I’ve hunted a lot of monsters in my time.
Monster Hunter is a game that relies heavily on experience but not in the point grind sense. Your goal is to succeed at the missions given to you, which pit you against an increasingly difficult menagerie and combination of monsters. Instead of distinct levels you take the collected bits of your conquered quarry and use those to make new armor. Different monster materials make sets that bestow different boons, such as immunity to poison, which can prove useful depending on who you’re up against next. Each weapon type in the game plays completely differently, so if you’re having trouble using one you can change it and invoke a completely different game feel with another.
A beast that was once a dreaded menace will, through practice, become a casual toy to you. And it’s not because you’ve gotten better armor and weapons, though that helps speed things up—it’s because you’ve familiarized yourself with the monster’s behavior through lived experience. You’ve become less scared. You are confident you can handle it. You’ve learned how to dance.
I’ve played all the Western releases of Monster Hunter except for the old PS2 versions. I hear those were clunky and had a lot of egg-fetching quests (Capcom, these are horrible—please stop doing this to us). Therefore I imagine they would rank pretty low on the list I’m about to make, so no loss there.
I’ll only mention the expansion versions of the games when one is available, since they’re usually so similar beyond content additions. The upgraded versions are in all cases the better choice.
I’m not going to be able to speak much to new weapons introduced. I am married to my Hammer. After I started to use it on a whim back in Freedom Unite wielding a Hammer has since become second nature to me and I have a hard time trying something new. I can leave a Monster Hunter game cold for months on any console and pick it back up with the muscle memory flooding back, able to effortlessly flow a level one charge into a triple pound combo with a roll flourish at the end. Though it does leave me rather stuck if I need an item that can only be sliced, rather than bludgeoned, off a monster. Then I get a little help from my friends.
Monster Hunter X was recently announced for Japan at a Nintendo Direct streaming event and it looks beautiful, with lots of tricky new species to decimate and fondly familiar locations to visit. I’m excited even though I have plenty of Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate to still keep me busy!
4. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate
U & 3DS
Monster Hunter Tri for the original Wii was the first game in the series released on a Nintendo console instead of the usual Sony, which caused an uproar among fans expecting a next-gen graphical fidelity upgrade. Later on its expansion version came out for the Wii U and 3DS simultaneously, which were both the exact same game except one was portable while the other was nicer looking and could play online.
New to the game was the ability to fight monsters underwater. I absolutely hated this. Sure, fighting the leviathan Lagiacrus in the murky depths offshore and chasing him into his ocean lair for the first time was neat, but doing it over and over again is most certainly not. And having to deal with Gobul’s burrowing while underwater gets incredibly tedious when you have to move up and down on a y-axis while also avoiding surprise attacks.
The third generation also introduced Cha Cha, a recruitable goblin-like creature that you can bring with you on missions. You get quests to obtain and upgrade his masks to improve his dancing skills. I personally find Cha Cha annoying and prefer the Felyne cat companions from the other games.
The upgrade to 3 Ultimate was nifty because if you owned both then it allowed you to transfer your hunter from the handheld 3DS to your Wii U copy, which had better graphics and the capability for online play. You could also do local co-op using both consoles, so my partner could play on the Wii U and I could team up with him using my 3DS.
3 Ultimate also introduced a lock-on camera for the first time, which stuck around in 4 Ultimate. When new players used to complain about lack of lock-on in prior games, seasoned hunters would try to explain how it would mess up the delicate aiming of particular monster limbs and one should learn to get by without. But the kind of implementation Capcom chose didn’t shake things up too much—instead of nudging the camera constantly I can now just tap a button to re-center on the target. It’s not a persistent lock-on and is quite helpful—it’s a welcomed change from The Claw, so named for the grotesque hand positioning necessary for precise camera control on the PSP in prior games.
3. Monster Hunter Freedom Unite
Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is a bit older than the rest listed here but it’s the biggest game in the series by far. It’s the game I really cut my teeth on and saw most of the monsters in. It’s also where the fighting Felyne Comrade system first came about. And Freedom Unite contains some of my favorite fights in the entire series.
Nargacuga is a lithe panther of a wyvern who is thrilling to learn how to take down. The elder dragon pair Teostra and Lunastra have a beautiful sphinx look to them and are dazzling and explosive. In my head I like to think of the unicorn Kirin as a stand-in for the Kelbidrome we never got. I still shudder thinking of the wall that is the dual Monoblos quest. And there are some silly giant crabs to fight.
Monster Hunter Freedom Unite usually goes for super cheap during PSN sales (and in general) and if you download it to your Vita you can enable the right-analog stick to control the camera, which the PSP itself physically didn’t have.
2. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate
I really love Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate because it has successfully gotten people into the games. I’ve been so delighted seeing my friends on Twitter excitedly talk about their latest conquests. In the past I could only really talk with people about Monster Hunter on special forum threads for it. The game was too impenetrable to most who tried it blind without a guide and lots of YouTube study.
4 Ultimate resolves a lot of those on-boarding problems by pacing the new style caravan quests in such a way that you can understand what hunts will eventually expect of you. And the introductory tutorial mission did a good job of introducing you to a large and nasty monster up front, rather than throwing boring fodder at you for hours before you could try to tackle something remotely cool and challenging looking.
This game also let you climb the fuck everywhere. In prior versions you were limited to shimmying up narrow hard-to-spot ivy tendrils, but now pretty much any ledge can be scaled. You can use this ability to hop down onto a large monster’s back and start stabbing it, eventually knocking it down prone. The new weapon Insect Glaive lets you vault yourself up in the air in order to more easily pull off these rodeo shows. I can also knock teammates up this way with my Hammer, and while initially surprised they are overjoyed to find they can attach to a monster’s back that way. Who wants a Hammer ride?
And the innate online multiplayer capabilities are a godsend! With 4 Ultimate it was nice not having the players split between the 3DS and the Wii U, as the Wii U has the smaller install-base but was the device required to get online to remotely play with others. StreetPass trading of guild cards is a fun way to show off or to gape when you receive someone’s who is in a godly tier that you never knew to be attainable.
Also Ultimate 4 saw the return of my beloved Felyne companions, now called Palicos. I welcomed back my noisy cats with open arms. You can even dress them up in little monster-themed armors. It’s precious. The game lets you attach spare Felyne companions and special quests to your StreetPass data for passive trading.
Nintendo and Capcom have been doing a really good job of keeping fun Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate DLC rolling out, like cross-promotional armors and bonus items. It feels great when a game you love finally has the marketing and developer support you think it deserves. It’s been a long time coming and I’m super happy everyone is now enjoying Monster Hunter!
1. Monster Hunter Portable 3rd
PSP & PS3
Yeah, I’m gonna be that person. I’m listing a Japanese-only entry to the series as my favorite. Because it truly is. I had a friend visiting from Japan hand-deliver this game to me just after it was released in 2010 (bless the PSP’s lack of region-locking). I had already played enough Monster Hunter at that point that the language barrier wasn’t going to hold me back much, considering text-based narrative is light and quests use a lot of iconography. I will say, trying to decipher tiny pixelated kanji on the PSP’s screen in order to craft the right Decorations for armor skills is the pits. Reading a stroke incorrectly meant I was farming the wrong creatures.
Unlike its namesake suggests, Portable 3rd is a completely stand-alone entry to the series. It isn’t an expansion like the Unite and Ultimate titles. Unfortunately the game never came over from Japan because it hit right at the dead end of the PSP’s life-cycle in the West. Why they never translated the subsequent HD port to the PS3 into English I have no idea—maybe Nintendo was more helpful than Sony. It makes me sad to this day that a lot of my Monster Hunter friends have missed out on this great game.
Portable 3rd had a feudal era Japan aesthetic, with your hunter’s base of operations being a mist-wrapped village in the middle of mountainous bamboo forests. That theme appears consistently throughout the game—instead of upgrading the offerings of a Felyne chef for stat buffs like in all the other games you have a local hot springs you can visit. Completing basic quests simply upgrades the springs’ HP and Stamina benefits. Another set of quests will upgrade drinks offered while in the hot springs, which bestow special skills when imbued. It’s so chill to have your Hunter take a quick dip and crush a tea before a hunt. I much preferred this system to the restaurants in the other games.
Felyne comrades were originally introduced in Freedom Unite but were pretty basic there, other than skill upgrades. Portable 3rd made them way better by allowing you to customize the armor and weapons of your recruited cat companions. A similar equipment system for Palicos made its way to Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate but I much prefer the way Portable 3rd handles obtaining the items necessary for crafting cat gear. Here you simply have the blacksmith turn spare monster bits into the scraps needed. You then turn around and use them to craft the Felyne equipment you desire. It’s way less fussy than 4 Ultimate’s random side-quest missions for scraps and being able to gradually match you and your cat’s armors together simultaneously while you train on a particular monster is so encouraging.
Portable 3rd also retains the no-fuss farming system that Freedom Unite has. I’ve learned over time that I’m just not a fan of 3 and 4’s points resource systems and free hunts. In Freedom Unite and Portable 3rd you have a farm area that’s simply different gathering nodes that you can visit between quests, and they replenish when you get back from the next hunt. There does exist a basic points system which you spend on upgrading your farm nodes but they otherwise only purchase armor spheres on the side. You don’t have to spend these hunt-obtained points to generate items like you do now. It’s nice.
And the boss monsters are so different from the other games. Instead of initially fighting the typical raptor alphas, your hunter is first squared off with a gigantic sloth-bear, Arzuros. Later on you come face-to-face with the game’s flagship monster, a large and swift lightning wolf. The Zinogre fight is one of my favorites. I’m so familiar with him that I can roll in and out of his foot pounds with ease and with my Hammer combos ensure that he never gets a chance to charge up his static. When I first met him again in Ultimate 4 he was significantly nastier than I remembered. Or this old hunter has gotten soft.
As a nice bonus Monster Hunter Portable 3rd significantly improves hit-box detection for its larger monsters. No more phantom hip-checks while standing at the tip of a Plesioth’s tail. It was such a blessing when it was first released, allowing for tighter maneuverability and tactics.
Monster Hunter Portable 3rd is the perfect recipe of all the things I like about Monster Hunter combined into one package: hot springs, cat armor, easy farm, beastly monsters, improved hit-boxes, and absolutely no swimming! And I’m really sorry Capcom never released it in English.