Between sombre meditations on the nature of evil and piteous screeds wracked with intellectual self-doubt, things are getting a little dour on the road here. But happily, the solution is obvious; it’s time to get silly, everyone! Let’s talk about Monster Hunter.
Monster Hunter is a long-running series of video games developed by Capcom, coming up on its twentieth anniversary next year and going from strength to strength. The name, genre, and story of all six (sort of) games has been one and the same; you are a young hunter in a world whose ecosystem is primarily made up of bus-sized hypercarnivores that breathe fire, go and kill them with a stick! Then use the bits to make a bigger, fiery stick and hunt an even bigger monster that breathes ice! Continue doing this until you realize you’ve been legally declared dead by the world at large, and rejoice because that means you have more time to hunt monsters.
If I make it sound silly, that is because it categorically is with a degree of self-awareness rarely seen outside sentient AIs or depressed fast-food workers. It’s possible that the developers could have framed the struggle for survival in a desperate, dangerous way but they instead opted for a boisterous, colourful romp with a lot of flashy action and an adorable cat sidekick you design yourself. Called a Palico. A Palico.
The plot of each game tends to have a strangely eco-conscious bent for a story in which you wipe out more megafauna than an errant meteorite. Broadly speaking, they each run thus;
- Greetings, young [Your Name Here]! You must be excited to finally be qualified for the Hunter’s Guild! Go hunt a couple of iguanas or velociraptors or whatever.
- Good job with those low tier monsters, [Your Name Here]! Say, the actually scary monsters sure have been getting aggressive/numerous. You better go hunt some tyrannosaurs and wyverns.
- Barely survive an encounter with an Elder Dragon of some kind (the games’ toughest monster classification) that drops in unexpectedly while you’re picking flowers.
- That Elder Dragon must be what’s causing the ecological disturbances! You have to defeat it [Your Name Here]!
- Approximately 100 hours later you do defeat it, only to find out that a bigger, more ecologically destructive Elder Dragon was causing the first one to act out. They shove you in an arena with Cthulhu and it’s up to you to kill it and stop pollution.
Yes, you read that right; Elder Dragons are the top of the food chain in the Monster Hunter series, and they’re why I’m writing today’s post. Or rather, one specific one is.
While Monster Hunter’s tone in is generally light and fluffy (so much so that capturing a monster alive for study somehow yields more parts for crafting than killing it), it does have moments of peril. These typically centre around either the flagship monster (the step III beast featured on the cover) or the final boss (step V). But even at their scariest, these enormous threats to the ecosystem and to human civilisation are typically depicted as animals. One is a hatchling from an alien egg, another is a pair of storm dragons that cause catastrophic hurricanes when the species mates every few centuries. But one of these final bosses, the very first, is treated as a sentient threat. A malicious, destructive, perhaps even immortal entity, only ever referred to in the singular; Fatalis.
As a Japanese series that’s seen literally hundreds of monster designs and which has such a fascination with the Western dragon type (winged wyverns outnumber the floating, serpentine Asian dragons by literally dozens to one), what strikes one most immediately about Fatalis is how simple it appears. We’ve seen insect dragons, metal dragons, leonine dragons, alien dragons; but the pinnacle of them all, the most dangerous, powerful, and unnatural beast the series has to offer, is a simple winged, fire-breathing, four-legged dragon.
But the way in which this otherwise stereotypical design is portrayed gives it an uncanny power. The arena is not a lush natural environment, but a ruined castle; the former capital of a kingdom Fatalis is said to have burned down in a single night, centuries ago. The characters, who have until now reacted to each bizarre monster with the barely-suppressed excitement and admiration of Steve Irwin handling a cobra, are frozen with fear. The soundtrack, usually boisterous and celebratory, becomes laden with dread-inducing orchestra and pseudo-Latin lyrics whose only decipherable word is “Fatalis.” And not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s bloody hard.
The outsider’s perspective on Western dragons makes their depiction in Monster Hunter so compelling. Series mascot Rathalos is a mid-game wyvern that has appeared in every game in the series and it always depicted as an animal; it has a believably bird-like body plan (at least from a speculative biology point of view), and while threatening it is no more evil than Tyrannosaurus from Jurassic Park.
By contrast, with its emaciated serpentine frame, unnatural belly-dragging movement, apocalyptic fire breath, and near-palpable aura of menace, Fatalis is a dragon that seems to speak from the abyss of time between our modern experience and the medieval age. It is a depiction of a dragon from a child’s nightmare, breathlessly recounted to cap off an otherwise light-hearted experience and remind you of the terror dragons can bring.