Whenever there's a new Monster Hunter to show off, the Tokyo Game Show belongs to Capcom. The floor is theirs, to do with as they please. A stuffed Felyne and immaculately dressed-up girls greet the patient players who've made it to the front of the hours-long queues that snake around the play space – a specially constructed, elaborate mini-village made out of paper and wood. The triumphant brass of the theme music booms out across the halls, drawing yet more attendees. Battles are broadcast on a huge screen, tantalising those still at the back of the endless queues with epic four-player face-offs against fantastical beasts. Don't let the tiny system fool you – this is the biggest game of the show.
It sold more than a million copies in Japan, but by series standards Monster Hunter Tri on the Wii was only a moderate success. The PSP and Monster Hunter are practically synonymous in Japan. Portable 3rd emphatically isn't a PSP port of Tri, but all the monsters that made their debut there have been adapted for the small screen – which would be better news if I hadn't already killed enough Royal Ludroths to qualify me as a major cause of the species' pending extinction.
But there's also plenty that's new. Portable 3rd is the best-looking game in the series by far – the detail and sense of scale that Capcom manages to squeeze out of the PSP is consistently astounding. Its setting is a touch more Japanese than previous hunting villages, with fluttering cherry-blossoms and kimono-adorned inhabitants (and of course their cat servants). More importantly, there are new beasts, two of which were the centrepieces of Portable 3rd's TGS demo.
The single-player demo had three quests on offer – a face-off against the Royal Ludroth, a magnificent aqualion who'll be familiar to Wii hunters, a hard-as-nails fight against a black Tigrex, an even more deadly version of the aggressive monster that's been killing me for years, and a double-hunt against the Aoashira and the Jinouga, two entirely new monsters (they'll be renamed to something more pronounceable for the West). It's an obvious choice.
The demo seems to include all the weapons in the game, unless there's a new one that Capcom is holding back as a surprise. The choice is between hammer, lance, gunlance (yay!), greatsword, longsword, sword and shield, dual blades, bow, bowgun and switch axe – a healthy and balanced mix of favourites from Freedom Unite and Tri. It's like Monster Hunter Special K.
Reunited at last with my beloved gunlance, I'm given a choice of Felyne Fighters, the little cat warriors that you can take with you on a quest to heal you occasionally and divert attention away from you and your pointy objects. You can bring two of them along, now, which changes the game quite significantly, making single-player feel more like playing with friends and taking the bitterest edge off the challenge. They come in bomber, scrapper and support flavours.
The demo drops me straight into the quest, dressed in a full set of matching armour and armed with bombs, traps and various ability-boosting potions. After more than 100 hours of Monster Hunter Tri, playing Portable 3rd on a PSP feels like coming home – home to a rubbish bedsit that only has sporadic hot water and smells vaguely of cats. It says a lot about a control system when you have to redesign the console to make a game comfortably playable. But if five million Japanese people are willing to put up with it, it's hardly going to change.
The monster is marked on the map with a mean-looking little blue dragon icon in an area three loading screens away, presumably just for the purposes of the demo. Running through sprawling mountain scenery, complete with waterfall, pools of rainwater and spectacular views from the top of cliffs, I'm reminded once again that Monster Hunter just doesn't care about the limitations that a portable system is meant to impose. It's determined to be as beautiful and wide in scope as it wants, and damn the loading times, small screen and awkward camera controls.
The first monster – the Aoashira, or Blue Bear Beast – is lurking in a clearing. It's like a giant, scaly badger with Wolverine claws, aggressive but clumsy. The closest thing to it is the Congalala, the equally brutish but nowhere near as threatening giant pink monkey from Freedom Unite. It attacks with slow, powerful claw swipes and charges and can take a lot of punishment from gunlance stabs and shells.
Combat feels exactly the same as it ever has. We've got the weapons we're used to against a creature that's new, albeit with small adjustments and some new combos. With a greatsword it feels weighty and dangerous, with dual blades it's flighty and super-fast. Monster Hunter's great strength is its ability to transform completely depending on which weapon you use, making you adapt your style to whichever fanged monster is roaring in front of you.
After Aoashira succumbs to the gunlance, a rather more nasty opponent swoops in to say hello. The Jinouga is a Thunder Wolf Wyvern – a horned, ugly, vaguely canine and fast-as-all-hell dragon. It flings itself straight at me with a roar, making me flinch away from the screen – the monster design in this series is exceptional – and paralyses my with an electrically-charged swipe. It's a huge, energetic beast, throwing itself around with somersaulting attacks that shudder the forest floor and squish my Felyne companions flat. It kills me in minutes. This is more like it.
Monster Hunter hasn't changed. It probably never will. It's a winning formula, and series director Ryozo Tsujimoto has openly said that the core concept of the game mustn't be moved by so much an inch. Millions of people have learned its quirks and accustomed their delicate selves to its brutal difficulty curve and unforgiving nature, digging deep enough to find the incomparable rewards in these bravely uncompromising games.
It's arguably too big for the platform that's become its natural home, and too ambitious – the control system will never be accessible on the PSP. Portable 3rd will almost certainly be the best yet in the series on a portable system, and its weapon balance and monster design is as brilliant as ever, but it will have the same problems, too. The dream of a high-definition Monster Hunter that you can play with a pad is still alive.
Monster Hunter Portable 3rd is due out in Japan on 1st December and doesn't have a European release date yet.