First off, I'll level with you. I've played games since before my second birthday (T&C Surf Design on the NES FTW!), and being a well-adjusted middle child, often found more hours than I should have playing video games. I am a gamer, and I love the stimulation. I love the sense of reward video games can provide, and I love games with fantastic gameplay. I never played Monster Hunter before Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate came out on the Wii U. I had heard of just how wildly popular it was in Japan, and knew that it had a hard time catching on in the West for some reason, but I was a bit determined to figure out just why this game deserved the praise it did. After spending over 430 hours on the game, I think I can provide a pretty good answer for why this game can be so popular and addicting.
Monster Hunter teaches you how to be a better gamer.
For those of you who have tried the demo or seen the game and weren't interested, you may be scratching your heads here wondering what I mean. After all, the game itself is VERY inaccessible to newcomers, and the in-game tutorials are often buried in text boxes and not very clearly explained.
"If'n a Thunder Element attack hits ya, ya may get zapped. That's Thunderblight! Attacks are a lot more likely to stun you while you're in that condition, so keep a close eye on yer Thunder Res!"
A case in point, the blacksmith in Moga Village will spout something like the above quote, and to a newcomer (which I was 430+ hours before) this gives you pretty much zero instruction on how to do it! These are useful bits of information though, seeded throughout the game from the very beginning. The first time you're expected to hunt a Lightning based monster, the Lagiacrus, you should be at least 10-15 hours in if you're new!
The Lagiacrus, the first major "boss" of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate
OK, so a tip like that is more of a fact, not really TEACHING anything right? Absolutely! This is the equivalent of looking up secret locations in a guide, but it does serve a very important function. One of teaching the players where they can go to get tips or hints. Talk to the villagers enough, and you can eventually uncover a lot of explanations of game mechanics. This sets you up to start working on your Problem Solving Skills. Good video games are really intricately portrayed problems, and problem-solving is a very self-rewarding activity, even if the problem you're solving doesn't have real world implications. The act of solving a problem always involves a few major steps, all of which are present in Monster Hunter in a big way.
(You can get more information on problem solving here or Google, but I will summarize the 4 approaches I like best)
4 major problem solving methods include:
Algorithms: following a step-by-step process to get from point A (haven't killed that monster yet...) to point B (YAY! I killed it!). There are several ways to kill a monster, but not all of them are going to be the most efficient use of time, but an algorithm for killing a monster could be summed up by a statement like, "Shoot X monster Y amount of times in the Z, using AA ammo type and BB bowgun" (teehee, a BB bowgun would prolly be pretty weaksauce)
Heuristics: Using a rule of thumb to simplify your problem. One quick example you could use from in-game, monsters that burrow underground are often vulnerable to sonic bombs. There are exceptions, of course, but often a well timed sonic bomb means a chance at easy free damage, which solves that monster being alive problem a bit quicker for a few pesky burrowers!
Trial-and-Error: Seems to be the bread and butter of most video games. Tutorials that tell you which buttons do what only get you so far, and most people want to just get to the point of the game. If you don't have the patience to wade through tutorials, you're likely to just start trying things to see what works well. A perfect example of this would be fighting a monster twice, once with a weapon that had the Monster's elemental weakness (let's say you figured that part out before hand in order to narrow down your possible options), and once with a weapon that had better raw damage. Assuming both fights you were roughly consistent in timing with how often you attacked, you could get a feel for which weapon was ultimately more effective based on how long it took you to clear the run.
Insight: This problem solving method usually involves non-obvious solutions that you are thinking of subconsciously. You may have had experience with a similar problem before, and you may try a few approaches unsuccessfully, only to have the correct answer appear. These can be tricky to come across in Monster Hunter, but I do have one perfect example that I discovered around hour marker 120, but I'll leave it out of this article for the sake of time. Sometimes these solutions are more easily found in online resources or from someone who has already figured it out, but experiencing them is always a delight.
Ok, so we talked about problem solving, but not really how Monster Hunter MAKES YOU A BETTER GAMER! (Which, at this point, finding that out is probably the sole reason you're still reading, and here I am using an unnecessary parenthetical aside)
It helps to look at Monster Hunter from a Game Theory perspective. I'm not talking about "Game Theories" like the YouTube show that discusses how Final Fantasy is actually anti religion (although I find that video quite enjoyable, along with the rest of them). I'm talking about the "study of strategic decision making" (Thanks Wikipedia for the convenient definition!). Monster Hunter is rife with decisions, and while your choices don't necessarily affect your final outcome, the method of reaching that outcome will be different. What is interesting about Monster Hunter is that every weapon type represents essentially a different game. The moment you decide to take that long sword in to fight that Barroth, you are setting out to accomplish a Clearly Defined Problem... or so you think...
This is a good point to make special mention of that term "Clearly Defined Problem." You see, opposed to a "Clearly Defined Problem," there is also the "Ill Defined Problem." This is one of those points where Monster Hunter kind of runs into a wall for most people. Ill defined problems can be frustrating and difficult to solve, and are often addressed by the oversimplified "how to complete this quest." Interestingly enough, Ill Defined Problems are often composed of several sub-problems that can be clearly defined. I'll list a slew of well defined sub-problems here and layout the structure of the game a bit, which may help you see some patterns. First though, here is one of the most common Ill Defined Problems in Monster Hunter: Hunt X Monster, Don't faint 3 times.
The sub-problems involved can be clearly defined thusly:
Don't faint (lose all HP): How to solve: Keep HP high with HP restoration items, like Mega Potions or Lifepowder. Brought a full stack of every healing item under the sun? Problem solved! (maybe...)
Keep your weapon in workable condition: How to Solve: Bring plenty of Whetstones for Blademaster builds, or plenty of ammo if you're using a Bowgun.
Survive the environment (I'll include stamina loss in this): How to solve: Bring Hot Drinks (for cold climates) to prevent stamina loss every 2 minutes, bring Cold Drinks (for hot climates) to prevent your health from constantly dropping, and bring something to replenish the natural loss of stamina over time (Well-done Steaks or a healthy supply of Dash Juice, if you're feeling spendy and got the materials). That problem was a mouthful...
Fighting in the Tundra means coming prepared to slay beasts like the Lagombi in a timely and well-prepared fashion
Find the Monster: How to solve: Search likely monster spawn points (trial and error), or get the Felyne Oracle food buff (tells you where they are at the start of the quest), or get the Autotracker skill (automatically displays their location on the mini-map). If you don't have Autotracker, make sure you bring Paintballs to mark them and see where they go if they fly or burrow away!
Kill the Monsters: How to Solve: Attack them with your weapon (duh?) and avoid letting them take away all of your HP with their attacks.
That last one is a bit oversimplified, and is arguably another Ill Defined Problem, but if you're willing to accept a little complexity, even it too could be broken down into more clearly defined sub-problems like this!
Monster initiates animation A: Make a Decision, Attack, Run, Use Item, Block (for weapons capable of blocking), Evade (often roll, or running dive), sheathe weapon.
Sheathing can feel like it takes forever with some weapons, most notoriously the Switch Axe. Sheathing animation at 6:12
"But... but... those are more Ill Defined Problems!" Sort of! (except the Sheathe Weapon option, which is a pretty cut and dry "Push Y" solution). Well, for anyone who has played around with more than one weapon in their Monster Hunting time (I've played with ALL of them enough to feel pretty proficient), you may see where I am going with this. Every weapon is different (duh?) and each has their own respective traits (double duh?). The most obvious is their base stats like raw damage, elemental/status effects, sharpness levels, usable ammo types, and Affinity (who decided Affinity was a good word for essentially "critical chance?"). The less obvious traits involve their handling, reach, sheathing time, and overall speed/responsiveness.
If you are a human being playing this game, you will do what humans do naturally, and that is, start to recognize patterns. When you see a key tell from a monster, you will hopefully come to learn what that means for you. After experiencing an attack enough times, you should start to recognize when to consider each of your decisions. Are you out of harm's way? Is this an opening to attack? Should you take a running dive? Is now REALLY the best time to pull out a full steak and eat it? WHY WAS MY BBQ PIT EVEN SELECTED I DON'T EVEN KNOW!
You will also come to recognize how each of the weapons handle and what the controls do. These attack patterns/combos are also a critical piece of the puzzle to recognize and utilize when trying to piece together how you will solve your monster killing problems.
As you experience this game, you are given the opportunity to practice those problem solving skills in meaningful ways. The first time I played online with my friend, we fought a Barroth for 40 minutes and ended up failing. We felt like crap, and I'm almost certain my friend was regretting downloading the game at that point, but we stuck with it. This is the part where I say we started thinking about it like rational people and used some solid algorithms to accomplish our first mission of slaying a Low Rank Barroth. And this is the part where I tell you that last sentence was a lie. We were pretty much full-blown "trial and error"ing it. Along the way we picked up a few oversimplified Heuristic methods along the lines of "Monster is doing something I don't recognize, our action should be to play it safe and wait and see what happens."
Whatever that Baleful Gigginox is doing CAN'T be good for its back...
This approach was still very basic and time consuming due to our excessive caution, but hey! It worked! We started learning what the individual tells were of each of the monsters. We noticed things like, when a large wyvern spins and does a tail whip, he always does it in pairs, doing a full 360 comprised of two tail swipe animations. Knowing this, and depending on how tall the monster was, we could use that opportunity to make an informed decision to stop and use a healing item (which takes a deliberately long time to do by DESIGN), or to get in some free swings at the monster's knees (like vicious lawn gnomes!).
The end result was that we were succeeding in our missions a lot more often than we were failing. We started to learn how to anticipate the environmental conditions, and based upon hours and hours of fighting some of the same monsters over and over, we learned all the intricacies of their attack patterns, learned what weapons suited our play styles best for each scenario, and learned how to apply all of the major problem solving skills to our situation without really realizing it. You see, Monster Hunter is a brutal game (much like Dark Souls I am told, but as of this writing it is sitting in my Steam Library waiting for me to get around to it), but it is brutal by DESIGN (I feel like I just highlighted that word...). One of the ways to combat that brutality though is through proper planning and preparation, which fits nicely into that equation of how you will solve your problems.
Seems like a pretty legitimate problem...
One of the major hurdles/complaints I have heard from people who gave up on Monster Hunter is that key design decisions ended up being huge stumbling blocks. "You have to sheathe your weapon to carve up a monster you just killed? Really?" "Why does it take so long to get out of the way after a swing?" "You can't change the direction of your attack mid combo?" (mostly true, with a few minor exceptions). Those are real problems people cited for why they quit, as explained to me by them. Some of you may be agreeing with them right now, but for those of you who are already in a state of Monster Hunter Zen, you are probably thinking just how petty those complaints seem.
That isn't to say you can't dislike the game's mechanics and controls. You are certainly welcome to hate Monster Hunter in preference for your FPS that you control like Robocop (I also play a pretty mean Robocop, so look out!), but for those who have learned to master Monster Hunter in all its glory, those attack animations are not in the way, they are your deliberate decisions. Decisions that, when made appropriately and in a timely manner, result in successful gain.
Monster hunter is a game that makes you think. It makes you prepare. And above all else, makes you WORK to actually progress through the quests. There is no changing the difficulty. There is no silver bullet set of gear or weapon. There is just you and the monster.
"Well hey there hunter. You hang out in area 9 often?"
Learning to succeed and solve problems in Monster Hunter has directly affected my approach to every other game I play. I am finding that many other action games seem almost TOO forgiving. That isn't to say they aren't still fun (sometimes if feels great to be an invincible badass), but I definitely approach old and unfamiliar games differently than I used to, and the end result? I feel like the games are being seen through a completely different set of eyes. Sometimes that directly translates into simply playing the game better/more perfectly, and other times that means I can more easily recognize key design decisions (which in turn usually helps me play it better... REDUNDANCY!!!).
By playing Monster Hunter so much, I have been practicing problem solving skills, the same problem solving skills that are required to grasp and play pretty much any game. While the mechanics and presentation of games can vary greatly and require different kinds of hand-eye coordination, the underlying problem solving and decision making is largely the same, and by virtue of sharpening your problem solving skills one way, you are enhancing your ability to use them in another.
Simply put though, Monster Hunter made me better at every other game.