I say "apparently" because believe it or not, I've never actually played a Monster Hunter game. Until today I was a Monster Hunter virgin. And yet despite my obvious unworthiness, I managed to score a ticket to try out Monster Hunter 3G at TGS.
I showed up for my appointment a little apprehensive - I felt sure that everyone else would know I wasn't One Of Them. I hurriedly took out my camera and snapped a few photos of some kind of dragon-thing prop to blend in. While I was in the queue, I was handed a "quick reference card" with details of the game's controls, as well as the quests available in the demo (Easy, Medium and Hard, depending on which monster you choose to hunt).
The "quick reference card" was anything but brief; it was three double-sided pages of laminated A4 crammed with arrows and boxes and dot points and more explanations than any human being could possibly hope to absorb during five minutes in a queue. I'd learned my first lesson about Monster Hunter: it's not a series you can pick up and understand instantly. There's depth here, and complexity, and it made me a little sad to realize that I wouldn't be able to properly appreciate it within the context of a noisy, crowded, hurried show floor.
All too soon my reference card was snatched away, and I and three others were led through to a table in the back of the booth. (The demo booth consoles didn't come with the new Slide Pad Expansion fitted, unfortunately.) As we sat down and picked up our headsets, our Capcom hostess asked us, "So, is anyone here playing Monster Hunter for the first time?"
So much for fitting in. But you know what? I can't be the only 3DS owner who's never played Monster Hunter before. I might want to buy this game; I deserve to be able to try it out too. I queued up fair and square like everyone else.
I put my hand up, and our hostess gave me a look. I'm sure it was a very sympathetic look. I'm sure it was just my paranoia that led me to interpret it as a what-on-earth-are-you-doing-here-then look. Either way, she started the other players off with their games then came over to give me a more detailed explanation. I was directed to select Easy mode, then choose a weapon - I picked a guy with a sedge hat and two huge swords - and then I found myself in a snow-covered field.
The basic controls seemed pretty simple. In the brief, happy moments I'd spent with my reference card as a security blanket, I'd managed to pick up that X was for my weapon, and Y was for items and interacting. The map in the top left corner of the screen had an obvious target on it, but my hostess friend wasn't about to let me run off just yet. "Turn around," she kept telling me. "Move the camera over to the left. There's a box. You need to look in the box."
Inside the box I found a plethora of items which I'm sure have all sorts of important uses. Again, I felt I was doing myself a disservice by not knowing enough; the Monster Hunter series clearly has details upon details that were going straight over my head. There were some green bottles that I assumed were health potions, but just in case I took everything in the box with me. Better to be prepared, even when you don't know what you're preparing with, or for... right?
Finally I set off across the tundra with two party members in tow. The game appears to have been modified well to make use of the console's 3D graphics; the effects subtle enough that you don't have obnoxious 3D elements screaming for attention, but when I tried turning the 3D slider down for comparison I could really see how much depth they add to the landscape.
The touch screen was divided into four boxes: top left was a map, top right was a virtual D-pad for controlling the camera (the real D-pad can also be used), bottom left was my inventory, and bottom right had a box with a question mark in it. I found out later that this was some kind of target indicator; when near the monster you're hunting you can use it to toggle a camera lock-on feature, so that pressing L will center the camera on the monster.
The only other crucial point I'd apparently missed on the reference card was that I could hold R to sprint. After watching me lope across the snow at a leisurely pace for what must have been an agonizing thirty seconds or so, the hostess leaned over to explain this to me, before finally moving on and leaving me to fend for myself.
Soon afterwards I caught up with my target, which turned out to be a creature I can only describe as the Ice Rabbit from Hell. We're talking a giant, bear-sized bunny with polar bear fur and claws of steel, that can shoot balls of solid ice and dash across the ground at (literally) breakneck speeds. I was impressed by the animation, here: Hell-Rabbit really moved like a living creature, rearing up on its hind legs to stomp me, swiping with its claws to disembowel me, and generally being as terrifying as only a giant Ice Rabbit from Hell can be. I checked my inventory, but unfortunately couldn't see any Holy Hand Grenades.
I figured there was nothing for it but to attack the thing head-on - but when I tried, I soon discovered that my character's huge swords were a bit too huge to wield with any kind of speed. Every time I tried to take a swing, Hell-Rabbit would get me first. I was bleeding vitality faster than a severed femoral artery; clearly Monster Hunter is a game that requires a little more brainpower than running in and mashing the attack button.
After dying and apparently losing a lot of in-game money (which I'd never earned in the first place so didn't feel too bad about), I tracked down the Hell-Rabbit again and tried taking things a bit more slowly. I hung back to try to learn its movements - like any good action game boss, all its attacks were telegraphed - and this time, I managed to start getting a few hits in. Things were going just great until I was hit with one of its projectile attacks and encased in a chunk of ice. While this is certainly an effective way of conveying a "frozen" status effect, I couldn't help but laugh as my character waddled around the screen like a giant snowball with feet. I had no idea how to cure myself, so Hell-Rabbit made short work of me after that.
On my third attempt, I really thought I was making progress. I was getting reasonably competent at predicting, dodging and counterattacking. I might have thrown myself off the deep end of the learning curve to start with, but now that I was starting to put together some strategies I was quite enjoying the gameplay. I still died eventually, but I definitely put up a fight I was proud of.
As it turns out, the game only allows you three attempts at a quest before you fail completely, but I still had some time left with the demo. I decided to try again with a different character. This time I picked one with a single, shorter blade, and he turned out to be a lot more agile and fun to use. There seemed to be at least a dozen different characters to choose from, and if they each show as much variety as the two I tried, Monster Hunter must have tremendous gameplay depth. I was sure I was going to succeed this time, but in the end the battle was a stalemate: the hostess called for the end of our 15-minute demo session before either Hell-Rabbit or I could deliver a killing blow.
As I drifted away from the Monster Hunter booth, reflecting on my time with the demo, my overall impressions were very favorable. Monster Hunter 3G seems like my kind of action game. It's clearly very unforgiving for ignorant newbies who try to run in with all guns blazing, but I like that. I like a game that forces me to think and learn and fight smart, not just beat the crap out of everything in sight. I'm sure learning to manage the game's RPG elements, including the items in my inventory, would help me fare a lot better in battles. And I find myself itching to try out all the other characters and see how they control.
Basically, despite my total lack of previous experience with the series, I'm sorely tempted to make 3G my first Monster Hunter. Based on what I experienced at TGS, I feel like I've been missing out.