Whenever a new Monster Hunter is released, the first thing fans want to know is which monsters have made the cut. Monster Hunter’s bestiary has a life of its own, with each creature bringing its own unique history. A glance over the Monster Hunter Rise roster reveals familiar faces like the Tobi-Kadachi, an electric-squirrel creature that previously appeared in Monster Hunter: World, and the Khezu, a beast resembling a lamprey eel (shudder) that made its debut way back in the original game.
They’re joined by the familiar Rathalos, the franchise’s de facto mascot (a creature famous enough that it makes an appearance in Super Smash Bros., though sadly not as a playable character). It may only be a dragon, but it’s a big dragon — with poison talons and a big clubbed tail. It can also breathe fire, and when it does, it’s terrifying. Monster Hunter is fun to play on its own, but it’s managed to thrive for nearly two decades now in large part because its titular beasts are so huge, so scary, and so memorable.
With its large and growing fanbase and expansive menagerie, it’s fair to wonder whether Monster Hunter has the very best bestiary in gaming right now. Certainly, it has some tough competition. Many games throughout the years have thrived on the strength of their excellent monster design, a tradition going back to Dungeons & Dragons (and before that, The Lord of the Rings). Interesting monsters can garner fanbases of their own. In some cases they overtake the heroes meant to slay them. I’m guessing only a few American gamers will recognize Dragon Quest’s Erdrick, but that many more will be able to identify his nemesis, the Slime.
So which game has the best bestiary? It’s obviously subjective, but outside of Monster Hunter, these five RPGs have a solid argument.
Defining Trait: Cheerful monsters who want to kill and eat you
Iconic Monster: Slime
Dragon Quest has the most influential bestiary this side of Dungeons & Dragons. It has inspired many RPGs throughout the years, including a few on this list. The Dragon Quest menagerie set the tone for JRPGs, spawning dozens of imitators in turn.
Its success goes hand-in-hand with the rise of Dragon Ball, and not just because they’re both illustrated by Akira Toriyama. It wound up becoming a sensation in part because it looked and felt like an interactive Shonen Jump manga, and was heavily promoted within those pages. Alas, Western promotional art stripped away much of Dragon Quest’s inherent charm, reducing it to more of a generic fantasy adventure in the vein of D&D.
More recent Western releases have leaned into the look and feel of the series. Though Toriyama’s art is still considered something of an acquired taste. One reason, perhaps, is that Final Fantasy has always been more popular on these shores than Dragon Quest. In Japan though, the Slime is the very embodiment of nostalgia for a generation of gamers, even if some of them look like Halloween decorations out of your local Party City. One way or another, Dragon Quest’s warm storybook world still resonates today, and its monsters are a big reason why.
Shin Megami Tensei
Defining Trait: Creatures from real-world mythology who mostly exist to make fun of you
Iconic Monster: Jack Frost
If Dragon Quest is defined by light humor, then Shin Megami Tensei is the polar opposite. The series is actually based on a trilogy of novels released in Japan during the mid-80s. In them, a gifted programmer uses computers to summon mythological figures such as Loki and Cerberus — unleashing hell on Tokyo in the process. This apocalyptic feeling followed the series onto the Famicom, and has been a core part of the games ever since.
Most Shin Megami Tensei monsters are either sexy, horrifying, or both. And like in The Witcher 3, almost all of them have some basis in real-life mythology. That hasn’t kept the series from occasionally indulging its inner Dragon Quest, of course. One of its most recognizable characters is also its cutest: a snow spirit named Jack Frost that has become one of developer Atlus’ main mascots.
Its appeal is enhanced by a first-class localization, giving every monster a distinct personality that accentuates either its charm or its horror. Jack Frost has its trademark “hee-ho,” while other monsters flirt, intimidate, and boast in turn. New monsters can be created by merging old ones — a deeply satisfying process that lends considerable depth to its systems — or by recruiting them from a dungeon. Successful hinges on negotiation flattery, bribery, or outright threats. Out of all the games on this list, SMT might be the flexible, able to go from hardcore dungeon crawler (Strange Journey) to dating sim (Persona) to a Pokemon-like monster hunting sim for kids (Devil Children). And like the next game on this list, it owes much of its success to its ability to take real-life concepts and make them its own.
The Witcher 3
Defining Trait: Making you very uncomfortable
Iconic Monster: Botchling
The Witcher is like Shin Megami Tensei in that it pulls heavily from real-world legends. But where SMT is a grab bag of classical and Japanese mythology, The Witcher focuses more on Eastern Europe, with creatures like the famous Striga being lifted from the legends of Poland and Romania (though Basilisks and Cockatrices also feature heavily). They run the gamut from pretty conventional to outright horrifying, with some like the Witches of Crookback Bog riffing heavily on famous fairy tales like Baba Yaga.
What really sets The Witcher apart though is what one might call the “Alien Effect,” or its ability to tap into deep-seated fears surrounding human sexuality and reproduction. One of its most iconic monsters is the Botchling: a monstrous fetus created from a stillborn baby that is improperly buried, which preys on pregnant women. You eventually need to kill a Botchling in The Witcher 3. Let me tell you, it’s every bit as gross as you think.
In The Witcher every monster has its own story to tell. Most of them are very tragic, and they usually require a good degree of preparation to actually kill. First you have to figure out what the monster might be, then you have to mix the right potions, then you have to actually execute. Every hunt is its own story. The Witcher isn’t quite defined by its monsters like Dragon Quest or Monster Hunter, but they are nevertheless a big part of the tapestry that makes it one of the best RPGs of the past generation.
Defining Trait: Sitting next to plush Slimes and other Square Enix merch
Iconic Monster: Chocobo
Final Fantasy got its start by lifting basically the entire Dungeons & Dragons bestiary. Puddings, Mindflayers, and Rakshashas? They’re all right there in the original game, many of them with identical names and designs to their D&D counterparts. With Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy borrowing so much from Wizardry and Ultima, it only made sense they would also look to D&D for inspiration. Final Fantasy just happened to be more inspired than most.
Subsequent entries featured creatures bearing a greater resemblance to the cute monsters of its rival Dragon Quest, with Tonberries and Cactuars appearing more cute than fearsome. This distinctive mix would go on to inform the general personality of Final Fantasy. To this day, if Square Enix wants to throw a dash of Final Fantasy into an otherwise generic sci-fi world, it’ll drop a Moogle. It works every time.
Granted, it’s not as reliant on its bestiary as Dragon Quest. Yes, Ifrit, Bahamut, and the Behemoth are all recognizable creatures — the Behemoth specifically even represented Final Fantasy in Monster Hunter: World not too long ago — but when fans think of Final Fantasy, they’re more apt to conjure Sephiroth or Kefka. That doesn’t stop Square Enix from selling a hell of a lot of stuffed Chocobos and Moogles out of its online store, though. Heroes like Cloud, Squall, and Zidane come and go, but merchandising is forever.
Defining Trait: The ability to make a literal bag of garbage cute and extremely marketable
Iconic Monster: Pikachu
Pokemon’s formula is pretty simple. Each generation will lull you into a false sense of security with creatures based on familiar concepts — Oh hey, it’s a cat! — to convince you that you’re on familiar terrain. Then bang, you’re fighting a literal garbage heap. Or a sentient ice cream cone. Or a very buff insect called “Buzzwole.” It’s a tradition that stretches back to the original Pokemon Red and Blue, where rats and birds mingled with bizarre-o creatures like Mr. Mime. It’s one that has worked very well for Pokemon.
As much as we goof on Pokemon’s weirdest elements, it’s the oddities like Garbodor that give Pokemon its personality. It’s why other games have failed so miserably at replicating its success over the years. What other developer can make an actual bag of garbage sort of cute? These creatures have settled into the bedrock of our culture, with each successive generation discovering their own, new favorites. Now that Pokemon Diamond and Pearl are getting remakes, you can be sure that Lucario and everyone’s favorite street shark, Garchomp, will return to the spotlight once again, beginning the cycle with a new group of kids.
Pokemon is the marketing star that will never go out, and its bestiary is the fuel that keeps it burning. In that it will never be topped.