A spectre is haunting the app store: the spectre of Pokemon Go clones. It was inevitable, due to the nature of the mobile game market, the explosive popularity of the original game, and the demand for a monster fix in countries that had to wait, or still are waiting, for an official release. Even before the current Pokemon Go zeitgeist, there was no shortage of slapdash Pokemon clones available for mobile devices, some using actual ripped assets from Nintendo’s own games.
At the risk of sounding like an old timey crank, things used to be different. Back in the early 2000s, we had blatant Pokemon clones as well, but they had PANACHE! They had to stand out and say “I’m here, and I’m obviously ripping off that thing you all like, but I still MATTER!” Obviously there were the Digimons, Dragon Quest Monsters and Monster Ranchers that spawned their own elaborate franchises, but plenty of others fell through the cracks, barely remembered unless you got one as a present from a well-meaning but confused relative who knew you liked that “pokaymon thing” and the Toys R Us employee told them these were just as good.
But sometimes you would get lucky. There is something to be said about artful variation on a theme. Like jazz or Shakespeare, the Pokemon template’s endless repetition can be transcendent or insufferable depending on who’s playing with it. During the past decades of trying to bite Pokemon’s steez, several games have come and gone that managed to create something fun, meaningful, or unique. These games did not manage to spawn successful, ongoing franchises, but they don’t deserve to be completely forgotten. In the right light, they provide a template for how aspiring monster-creators today can ape the big P without losing their individuality.
Released for the original Playstation, Jade Cocoon is certainly one of the best looking monster-catching games of its era. With character and world designs by Studio Ghibli alum Katsuya Kondo, its aesthetic has a certain maturity to it. The art caries a gravitas that is absent from the more stylized Pokemon.
The story has more weight to it as well, focusing on the relationship between the player and Mahbu, the young woman forced to marry them at the start of the game. While you train and command monsters, it is her power that makes the wild monsters of the forest, corrupted by the sins and fears of mankind, purified and usable by you. This process is physically painful, and slowly destroys her body over the course of the game. At the same time, while you are a celebrated hero of the village, she is an outcast and blamed for nearly everything. The scars she wears serve as an unfortunate reminder that the reason the village is in danger is that their own dark feelings and emotions have created these corrupted spirits, and the fact that she is literally taking everyone’s sins out of the world and into her body makes her a convenient scapegoat for the villagers’ fear of the encroaching forest.
This dichotomy between the player’s treatment as a hero and the hostility the world shows towards the player’s partner is handled well. As the game progresses, it starts raising questions about how the player has been thinking about their wife outside the game as well. It starts seeming obvious that, despite her demure Miyazaki-heroine-esque appearance and willingness to suffer so you can play with monsters, she may actually not be all that into you. You may just be another sacrifice she had to make to protect what she loves. It may even be that the player, in fact, is not the hero after all, but merely a supporting character in her own story. While the endgame never quite ends up as subversive as the earlier portions of the game let on, it still manages to tackle more interesting questions about morality in a world of monster-collecting than Team Plasma ever did.
Looney Tunes Collector Alert! And Martian’s Revenge
Whenever a new kind of game does extremely well, it’s only a matter of time before other licensed properties jump in. It’s actually surprising that we didn’t get MORE “monster-collecting” games revolving around popular cartoon franchises. It’s also VERY surprising that the one we did was not merely a Pokemon knockoff, but a ZELDA knockoff as well!
The two Looney Tunes Collector games see the player starting as either Bugs Bunny or Marvin the Martian, who wander through a top-down map, exploring dungeons and collecting famous Looney Tunes characters, some of which are then playable and are used like Link’s tools. Can’t reach the dungeon on the other side of that canyon? Once you collect Witch Hazel, you can fly there. Got a generic box puzzle to solve? You’ll need Foghorn Leghorn’s strength to shove them into place.
As a Gameboy Color game coming in the wake of the original Pokemon Red/Blue, there were of COURSE two versions of the game and a way to trade Looney Tunes characters between players. But the difference between the two games was not just cosmetic: they are entirely different stories and contain completely different maps.
Alert! is a pretty straightforward adventure, seeing Bugs collect his friends to help find the pieces of Marvin’s doomsday weapon and save the world. Martian’s Revenge is a more interesting story, where the player helps Marvin hypnotize the rest of the Looney Tunes cast in order to get revenge on Daffy Duck, whose new Duck Dodgers-esque movies are embarrassing the short-tempered Martian. The games end up incorporating a lot of obscure characters, from Owl Jolston to the adopted alien from Chuck Jones’ Rocket Bye Baby. Because of how few of the collectable cartoon characters are playable, it can feel a little tacked on, but a solid Looney Tunes-based Zelda game was still more interesting than yet another kart racer.
Another monster battler with Studio Ghibli at the art helm. Taito’s Magic Pengel for the Playstation 2 came up with an interesting solution to having to create enough monsters to compete with Pokemon’s ever-growing stable: get the player to do it. Using the powers of Pengel, a flying baby made of paintbrushes (or is it the other way around?), the player doodles monsters that come to life and let you battle the drawings of various townsfolk. The engine used to turn your drawings into animated 3D monsters is impressive, and your monsters’ abilities are determined by the colors, shapes and body parts you add. If you give your monster an open mouth, for example, it may know a scream attack.
The only problem is that the battle system is an utterly banal rock-paper-scissors affair. The sequel, Graffiti Kingdom, wisely dropped this in favor of a traditional 3D platformer, where the body parts you draw determine how your doodle can move through the world.
Monkey Puncher is not going to win any awards for being a deep or even particularly GOOD Pokemon knockoff, but there’s no question the game has a strange charm to it. Distilling the oft-repeated Pokemon formula to its essence, the Monkey Puncher world is one where a shadowy organization uses trained monkeys to commit crimes and corrupts the otherwise noble sport of monkey boxing. Only a young preteen with their own monkey can hope to overcome organized crime by competing in the monkey tournaments with honor.
It’s ridiculous, but there’s no doubt that the game knows this. It’s played just straight enough to heighten the humor, and this humor is what encourages you to keep playing even after the game’s simplicity wears thin. You train your monkey by performing the exercises you want it to do yourself, and hoping the monkey is smart enough to learn from your example. Monkey see, monkey do, after all. You can also connect to another players’ game and set your monkey up on a date, hopefully leading to a night of wild monkey passion and a new baby monkey for you to train.
Chocovaders was a Gameboy Advance monster-catcher from 2002 that never made it out of Japan, but it’s probably the single property I want to see replicate the Pokemon Go formula the most. The monsters all come from a “toy in a chocolate egg” series, making it a Pokemon clone based on a Kinder Surprise clone, but the theme of those monsters is what makes the game stand out. The collectable monsters are all aliens from real urban legends, alien abduction stories, UFO sightings and paranormal activity. All your favorites from that one UFO book you got at that garage sale as a kid are here! Mothman! The Flatwoods Monster! The Hopkinsville Goblin! The Space Brains of Palos Verde! The Robert Taylor Incident! All that and even more obscure “real” oddities are accounted for.
Imagine how well that would translate to Pokemon Go’s AR format! Head down to the beach and catch Montauk monsters, or point your phone at the TV to reveal those politicians really ARE shapeshifting reptiles (that you can capture and battle!). Each “Chocostop” could be an actual site of a famous or obscure paranormal sighting, with specific aliens and ghosts to unlock. Visiting the UK? Stop by the Spade House, one-time home of H.G. Wells, and catch yourself a War of the Worlds-esque tripod. Got family in the Pacific Northwest? Everyone will love the cartoony augmented reality Bigfoot you catch at their wedding! Oh, you caught another five pidgeys walking around the park today? That’s great. I drove to Loveland, Ohio and caught a giant frog-man that whispers dark secrets of power and blood.
At the intersection of 90s nostalgia, monster-collecting and geocaching is a game that will make some X-Files-loving developer a lot of money.