Lately, it seems as though the card game and a lot of the video game industry have been dominated by the “pocket monster” style of titles, and kids or grownups nowadays have access to everything from Pokemon to Digimon to Yu-Gi-Oh. Back a few years ago before all of this hype really seemed to take off here in the states, Tecmo released a really fun, addictive, and at first overlooked title called Monster Rancher for the Playstation system, which allowed players to not only raise but create their own monsters from CD’s or PSX disks. Here we are past 2000 and long after the launch of what could probably be dubbed as the original U.S. pocket monster release for video game systems, and Tecmo has now released Monster Rancher 4 for the PS2 system to show that they are still one of the best in the business.

At first glance, Monster Rancher 4 seems pretty similar to all of the other installments that have come out over the years. Basically, you play as a young man named Phayne who has awoken in the land of Togle. Phayne quickly meets up with a couple of friends who help him start his own monster ranch, and help him to train his monsters and get ready for FIMBA tournaments to bring money, fame, and fortune his way. As Phayne, you will be responsible for not only training your monsters, but also using them to go exploring and adventuring to uncover new items or saucer stone pieces or whatnot in order to unlock and use new monsters in the game.

All overall similarities aside, MR4 adds in a few new features to the game as well. For starters, breeders now have the ability to actually set training, resting, and tournament schedules for two months versus a week to week basis as it’s been in the past. Since it seems like Tecmo has also made monsters to be a little more resilient and not as apt to do a typical “train, train, train, rest” format as it’s been in the past three games, this allows for more flexibility and speeding up game time by just checking progress of how your monster seems to be doing in his or her focus and stamina gauges to help plan ahead or make some last minute changes.

MR4 not only allows you to do some minor alterations to your training grounds, but has added in the ability to do a lot more customization of your area to make it a little more “you”. While prior games have allowed players to just do some simple upgrades, MR4 adds in some new huts and houses to place on your ranch along with the ability to do training facility customization so that you can have a workout area for up to five of your monsters to go in and train for upcoming bouts or possibly skirmishes with a rival who happens to drop in.

Another neat feature that was added into MR4 is the Adventure Mode, which allows players to take a monster and go out adventuring in search of new items and things of the sort. While it’s nifty to go and do this once again, Tecmo also did some ability modifications as well so that certain types of creatures will be able to be used for one thing or another. One type may not be able to access a cave for example, but will have another power or ability that can be used where a cave – dweller couldn’t go. While the map design remains someone simplistic, it is definitely a lot of fun and you will find yourself going back in again and again to try different monsters and look for new items.

While there were some neat features added in to make MR4 a little more like the old days, and it does a lot of things to improve over 3, players will be happy to know that the overall element of the game remains the same so that there won’t be a lot of re-learning or possible disappointment in some radical new design that just doesn’t work like it should. Players will still train, discipline or reward, and even go on some really cool adventures with their monster looking for treasures or fighting some nasties along the way. Also, combat still takes place in a left and right moving arena environment where a button press is all that’s needed to pull off different attack or defense possibilities to knock out your opponent.

Graphically, MR4 shucked the cell shaded style of the third one (which I personally was getting kind of fond of) and while it retains a cartoony look, it now looks a little more like an anime based RPG kind of title that you may see in other PS2 games like Dark Cloud or something. There are a lot of the same, colorful creatures back from original installments like golems, mocchis, dragons, and suezos … but a whole bunch of new ones that can be greatly expanded since you can now cross breed once again.

Overall, MR4 takes a well-needed step back to the old days in terms of gameplay to offer a little more fun and similarity to the first two that seemed to be absent in parts of MR3. Fans of the series should be pretty happy with the changes and options that have been added in, but will be pleased with the same overall style that was found in other games as well when dealing with combat and “saucer stone” creation. If you haven’t played Monster Rancher, this offers a good one for both veterans and newbies to hop on in and have a good time for a long, long time to come.