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Breaking in Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate before it breaks me

Bob Mackey

In a new weekly column, writer Bob Mackey will alternate between two of his passions: the Japanese RPG genre and classic games. "Before you register any complaints with the management, remember one thing: I'm new here," Mackey says.

Jump onto any video game forum these days, and you'll find no shortage of people willing to teach you the ropes of Monster Hunter. I'm sure a good portion of these devotees have been there for years, but – as with Nintendo's recent Fire Emblem: Awakening – this latest release has brought about a period of relevance for a series that never quite had the same impact on the States as it did in Japan. It's not as if Capcom had to try all that hard; Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate exists as a souped-up version of a three year-old Wii game, dropped into a release period where there might as well be tumbleweeds rolling across my Wii U's home screen. So even if I feel the game isn't all that great – hey, it's something to play.

I've always been a little wary of Monster Hunter, even though some of my favorite series took Capcom's particular ball and ran with it for the sake of grabbing the attention of Monster Hunter's healthy user base. Both Dragon Quest and Metal Gear picked up on Monster Hunter's loot-driven, fun-sized focus, but for the most part, still presented single-player as a viable option. Outside of grappling with the god-awful adhoc party, the only way I'd be able to make the most of Monster Hunter before 3 Ultimate could be found in less than ideal setups, like somehow organizing a group of friends with PSPs – a statistical impossibility – or convincing this same group that their Wiis could indeed be used to play games online – Super Smash Bros. Brawl's multiplayer slide show did a fantastic job of putting this rumor to bed.

Gallery: Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate (2/14/13) | 12 Photos

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate comes off like a fresh start for the series, and the franchise faithful actually convinced me to give this one a try. But the improved online functionality didn't act as the only dealmaker; strangely enough, another completely unrelated series brought me on board.

For the past three years, I've been deeply fascinated with From Software's Souls RPGs; their take-no-prisoners approach to game design delights increasing crotchety gamers like me who don't necessarily need to learn what the left analog stick does through several excruciating steps. Even though Dark Souls released way back in October 2011, to this day people still find worthwhile things to talk about, and haven't given up on desperately trying to suss out the game's arcane lore. Having spent over 200 hours with From's latest RPG, I took one look at the intimidating complexity of Monster Hunter and thought, "This is one rabbit hole I wouldn't mind tumbling down." (My current lack of full-time employment also helps.)

Not that I didn't prepare myself or anything; several amazing resources exist for the Monster Hunter beginner, and I devoured Culty's Monster Hunter Beginner's Guide in a single night. Its 60 pages won't necessarily give you the secrets to success – or descriptions of Monster Hunter's many interlocking systems in anything but the most basic of detail – but it serves as an excellent guide to anyone who may find those first few hours of the game baffling.

Similar to the Souls series, Monster Hunter doesn't gate off much from beginning players, and its philosophy compared to the prevailing "baby steps" mentality of modern game design may strike newcomers as more than a bit unfriendly. Simply put, Monster Hunter doesn't lock you in place until you successfully learn to swing your weapon, or roll away from enemy attacks; heck, you can spend your first few hours taking part in the titular hunting of monsters without the game fretting over possibly losing your attention to some other distraction.

Monster Hunter's emphasis on player agency and mastery comes from a somewhat different place than the Souls franchise, though; while From tends to throw players into increasingly hostile places populated with relatively few sane NPCs, Capcom's intimidating RPG world drops its participants into a colorful, tropical world, replete with talking cats and cartoon antics – I can't help but love how my hunter dude literally backflops into bed, or splays himself over benches like a drunken lout.

This feel-good, welcoming atmosphere tends to clash with just how poorly the game presents information (Could that on-screen text get any smaller?), and on the strange restrictions it places on you at times. For example, if you'd like to sign up for a quest, you'd better be fully equipped, because Monster Hunter won't let you access your near-bottomless item box with a quest currently underway. Sure, this is probably all second nature to the franchise elite, but part of grappling with and understanding stacks upon stacks of interwoven systems involves figuring out their arbitrary restrictions so you can figure out workarounds for the future.

At the moment, I'm roughly six hours into Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate – which is basically the equivalent of rolling out of bed in the franchise. Even now, I still feel like I'm figuring out the basics: Who knew you actually had to use bait as an item instead of merely having it selected on-screen during fishing time? (Certainly not me.) Again, little things like this must come second nature to fans of the series, and I'm sure I'll have a few head-slapping slip-ups prevent me from making basic progress in the early stages. As with Dark Souls, I don't think Monster Hunter is for everyone, but I'm glad it exists; some of its hostility comes from poor UI, or arbitrary rules, but it still manages to offer a wealth of discoveries, and those honest-to-god rewarding moments that come with accomplishing a goal thanks to a number of choices that you made yourself.

Right before sitting down to work on this article, I played a brisk 30 minutes of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, thinking to myself, "Hey, maybe I have the hang of this after all!" Then I accidentally hit something on the GamePad, which caused my character to warp to a completely new town I'd never encountered before – and with no immediate way out. As I powered down, one thing ran through my mind: this is going to be a long next-couple-of-hundred hours.

If you'd like to take part in my continued flailing for competence, consider friending or following "bobservo" on the Wii U's Miiverse. I'll try not to make you look bad.

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.

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