Monster Rancher Advance and the Freedom of Discovery

I was showcasing some of my old GameBoy Advance games to a friend this week and ended up getting sucked into the simple, yet captivating world of Monster Rancher Advance (known as Monster Farm Advance in Japan), a game I had loved when I was younger.

Playing it again after all these years was quite a revelation. It was the first time in a long time when I have had so much freedom in figuring out and experimenting with the mechanics of a game. The only thing the game explains to you is what to do in order to get your first monster and from then on you are basically on your own.

Caring for and training the monster is easy enough, but once the game throws in tournament battles things get a bit confusing. For the first few tournaments I participated in, I had no idea what I was doing and I kept losing. There were no explanations on what all the things on the screen meant or what I was supposed to be doing. It was a bit overwhelming.

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screenshot via EmuParadise

I kept going and eventually joined yet another tournament. Suddenly, everything clicked. I realized that every time I had participated (and failed) I had picked up on something – what some value meant, what I could do to make the fight more favorable, when was my opponent overpowered and why. My battling still wasn’t perfect, but I was clearly learning. And that feeling was exhilarating.

It made me realize I hadn’t felt that way for a long time while playing games. I often complain about how many games these days are geared toward impatient players and assume you to be a bit of an idiot to put it bluntly. There is so much hand-holding and over explaining of every single thing that when all of that is said and done, not much is left for you to discover or deduce on your own.

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image via TV Tropes

There was even a study recently on Molecular Psychiatry in regards to how different kinds of games affect the brain. Gregory West, the lead author of the research study and professor of psychology at the University of Montreal, made the following observation:

“In the majority of action video games, there’s an onscreen GPS overlaid on the screen. There’s also wayfinding markers overlaid over the environment, and we know from past studies that when people are encouraged to navigate using these cues, really, they’re not using their hippocampal memory system to navigate.”

This, he says, is comparable to basically having your brain run on autopilot. It is this kind of play that decreases the grey matter in your brain, which really isn’t surprising. If you ask me, it is a common trend in video games across multiple genres – not just action – nowadays and there is no signs of it going away any time soon.

That’s why this year games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and to a lesser extent Little Nightmares feel so refreshing.  It’s why revisiting old games suddenly feels like a breath of fresh air. In a bloated market of games that nearly play the game for you, ones that encourage and reward discovery and exploration are rare gems.

Here’s to hoping we’ll be seeing more of them again in the future.

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