Monster Hunter Tri
As far as I'm concerned, Monster Hunter Tri was conceived in a smoky Nintendo backroom whilst Satoru Iwata, Reggie Fils-Aime and Shigeru Miyamoto played a bi-monthly game of poker. The game well underway, Fils-Aime mentioned to Iwata how many Wii owners criticised the console for lacking in respectable hardcore titles. There was an off-putting silence in the room after that, but as Cammie Dunaway brought Miyamoto his sixth mint julep of the evening Iwata tipped his poker visor and announced if fans wanted a hardcore game, he'd make sure they got the most hardcore game of all.
Fils-Aime and Miyamoto shared a glance, and a slow chuckle amongst the trio rose into howls of laughter and applause. Capcom was called the morning after and promised wealth beyond their wildest dreams, and thus Monster Hunter Tri was born.
Monster Hunter isn't the most difficult game of all time, of course, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a contemporary title that places such rigorous demands on its players' dedication and skill. In the same respect, it tends to either terrify its audience off within a couple of hours or engulf them completely.
But Capcom, to their credit, has gone to some effort to soften the initial blow. Whereas most games tend to ease the player into the action, Monster Hunter in the past has just thrown up hours of impenetrable text and then told the player to stop mucking about and just get on with it. I'm all for on-the-job learning, but the process was akin to teaching people to swim by firing them from a cannon into the Atlantic Ocean.
In Tri, however, that terrifying learning process has been dialled back to require much less faith from its userbase. It still takes about ten hours to start dishing out the meat and potatoes, but for the most part it's an enjoyable introductory romp through the basic mechanics. BBQ Spit + Meat = Win.
You're given free reign of the Moga Hills to begin with, a basic area devoid of the hulking buggers which riddle the rest of the game and a good, cheap source of the game's basic items - the Asda Smartprice of the Monster Hunter universe, if you will.
Your home, where you return to douse yourself in Deep Heat and take a good Radox bath, is Moga Village. It all starts off a bit grim, with the town devoid of population and supplies due to the recent trend of catastrophic earthquakes and nasty monster infestations. Inhabitants begin to litter the streets as you progress through your slaughtering checklist, unwinding a support network that provides access to the larger town management metagame.
Out in the wider world, the real one that has bills and mass obesity, Monster Hunter's infamous control system remains the same. This will come as no surprise to series veterans, but complex controls add another inescapable barrier to entry for unaccustomed players - even pointing your characters in the right direction has always been a bit of a cumbersome task, but like most things in the world of Monster Hunter the perseverance is rewarded. The camera finds itself much improved from previous iterations, too.
A major part of the challenge comes from obtaining a degree of competence with the ins-and-outs of your weaponry. Huge, lumbering swings come with whopping great cool-down periods, stifling any potential evasive manoeuvres when locked into frames of animation that cannot be cancelled. The player is often left as wide open for attacks as the monsters themselves.
The experience is far more palatable with one of Nintendo's new Classic Controller Pro's - the traditional layout of buttons and sticks provide a superior input method to both a Wiimote/Nunchuk combination and the PSP's ridiculous finger-crippling analog nub. It was very a good idea for Nintendo to pilfer the Playstation pad design, and dedicated Monster Hunter fans might want to consider laying down a slighter larger initial payment to scoop up the game and controller bundle.
Hunting ain't easy, that's for sure, and even when you've got a good feel of your favourite pointy metal object - the new part-axe, part-sword switch axe is a ridiculous triumph - you've got to invest hours upon hours investing in The Grind, ploughing through the same monsters over and over to acquire the materials you need to upgrade your weapons and armour.
Picture the scene. The sky is peppered with wispy trails of cloud, and the sun is beating down on the expanse of land below. Trees, unable to contend with the heat, slump wearily on the horizon. The worn trail suggests others have tried before, but the Barroth still lives in the centre of this inhospitable desert and provides a good indicator of their failure.
Oh, Barroth: it was weird how you would, like, eat ants or something from mounts of dirt, but I loved how you had a big chunk of rock where your eyes should have been. Your charge attack was the bane of my existence for days, but the pelt and shell I carved from your mangy corpse was totally useful. Love, Martin.
There's no levelling up to be had in Tri, so it's impossible to grab a few cheeky stat boosts by just playing the game. The pain you make is equal to the pain you take: your power is based on the quality of your equipment, and the quality of your equipment comes from the magnitude of the monsters you slay. The relationship between the two is Monster Hunter's most intrinsic design philosophy, with the game offering up its most satisfying payouts after forcing you through the most exhausting encounters.
And those monsters are a fantastic bunch, with each towering creature managing to inspire more terror than the last. Fighting them often starts out as a frustrating cycle of watching your death, but once you've committed yourself to victory it's just a matter of time before you slip into the required rhythm and wear their skin (often literally) as a prize.
Tri is also the first in the series to take players into the briny deep, which neatly explains poster beast and underwater wyvern Lagiacrus. Swimming controls are handled with competence, and your supply of oxygen stretches for so long you won't ever find yourself worrying about it. Which is good.
Other new features are touted but have less impact. An in game ecology system does little other than cause little piddly monsters to hoof it when you roll up decked head to toe in your epic loot, and now and then the odd boss monster will scoff something tinier to recover a bit of health.
For people that are prepared to invest the time, Monster Hunter Tri ends up bordering the sublime. But I must point out most of this applies explicitly to the multiplayer modes: Monster Hunter has always been designed as a social experience, and while that's been fine in Japan - where the game is officially more popular than oxygen - it's helped secure the franchise its niche status on Western shores.
If you do decide to go it alone, however, you'll get an accomplice in the form of lost kid Cha-Cha. He can be decked out in a variety of status-changing masks, and provides a far more useful, if slightly less charming, sidekick than the Felyne companions of former games. But it's just not as good without a human entourage, and finding other Monster Hunter players in the past has been more difficult than downing Yama Tsukami.
Thankfully, Capcom and Nintendo have worked together to provide an online service that is both consistent and functional. A monthly levy to play the game has been abandoned for the Western release, which is I imagine is Capcom trying to give you a taste for free before charging down the line. And that's fine - it's got me hooked, at least.
There's no split-screen outside of the game's Arena mode, mind, which can't help but feel like a missed opportunity. The Arena's a bit boring, too, and while it's an easy enough place to fight some monsters it misses out on many of the luscious vistas that pattern the game's other environments. Capcom are confident to trumpet Tri's visuals as the finest on the Wii, and they're probably right.
Despite the changes, and the focus on simplifying the experience at the beginning, Tri ends up in a similar position to its predecessors: it's a mammoth title with its own distinct control method and design mentality, with a difficulty level that's bound to scare off plenty. There's nothing else on the market quite like it, and that can be both a blessing and a curse.
But it also feels like a living, breathing world that presents a viable, believable ecosystem of creatures that cling desperately to life - most of all you, actually, and the game makes no small effort to present it at every possible opportunity. Your character buckles, lunges and staggers onwards in a never-ending quest to splatter the brains of monsters over the floor. Dedicate yourself to the game and you'll become a glutton for the punishment.