So I’m playing Spectrobes… (1)

…which seems to be Disney’s attempt at answering and/or leeching from the success of Pokemon.

Not that Pokemon was the first or the only successful monster-training game out there; the Shin Megami Tensei series has apparently always been popular in Japan, but most of it didn’t arrive over here due to censorship-type concerns – apparently people get offended if the Judeo-Christian God is obviously the true final boss of a game. Come to think of it, what changed that they brought SMT3 over here? The success of spinoffs like Persona?
Persona’s another game that fits under a broad definition of ‘monster-training’, but that series is odd in that a character’s Persona determines a portion of a human character’s statistics, so the monster is really just a piece of equipment that can level up. Then there’s Digital Devil Saga, which completely dodged the whole issue of monster-training by making them plain ordinary characters; part of the whole ‘monster-training’ mechanic is that you potentially have a very large pool of monsters unlocked – by capturing them, or by befriending them, or… whatever system the game uses to justify more becoming available – and tailor your selection in order to deal with the enemies you encounter. For instance, putting a lot of fire-element creatures in a hypothetical party if you’re about to go somewhere flammable that you don’t really care about.

But then there are games like Lost Kingdoms 1 and 2 on the Gamecube – your main character could temporarily summon all kinds of monsters to fight for her… which was kind of necessary due to the utter lack of a direct attack on her… but could only summon the ones in her hand, drawn randomly from a constructed deck.
But is this a monster-training game? The cards the monsters are contained in expire as they’re used – use some once, or a certain number of times, and they’ll run out. Likewise, monsters that are summoned and walk around for a time expire when their health – the ‘health’ of the card, displayed in the same way uses-left are, as the card gradually burning to ashes – falls to zero, and it drops every single moment they’re on the map. If you pick up any cards in an area, you can replace cards in your own
deck with them, even cards that are already expired due to use, but if
you run out of cards in an area, you’re still screwed, so there’s that
element of tactics; it results from a limited number of cards in the deck, a limited number of uses or length of use for each card, and only limited opportunities to refresh existing cards by either replacing them, or restoring them with another card – heavily limited in the second game since most players worked out how to have a five-card ‘infinite’ deck in the first game. Running out of cards tends to be an automatic fail on any area with a boss at the end, as you can’t do anything to enemies or bosses when that happens, and you tend to need certain cards to navigate certain areas, so… strategy, yeah. And that’s without factoring in how certain cards are better at beating certain enemies due to elemental weaknesses/strengths, the area the card effects, odd things like how fast the attack happens or whether it ignores defenses… or whether it’s one of the rare and expensive card that lets you capture enemies defeated with it…
Additionally, cards you use in battle gain experience, and with enough experience you can duplicate the cards, or turn them into more (or… less) powerful cards – essentially, breeding and evolving from the Pokemon games. But a single card does not gain strength with experience – a card cannot become more powerful as itself.
So, is this a form of ‘monster-training’ game?

Whatever you think, then what about Tecmo’s Deception/Kagero series of games? This has somewhat-similar mechanics; you have a hero or heroine who can’t physically attack by themselves, who needs to rely on something external to defend themselves from attackers. In this case, rather than monsters (…mostly), they rely on traps; things like boulders rolling down stairs, or trapdoors in the floor, or wall-fixtures that breathe fire. In most games, the player needs to trigger these themselves through a buttonpress, rather than have them automatically trigger on enemies; one or two of the four games in the series had the option to add something to the traps to add that functionality, but it was apparently rather limited through either availability, or other things you could add to the trap instead.
In these games, killing enemies through traps nets you currency; between levels, this can be used to buy new types of traps, like invisible boulders or wall-mounted lasers. Depending on the game, buying certain combinations of traps or combining certain items would produce new, otherwise-unobtainable traps.
Is this some kind of ‘monster-training’ type of game? There’s definitely strategy in there – you can only ever have three different traps active in a room, one on the floor, one on a wall, and one on the ceiling. Certain enemies are immune to certain traps or entire kinds of traps, and have different patterns of attacks, so some types of traps are going to be more or less effective at hitting them in the first place, or at dealing damage even when they connect. It doesn’t just rely on luck, as generally the same types of enemies have the same attack patterns, and the games tend to warn you ahead of time of immunities. That didn’t always make sense, but served to keep you from using the exact same combination of three traps through the entire game.
However, I don’t think individual traps ever gain in strength – once they’re made, they’re fixed at the same level of power and always will be that strong. You can make a more powerful otherwise-identical trap, and you can make a new kind of trap that, say, electrocutes the enemies in addition to picking them up, but the original cage isn’t going to do more damage, ever. You’re not ‘raising’ your traps, you’re always replacing them. They still exist when you switch to something similar but more powerful, unlike Lost Kingdoms and its cards – if you ‘evolve’ a card, the card you evolved changes into the new card, and isn’t available for use any more unless you buy another version of it. This series’ ‘pool of experience’ is essentially the currency you get from enemies ,and rather than being specific to anything, it’s used by everything. You can still focus on developing a certain type of trap over all others, if you want, but you’re a bit more screwed in this game if you spend everything on something that just won’t work on an enemy; in Lost Kingdoms, each specific card-type – like the Dark Raven, or the Hellhound – has a pool shared only with other instances of the card, and in most games, experience is specific to one instance only.
So despite having similar mechanics, I think the Lost Kingdoms games are monster-training games, and the Deception/Kagero/Trapt/whatever series isn’t; being able to improve a specific monster or creature after using it for a length of time is just as important as the collection aspect, or the strategic aspect.

I don’t think I’m playing Spectrobes any more. I’m just musing about
the nature of monster-training games. I’ve probably missed out key mechanics somewhere, and I’ve deliberately kept away from most of the traditional monster-training/raising/taming/whatever games, like Monster Rancher, the main Pokemon games,  Jade Cocoon 1 and 2, and the majority of the Digimon-themed games (Digimon World Championship (DS) is a nice… Tamagotchi), in the name of keeping this from growing to proper essay-size. It’s fairly large as-is, really, so I’m glad I didn’t go into more detail.
I’ll… write about Spectrobes in
a different post, I suppose, for neatness, since this turned into a talk about something else. I still have things to say about it.