The Race is On
Monster collecting? Check. Option to play as either a boy or girl? Check. Playful setting and formulaic gameplay progression. Also check. Koei has managed to scrape together all of the core ingredients for collect-’em-all fans, but does this latest adventure for the Nintendo DS have what it takes to be “the very best”?
Make no mistake, Monster Racers lifts – lock, stock, and barrel – pretty much all of its fundamental gameplay elements from the likes of Pokémon and Dragon Quest Monsters. It’s a simple role-playing game (RPG) with simple prose and zany characters. The adventure is set in the real world, with a few twists, of course; for some reason, monsters have a natural urge to…race one another whenever they butt heads.
And thus, you’re given your impetus to befriend new monsters, race them against wild monsters, as well as other human racers, and for good measure, there’s even a nefarious team of villains you’ll be forced to contend with on your way to becoming the monster-racing champion. There are, much like in your typical Pokémon game, seven champs you’ll have to best, and though the developers present a more simplified overworld than what many gamers might be accustomed to in a monster-collecting RPG, there’s a healthy amount of variety to experience in Monster Racers.
Your adventure begins in Star City, where you’ll be acquainted with the shops and such. If there’s one thing Koei really nails down tight with Monster Racers it’s the game’s pacing. Rather than simply bombarding players with every single gameplay mechanic from the start, new concepts and systems are doled out at a steady pace throughout the game. Unable to reach a particular area blocked off by rocks? You can rest assured you’ll acquire some new item later on that will grant you access and a reason to return.
Of course, what sets Monster Racers apart from the pack of other monster battlers is, well, the battles. You’re not actually pitting your pets against opponents in combat, but rather racing through 2D platforming levels. To our surprise, it’s an utterly addictive formula that works almost perfectly as an RPG device.
Similar to Dragon Quest Monsters – Joker, you’ll roam the world of Monster Racers via an overworld hub, and then traverse partitioned areas in real-time. For the most part, the world is broken up into dungeons and tournament coliseums, and there’s a bit of wiggle room in terms of what you decide to tackle next. Most monsters specialize in certain types of terrain, making them more effective racers in specific regions of the world. Our Leefee (one of the three starter monsters), for example, can run faster on grass, which makes him an especially useful monster during the early parts of the game.
The formula is simple: explore a dungeon, race monsters and level up, and then enter a regional tournament in hopes of beating the local champ. Dungeons are varied up nicely, with some interesting and fun gameplay elements introduced each leg of the way. Wild monsters appear as small, patrolling avatars on the field, so there are no annoying random encounters. Not surprisingly, there are also other monster racers stationed throughout dungeons, and beating them in challenges usually yields some valuable item or reward. Once you engage another monster, the race begins.
Like a typical battle in your average RPG, races are bite-sized, making it easy to level up your creatures. You can carry up to three monsters at any given time, and you can trade out monsters at various town locations. There’s also a vendor who can fuse monsters together to create new and unique pets, though unlike Dragon Quest Monsters – Joker, you won’t know beforehand what your recipe of monsters will yield.
The racing portions of the game are fairly simple but remain fun for the duration of the adventure. When racing against wild creatures, there are two main ways to achieve victory – either by making it to the finish line first, of course, or by impressing the monster early on in the race with your superior speed. Control is similar to a typical 2D Mario game; just push forward with the D-pad to gain momentum and jump with the B button. As you continue to run, your monster’s Turbo meter will fill up, and upon activating your Turbo, you’ll be thrust forward, knocking out other monsters in your way. Lastly, you can befriend monsters by zapping them with the A button several times.
As basic as the concept is, races are a great little blast of fun. Speed boosts and other power-ups keep things interesting, and though normal races aren’t terribly challenging, you’ll still need to put your best foot forward in order to come out on top. There are coins scattered along each track as well, which you’ll use to buy equipment and healing items for your monsters. The entire RPG/monster-racing package is presented in a way that’s smart and fun.
Our only real complaint with the game has to do with the lack of track variety in a given locale. Generally speaking, you’ll be racing along the same exact track when racing wild monsters, with an additional track presented when racing against human challengers. However, the game requires almost no level-grinding, so one trip through a given dungeon is usually enough to ready your creatures for any tournaments that lie ahead.
There are a healthy number of little extras that ought to help keep players entertained during lulls in racing. Collecting crystals for an unnamed king will land you prized gear, and orbs found in dungeons allow you to customize the color of your monsters. Additionally, there are a handful of multiplayer options that will likely be a boon for more competitive players.
In terms of presentation, Monster Racers’ overworld visuals look a bit dated, but there’s scarcely an out-of-place pixel to be found. The entire game has a very tidy and playful look about it, and the character images that pop up during conversations are often laugh-out-loud comical. All of the artwork is 2D, including the races, which are fairly pretty to look at. There’s a good bit of variety from region to region, not to mention a fairly sizeable collection of monsters to encounter; they all animate nicely to boot.
The music is a bit generic, though admittedly, it all works quite well for the premise and motif that make up the game. The sound effects, however, are a real treat. Whether you’re perusing the menus or visiting the shops, there are a lot of fun, little touches throughout the game that make the audio package stand out.
Monster Racers is, without a doubt, formulaic and shamelessly unoriginal when it comes to its presentation. That being said, the whole monster-racing thing is addictive and fun. The characters and production values are like candy you can’t stop nibbling on. The game lacks the variety and depth of, say, Pokémon, and there are some fetch-questy, hide-and-seeky moments that are tedious and slightly frustrating. On the whole, however, Monster Racers runs a clean race that should be a big hit with the younger gaming crowd. When I wasn’t playing Monster Racers, I was ready to pick it back up and grind out a few more races. To me, that speaks volumes about a game’s ultimate value.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.7 Graphics
A really clean-looking game. The 2D overworld visuals, however, look a bit dated. 4.0 Control
A pretty simple approach to platforming that works well and feels good. The dated 2D character sprites make diagonal movement on the overworld feel clunky. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Though the music is really cliché, it’s also quite fitting for the package as a whole. The sound effects make a great addition to gameplay. 4.0
The track variety could be better, but there’s a good bit to see in the world of Monster Racers. Online tournaments, single-card multiplayer, and trading all add real value to an already fun package.
3.9 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.