Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher monster
Pros
Cons

I was in my teens when Tecmo first brought the "Monster Rancher" series stateside in 1997 (about one year after "Pokémon"). And sacrilegious as it might sound, I’ve always preferred this weird and wildly imperfect monster-rearing series over Nintendo’s vastly more popular franchise. What can I say, I gravitate towards the strange, and I really like how "Monster Rancher" makes you take your time with each individual monster, raising and training them throughout their entire life.

My relationship with the "Ultraman" TV show (and a few of its many, many follow-up series) is a similar story, with my dad introducing me to the gigantic alien spandex hero at an even earlier age. I loved "Godzilla," so of course, I would also love the show about a giant robot-looking spaceman fighting giant monsters. Also of course, suddenly finding out a game exists that combines two of my long-time niche interests resulted in zero hesitation about opening up my wallet.

The good news about this bizarre combination of tokusatsu and digital creature management simulation is that the two themes work very well off of each other. The less good news is that the "Monster Rancher" side of the equation occasionally drops the ball in some strange and unexpected ways.

It’s silly and it knows it

Tournament victory screen

"Monster Rancher" has always been a bit tongue-in-cheek — you’re raising monsters, yes monsters exist in this world, no there will be no explanation, just roll with it — and this latest iteration is no exception. Not that the story has ever been particularly important (or captivating) in any of the older games, of course.

This time around you’re yet another new monster breeder-slash-trainer with no clue about where to start, then you face-plant into both someone to assist you and a ranch to start your career. But this time around the monsters are about 30 times larger, are a perfectly normal thing on this particular fictitious island, and despite being villainous in various "Ultraman" shows they’re much more friendly here.

Wild kaiju do exist and can cause trouble — possibly even a little damage — but for the most part, they’re treated like any other fauna you might find in a given part of the world. Just, you know, impossibly large and also sentient. But you can’t understand them because they’re giant inhuman monsters so a human-sized anthropomorphic clam-thing has to interpret for you. Yes, I’m serious.

Just like the old days

Despite the extreme size increase (both for the monsters themselves and the in-game economy), "Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher" is pretty much just another "Monster Rancher" game. I don’t mean that as a negative, it’s just that it’s basically more of the same but bigger.

Once you have your first kaiju and are set up with your ranch and assistant, it’s time to start training. You can send your Kaiju on a number of different Drills in order to raise various stats (Life, Power, Intelligence, Skill, Speed, and Defense), or raise two stats simultaneously at the expense of a third. At a certain point, you’ll also unlock Errantries, which will raise two different stats quite a bit but also lower two other stats a little. It’s a time-consuming balancing act as you decide what you want to focus on, and I’m as here for it now as I was in 1997.

When you think you’re ready (or just because), you can enter one of many tournaments in an attempt to earn prize money (necessary for buying helpful treats and sometimes upgrading the ranch), special items, bragging rights, or a rank increase. Each rank has its own assortment of kaiju you’ll have to fight your way past, and just like before you can manually control your monster in battle or let them handle it on their own.

Getting to know your kaiju

Kaiju finding a present

Different kaiju each have what amounts to their own personalities, with some being more agreeable to rear than others. My first kaiju, Sprocket, was a breeze and almost never gave me any trouble. My second kaiju was an insufferable brat that refused to perform Drills, was terrible at fighting and was extremely quick to anger. I retired that one after a few in-game months because forget that noise. My third kaiju, Crabble, was much more pleasant — though sometimes had a tendency to not do much during fights when I wasn’t in direct control.

This disparity in training experience helps to make your kaiju feel more like individuals, certainly. Though at times it can be frustrating when all you want to do is finish a Drill or complete Errantries, only to have the kaiju fail despite being old and experienced enough that it really shouldn’t be happening.

Each of your kaiju has multiple pages dedicated to various stats, traits, stills, and so on. Familiarity with their likes and dislikes definitely helps, though I can’t say it’s strictly necessary. In my experience, you don’t really lose much if you feed them something they don’t like (they might get a little mad, but you can offset that in other ways). Still, if nothing else it’s a good way to remind yourself of what they can or do specialize in, and what you can do to make them happy if they start to get a little fussy.

More than just new monsters

Two kaiju preparing for battle

As much as this game resembles previous ones, it does add a few new elements to the mix — at least when compared to the earlier original PlayStation titles. This time around you also have to keep an eye on an Anger meter, which will cause your kaiju to go on a rampage once it’s full. And rampages could result in damage to the ranch you have to pay to repair, your kaiju refusing to do anything or running away, etc.

Fortunately, you can reduce your kaiju’s anger with items and through fights. So it’s a good thing wild kaiju will sometimes appear in the areas you perform training drills in, giving you one-off battles over territory as a way to blow off steam rather than having to resort to jumping into a tournament. I have my problems with the Anger mechanic, which I’ll get into later, but I do like how it acts as an incentive to make sure you participate in battles.

I would often find myself spending much more time training my monsters in older games rather than fighting, and fighting is kind of necessary. The only way to truly progress in a "Monster Rancher" game is to get your monsters to climb the ranks, and by extension improve your rank as a monster rancher. Ranks are how you unlock new species and features, and tournaments are the only way they improve.

Modern monster ranching

Inheritance cookie baking

Being a game released in 2022, "Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher" offers a few of the kinds of general improvements over its predecessors you might expect. The visuals, while not exactly jaw-dropping, are still a fair bit sharper and more detailed than we’ve seen in older US "Monster Rancher" releases. The kaiju models and animations are particular standouts, and they help sell the idea that these are very large creatures.

Perhaps better than that, this latest iteration is also more approachable (generally speaking) than the older games. Previously your monsters could pass away after a number of years, which was always kind of sad. Now your kaiju retire but go on helping out around the island after leaving the ranch. What’s more, retired kaiju can still be fused with others to create more powerful hybrids (deceased monsters were gone for good before).

It’s also extremely useful to be able to see your kaiju’s stats from the main screen of the ranch — no need to dig through menus to remind yourself where the numbers are. And while the older games’ gimmick of reading CDs (and later DVDs) to create monsters isn’t possible with the Switch, you still have a few different ways to get new kaiju. Then there are the cookies (yes, cookies). Inheritance Cookies, as they’re called, will give your kaiju a permanent stat boost along with a unique special ability. Abilities can be anything from more effective anger reduction to temporary stat boosts as the fight timer runs down.

Nuanced nuisances

Kaiju rampage

This brings me to the odd, and sometimes baffling, frustrations I’ve run into while playing "Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher." Discs have been replaced with Memory Boards, and instead of reading media discs that you get to scan NFC devices — which is something I don’t have an abundance of. What’s more irritating is the fact that amiibo use NFC technology but are incompatible for some unexplained (but specifically stated in-game) reason. So the NFC-reading game that from what I can tell is just on the Switch… doesn’t work with amiibo.

The game also does a poor job of explaining certain elements. I had to find out the hard way that running out of stamina on an Expedition means you lose all the treasures you’ve found. Sometimes a kaiju will refuse to act during an automated fight, maybe attempting one or two attacks before time runs out, for no discernable reason. Every now and then a kaiju’s Anger meter will go from barely anything (or even literally zero) to full, resulting in a rampage that seems like an unfair punishment more than a consequence for carelessness. And attacks sometimes display "XCOM" levels of frustrating hit-or-miss tendencies — missing on an 84-percent chance, hitting on 33%, etc.

And I hate to say it but the kaiju roster feels kind of small. It’s not that there is only a handful available, but you won’t see much variety until you start cracking into the higher ranks. Whereas older games showed off a lot more in the early stages.

Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher verdict

Kaiju battle

Despite the mash-up of two nerd interests that are very near and dear to my heart, I just don’t think I can place "Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher" at the top of my "Monster Rancher" list — that spot still belongs to 1999’s "Monster Rancher 2." I was expecting it to be my new favorite going in, but it’s held back a little by its unnecessarily frustrating elements.

That said, I did enjoy my time with it, and I intend to continue playing for quite some time. Occasionally irritating or not, it’s still a "Monster Rancher" game where I can raise an Alien Baltan named DePinchy and watch a Sevenger with a Dada pattern all over its body launch a robotic fist into a skyscraper-sized lizard. There are even a few nods to both of the series involved that I wasn’t expecting, which made me smile.

If you’re a series fan (either series, really), I think this is worth a look despite the various metaphorical warts. And if you’re new, I believe it could be one of the better places to start your ranching career. Just know you might have to show the game as much patience as a young kaiju sometimes.

You can digitally purchase "Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher" in the U.S. through the Switch eShop for $49.99.