.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.