2021 marks the 25th anniversary of Pokémon, one of the most recognizable brands in the entire world. From video games, to anime, to trading cards, and plenty of other various merchandise, Pokémon’s popularity has gone through ups and downs for over two decades — its heyday being back in the late 90s and early aughts. While there have been plenty of shameless imitators, there have also been a hefty amount of games that put their own spin on a Pokémon-like formula. This subgenre has commonly been known to fans as monster collecting games, monster taming games, monster-catching games, or simply, the more all-encompassing term, mongames, due to the fact that while you are usually raising monsters in some capacity, you aren’t always collecting or even necessarily taming them. In most mongames, even modern Pokémon, collecting all of the monsters is an additional option rather than the goal, and Pokémon hasn’t used its “Gotta Catch’em All” slogan in years

Unfortunately, many have written off these types of games as “Pokémon ripoffs” or “Pokémon clones,” an issue that for some reason is still somewhat prevalent today. Over the years, some have even suggested certain mongames could be potential “Pokémon Killers” due to their quality and relative popularity when revealed and first released. This continues to happen every so often despite the fact it doesn’t seem to occur as frequently with other genres such as roguelites, soulslikes, metroidvanias, and so on. So why does this seem to happen with mongames more often? I’m here to argue why it shouldn’t and, as you might be able to tell from the title of this article, suggest why we need to stop using those terms.

Even Pokemon Wasn’t the First and Has Its Own Inspirations

To start, we have to go back to the beginning, to an era before the Red and Green versions of Pokémon were released in Japan. As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, Pokémon was not the first RPG to feature monster recruitment as a mechanic, just the first to achieve international popularity. While Pokémon had been in development since at least 1990, three years earlier, Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei released for the Famicom in Japan and may have even technically been the very first mongame, but unfortunately never received an international release. In 1992, four years before the first Pokémon games were released, both Dragon Quest V and Shin Megami Tensei released for the Super Famicom in Japan. Unlike Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, Dragon Quest V didn’t receive an international release until 2008 with its Nintendo DS remake, and Shin Megami Tensei never saw a release outside of Japan (although the Super Famicom version did receive an English fan translation in 2002). Of course, once Pokémon had gained its worldwide popularity, both series released their more Pokémon-like spinoffs with Dragon Quest Monsters and Demi Kids, building on systems they had previously created and seeing if they could imitate Pokémon’s success. They are also featured on Nintendo handhelds like many other mongames to this day. Interestingly enough, early concept art for Pokémon seems to have some Dragon Quest influence in its style as well. There was even a Super Nintendo game known as Robotrek (Slapstick in Japan) released in 1994 that featured one-on-one robot battles very similar to those featured in the Pocket Monsters franchise [Editor’s note: Pokémon is short for Pocket Monsters]. Of course, Robotrek never sold many copies and the concept for Pokémon was likely not inspired by it, but it just goes to show that similar concepts aren’t always a riff on each other, and not everything is an Antz vs A Bug’s Life situation

Now some fans, such as popular anime YouTuber Mother’s Basement, would argue that Dragon Quest V and Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga don’t truly belong in the “Mongame” genre, due to the fact that you have human party members that you equip and level up, and the recruiting mechanics are just additions to the more standard JRPG gameplay formula. But I disagree, especially given that more recent mongame titles such as Ni no Kuni and Yo-Kai Watch 4 have similar aspects with human player characters fighting alongside their monsters. The former even has human members and monsters sharing the same health bar. If recruiting monsters is a key gameplay element, it’s definitely a mongame, and if not truly a mongame, it’s at least mongame adjacent. Of course, it doesn’t count if it’s an optional minigame, such as the insectron stadium in Rogue Galaxy, but minigames like that are still clearly mongame inspired.

Pokémon has both early inspirations based on and continues to be inspired by kaiju movies and tv shows. But we don’t say Pokémon is ripping off Godzilla because of designs like Nidoking and Tyranitar, or a ripoff of Ultraseven because monsters pop out of capsule-like devices. Granted, we also don’t say that because these series are much more popular in Japan than they are in the West, but the point I’m trying to make here is: just because one thing is inspired by something else doesn’t instantly make it a “clone” or “ripoff,” there’s a big difference between an homage and a shameless knock off. Getting back to the mongame subgenre itself, why are terms like “ripoff”, “clone”, and “killer” still so prevalent in the mongame subgenre but not used in relation to other genres as often anymore? We don’t call every indie roguelite that releases a “clone” of something, and even more recently we’ve seen the term “Breath of the Wild Clone” or “Breath of the (insert series name or game element here)” thrown around quite a bit. To some, even the recently announced Pokémon Legends Arceus is seen as a Breath of the Wild clone, despite the fact that we haven’t seen the gameplay in all that much detail yet. It’s clear that Breath of the Wild was innovative enough for a handful of successive games to take some inspiration from it, but just because some elements are similar, that doesn’t mean these games should be called “clones.” Uppercutcrit writer Jess Howard had this to say on the matter when reacting to this specific discourse, “People need to stop saying “clone” when they’re trying to say two things share similarities. Comparing how two things are alike is helpful, immediately calling something a cheap imitation is dismissive, degrading, and to be honest, lazy. Last year I wrote we’re gonna see A LOT of games going the Breath of the Wild route because that’s how innovation works (Referring to her articles on Genshin Impact and Immortals Fenyx Rising for Paste Magazine). We can’t do this every single time. That sounds so tiring.”

This seems to be especially true with how video games and genres have evolved over the several decades since their inception. When a video game does things that are seen as new and innovative, other developers are bound to use and build on that innovation to help improve their own game. That doesn’t necessarily make those games shameless “clones” or “ripoffs,” but rather makes these developers less afraid to show their inspirations on their sleeves.

Another example would be how games like Bloodborne and Dark Souls innovated on the action RPG genre, and fans were pretty quick to come up with the term “Soulslike”, rather than calling every game with similar mechanics a “clone” or “ripoff.” I also doubt anybody thought these Dark Souls-inspired games would be Dark Souls or From Software “killers.” If we can stop using negative terms for a genre a decade or so younger than mongames, we can stop using them for mongames as well, and hopefully gain more respect for the subgenre overall.

(Monzukan Concept by Rachel Briggs, Art by DigitalClaws)

The Mongame Community and Media Agree It’s Time to Stop

To help support my argument, I asked a handful of people in the industry, including media, developers, and people from the larger mongame community, about their views on the topic. Many agreed these terms should not continue to be used, since we don’t do that for other genres these days (for the most part).

Pixel artist TahK0, the one who initially helped inspire this article, had this to say: “I guess one of the main issues with seeing everything as a “Pokémon killer” is that, consciously or subconsciously, it gives you a sort of tunnel vision where you spend your time directly comparing the game to Pokémon. Instead of seeing what’s unique about a game and why that might be good, you see it as “well Pokémon didn’t do it this way. Instead of seeing how a monster collecting game might be going for something completely different, people see that as not doing the correct thing because it’s not a direct improvement in order to beat Pokémon at what it’s doing. If the completely unique aspects of the games that don’t relate to Pokémon are never brought up, everything just seems like a Pokémon clone (and is usually treated as lesser because of that).” 

Monster Artist Rachel Briggs said something similar, and also added, “Pokémon Clone/Ripoff is usually used in a derogatory context, it doesn’t carry the same neutral connotation as other common genre terms like Doom clone, Roguelike, Metroidvania, etc. but rather implies that a game is lesser because it’s “trying to be Pokémon and failing”, or comes across as a “soulless cash grab attempt” and so on. “Mongame” is a lot more descriptive in that it describes a game populated by monsters that the player will recruit in some fashion, and it covers a much wider variety of series.

Because Pokémon is so huge, it feels like it has a mon-opoly on the genre, but really people should be looking at other mongame series entries as just more options for fun. The idea that all of these other games are “ripoffs” really does them a disservice, if someone is looking for something that’s literally Pokémon they can always just play Pokémon, but if they want something a bit different that still lets them collect a bunch of monster friends there are tons of choices out there that deserve a good look.

It also really doesn’t help when a new mongame entry is announced and people immediately start questioning if it’s the next “Pokémon Killer.” Nothing is going to “kill” Pokémon and expecting such a thing only sets new series up to fail. We saw this a lot with Yo-kai Watch in the west, for example. I mean it’s ok to point out when games take some inspiration from Pokémon, but a lot of times it feels like the discussion just ends there, like it never fails now that there will be a “are you worried you’ll be sued by GameFreak?” question posed to indie mongame devs no matter what their work is actually like. I also see a lot of, “does this game have gyms? does this game have an Elite Four?” when these are Pokémon-specific tropes! It feels like someone playing a Mega Man game for the first time and asking what the Super Mushroom equivalent is just because it’s also a platformer.”

People very much do need to be more open-minded with the larger mongame genre. Often the complaints I see about Pokémon are either “it’s the same game every time” or “it’s just not the same as it used to be.” Even after The Pokémon Company announces the first remakes to use a top-down style since 2004’s FireRed and LeafGreen alongside a brand new open-world Sinnoh region game that should satisfy individuals with either of these types of complaints, it’s still not enough. Some of these people understandably look to other mongames, while others still have the “it’s just not the same” type of mindset and are less open to the wider subgenre outside of Pokémon.

Similarly, on the media side, regarding how Pokémon has become such a powerhouse and cannot just simply be “killed,” Former GameSpot Reviews Editor and lifelong Pokémon Fan Kallie Plagge had this to say: “Pokémon has been a cultural phenomenon for over 20 years. It has long transcended being a series of games to the point where I’m sure there are plenty of people who don’t realize there are any games besides Pokémon Go. That alone puts Pokémon in its own category, because the appeal goes beyond the content of the games themselves — even outside of the anime and TCG, there’s the nostalgia, the merchandise, the social aspect, the collective experience many of us have had with Pokémon. You can’t “kill” that. But also, if we’re talking about the games alone, we have to remember that Pokémon is not a genre of game; it is a series of monster-collecting games. Calling anything a “Pokémon killer” presupposes that the monster-collecting genre doesn’t exist.”

She continues by saying: “For these so-called “Pokémon-killers” specifically, I think those terms (note: clone and ripoff) are often thrown around when the only similarity is that the game in question is a monster-collector. Not all monster-collecting games are even trying to compete with Pokémon — in the same way that Halo is not a direct competitor to Call of Duty, despite the two series sharing a genre. We have to understand that there’s a lot of nuance within game genres. Pokémon has been the dominant monster-collecting game for decades, but that doesn’t mean that no one can experiment with and iterate on the genre.”

Axe of the Blood God host and former US Gamer writer Nadia Oxford is of a similar opinion and also looked into the past when there weren’t yet proper terms for other genres, “I’m in the “stop calling things ‘killers’” category for sure. Nothing good comes from the title. For starters, nothing is going to “kill” Pokémon, period. It’s dumb to even suggest it unironically. More importantly, calling something a “[Game] killer” really diminishes the work a developer puts into making their game a unique title that stands out on its own merits. I remember when Dark Cloud was a “Zelda killer.” Of course it wasn’t. It was never meant to be anything but its own game with its own ideas. ““Clone” made sense when we didn’t have a term for FPS in the ‘90s, i.e. “Doom clone.” Games have come far enough that we have subgenre names now”

Others, such as O’Dell Harmon of the Full Circle podcast, feel that the alleged controversy of Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield and their lack of a proper national dex may be partly to blame for still seeing these terms pop up more frequently in the past few years,  “I feel that was a direct result of bring back national dex. Thanks to a vocally, and mostly toxic, minority in the Pokémon community. Temtem got a lot of buzz for right and wrong reasons. If Tem Tem was announced and released years prior I feel the conversation would have been 100% different, but due to some fans there must be either a game that’s a Pokémon killer/competitor, but the truth is Pokémon is so uniquely an ecosystem beyond games, that it’s just on an island all its own. So I feel mongames have always coexisted alongside Pokémon, but Pokémon is almost its own genre that’s RPG/mon game/action-adventure and more. So ultimateIy, I feel people should stop, but also never really did to begin with until recently due to unnecessary drama.”  Of course, while use of the terms “clone”, “ripoff”, and “killer” may have increased more recently due to the controversy, these terms have still been used here and there for over two decades since Pokémon’s heyday.

Monster Tamer YouTuber Gym Leader Ed is yet another individual who agrees these negative terms hurt more than help by highlighting similarities rather than differences, saying: “The biggest issue I have with the callous assertion that all monster taming games are “clones, or ripoffs” is that it lacks any sort of nuance for the individual games’ features and is ignorant in nature. Games like Kindred Fates, Siralim, and Skyclimbers just happen to have monsters that can be tamed and battled with, which is not something unique to Pokémon to begin with” and also added, “Calling something a clone or ripoff is hostile by nature and discredits the hard work of developers, and hurts the genre as a whole. We see words like soulslike, and roguelike pop up which are a  far more acceptable way to point to an inspiration than calling something a souls clone or rogue ripoff, and monster taming games deserve the same level of respect. I’m not sure if the constant hostility towards the genre is due to an insecurity with the latest Pokémon titles, or due to some IPs being stolen in the past (Writer’s note: this refers to the very obvious Pokémon knock offs one may have seen in mobile storefronts or social media ads in the past) but it needs to stop.”

Developers Agree These Terms Are Not Helpful

So we’ve heard what a lot of Pokémon and mongame fans have had to say so far, but when discussing this subgenre and these terms, we have to remember that the developers of these types of games can feel the impact whether it be good or bad. Satto, the developer behind Disc Creatures, says these terms can be taken as a compliment, but can also be seen as people saying their games lack originality despite their differences from their inspirations: As a developer, I really appreciate it when people say that. Even in Japan, monster collecting games are often referred to as fake Pokémon. Probably, all the authors of Mongames love Pokémon and are making games because they admire Pokémon. So I don’t think any author wants to be a “Pokémon Killer”. However, it may be a challenge for us authors to think more about differentiating ourselves from Pokémon. I love the original Pokémon, so I created a game with that in mind. But I think I need more originality in my next work. I will work harder to create works that are not called Pokémon “clones””  

To provide some extra context, Disc Creatures is a retro-style indie mongame that features three on three battles, making it more similar to Dragon Quest Monsters rather than Pokémon, and has plenty of unique features including but not limited to: picking a whole starter team, choosing three out of five monsters rather than one out of three, an energy meter that is reduced when using attacks and needs to be charged every so often, and a fusion system, among other things.

Perplamps, one of the developers behind lifesim mongame hybrid Ooblets, had this to say, “…we were inspired by a variety of monster collecting games when we started Ooblets. I think we probably took more early inspiration from Yo-Kai Watch than Pokémon. It’s not helpful to position any game as a “killer” of any other game. There’s plenty of room for all sorts of games and instead of thinking of things as zero-sum, we should be appreciative of how each game contributes new ideas and creativity. Most indie developers just want to make their games and be able to support themselves doing so, and the concept of competition between developers is an unwanted external pressure.” 

This statement also provides some extra support for my earlier point, not every mongame is directly inspired by Pokémon despite how reminiscent they are of the series or how much some players would like them to be. These developers would much rather see their games thought of as doing their own thing, rather than having to only be known for what other games they were inspired by.

Jason Walsh, lead developer of Monster Crown, remembers how true knockoff and counterfeit merchandise was relatively recognizable in the past, and goes into a lot of detail about the roots of the problem adding: “ We will never convince anyone to see monster taming games as anything other than Pokémon-clones if we do not address the root issues and the historical nature of this term. In the span of 1997-2003, I personally saw a huge amount of counterfeit Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Dragon Ball content at dollar stores and flea markets. These products used the actual IP, often with some tweaked colors, and tried to sell unlicensed and often low-quality merchandise. Somewhere caught up in this trend, which was targeting the incredible boom of Pokémon’s worldwide popularity, people quickly learned to discern legitimate Pokémon products from the illegitimate. This coincided with the release of many legitimate, and great, monster taming games such as Dragon Warrior Monsters and Monster Rancher. While people were sharpening their powers of recognition these products fell victim simply due to a matter of timing. Considering this, at the root of knock-off phobia what are we really faced with? It’s easy to view Pokémon fans as antagonists to the rest of the genre, their habits of avoiding similar products leading directly to the lack of localization of fantastic games such as the more recent (and high quality) Dragon Warrior Monsters entries. But to do so is a very compassionless response. We’re facing a habit developed out of the desire to not be tricked, or swindled, when seeking legitimate high-quality products and entertainment. The response is not to scold Pokémon fans like I’ve seen some people do (increasingly in recent years) but instead to educate and indicate that these games are not a threat. Monster Taming games should under no circumstance be considered as “Pokémon Killers” or “Trying to get a slice of the Pokémon pie”. I wholly reject those notions and find them honestly ridiculous. The Dragon Quest series does not exist to have kids seeking Pikachu give up their search and purchase a King Slime instead. No, these games are often high effort, imaginative and seek to offer another fantastic product to fans of monster catching. They are not underhanded “sneaky” threats that aim to compromise, instead, they are wonderful additional intellectual properties. If Monster Taming fans want Pokémon fans to give their games a try they must ask them to give them a try between Pokémon games, to see them as independent titles, and to give them a chance. If the Pokémon fans that try this do not enjoy them and return to Pokémon there is no battle lost here, it’s no different than you trying a new restaurant, if you don’t like it you still can eat a variety of foods and your favorites will still be there waiting for you. For this reason, I see the online comments such as “I’m giving up Pokémon and putting my dollars into X franchise instead” as only stoking the adversarial flames. Monster Taming games as a whole offer a wide palate of options and I see this whole situation to be asking your burger-loving friend to try an ice cream or a steak, I know I certainly can’t be convinced by arguments such as “Wow you’re eating burgers? Eat a steak, something with real effort put in.”

Mongames Deserve Respect Just Like Other Subgenres 

Just because you raise and/or battle monsters against each other in a game doesn’t make it a Pokémon “ripoff” or “clone,” and if a mongame looks particularly good, that doesn’t make it a potential Pokémon “Killer.” As the individuals featured in this article have said, instead of always being directly compared to Pokémon, mongames should be discussed in a way that highlights what they do differently and the possibly innovative ideas they add to the subgenre at large. Of course, if you say something like “Monster Hunter Stories 2 (pictured above)  is like the Monster Hunter version of Pokémon” just for the ease of explanation (which I’m guilty of myself), that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you can still also highlight differences and refrain from calling it a “clone” or “ripoff”. Eventually, if more players curb their usage of these negatively connotative terms, maybe more people will become open to letting mongames experiment more with new elements and encourage variation. Let’s be honest, the only things we should actually be calling Pokémon clones are the ones from Mewtwo Strikes Back.

 

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Erroll Maas
Erroll is a writer with an enthusiastic love of Japanese monsters and the games which feature them, from Pokemon to Power Rangers to Pacific Rim and everything in between. You can learn more about this and plenty of other games and nerdy things by following @errollm

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