The Monster Hunter series wasn’t always the “monster” (heh heh) hit it is currently. Originally released for the PS2, the first game, Monster Hunter, and its sequel,Monster Hunter G, sold less than a million copies each. It wasn’t until the game went hand-held to the PSP with Monster Hunter Portable (Monster Hunter Freedom in the west) that Capcom scored their first million seller with the series.
There is, however, something to be said about the fact that the game series helped cement the PSP’s popularity in Japan among the previous generation of handhelds (so much so that the PSP continues to outsell the PS Vita) as well as establish the popularity of the 3DS in the current generation of handhelds in Japan. Why does the series garner such popularity mainly in Japan?
The game’s system itself is not unique. It largely echoes the Phantasy Star Onlinequest/mission model. Still, with Capcom’s action game and graphics knowhow mixed with a more relatable semi-realistic game world (i.e. all players are human, no level system, heavy emphasis on action, all attacks are physical with no real magic other than buffs in the form of potions or meat… (Although, show me a real life video of a man whirling around a ship anchor to fight a sperm whale and I might concede that Monster Hunter is “realistic.”)), and a Skinner-box reward system, you’ve got yourself a well-put-together game. Add a dash of cute cat-like mascot and you’ve got a winner. Capcom was also able to make the game more accessible to players by having the multi-player be, for the most part, free (The original games for the PS2 required a monthly ¥900 (US$10.19) service provider subscription and the Wii versions require the purchase of 30 day, 60 day, or 90 day tickets… Another argument for why the portable versions are more popular).
Another, and perhaps the biggest factor in the strength of the Monster Hunter series, is Japan’s sense of community. Due to the nature of the game’s multi-player system, particularly with the PSP and 3DS, when playing with others, you will almost invariably be playing with someone you know—more often than not, a friend. Most people seem to get their introduction to the game from the people around them. “My boss talked me into playing [Monster Hunter 3rd]” says Ryouhei, a 24 year-old clerk who would spend hours after work huddled together with his co-workers. “It’s fun to work together with friends towards a mutual goal.”