Monster Hunter is more than just a video game. It’s an avenue through which players get a glimpse of humanity’s primal roots.

The insanely popular Japanese game series, developed and published by Capcom, pits players against increasingly larger monsters—rabid, shit-flinging apes, giant horned triceratops, fire-spewing dragons, and prancing, thunder-slinging unicorns. But Monster Hunter is also grounded in reality. You are a hunter, tasked with roaming across the land and seeking giant monsters to capture or take out—if they don’t kill you first.

It’s weird throwing the term “realistic” around when we’re talking about dragons, giant spiders and snakes the size of whales, but Monster Hunter really is a reflection of humanity’s primal roots as hunters and gatherers. There’s innate pleasure in tracking wild beasts with groups of fellow hunters (yes, these games have multiplayer). We’re always looking for a stronger foe against which to test our personal mettle. Humans have a need to overcome and survive, and Monster Hunter is a digital outlet for that.

It many ways Monster Hunter is the antithesis of modern games. It’s archaic, slow and calculated. It has some flash, but overall it’s a slow burn, more about planning and learning about monsters before you face them than overcoming them with brute strength. You need to pay attention to the minute details of your foes’ behavior patterns, just like a real hunter. It can be as unforgiving as the wild; in real life, you wouldn’t go hunting lions in a loincloth, armed with just a spear, and expect to make it out alive. You have to start small and build up to facing truly mighty creatures, all the while gathering resources and gradually improving your equipment and skills. Every victory feels earned.

When you finally defeat a monster, you pull out a hunting knife, bend over, and carve up its remains for further items to add to your arsenal. Your weapons and armor are crafted from those raw resources, and the stronger the monster, the better the gear you’ll be able to make from its carcass.

Other, even more basic game components—such as healing items, which other games might simply hand you—aren’t easy to come by. If you want potions, you’ll have to scavenge for them in the terrain by harvesting herbs and mushrooms. You cook meat to keep your stamina up—you don’t want to get caught in the wild with no energy—but cook it too long, and the meat blackens, making it worthless to you. Burnt meat isn’t tasty.

Everything in Monster Hunter takes time, and it can be frustrating. But it’s these small realistic details that create a gaming world that tests players’ ability to survive. Despite an insanely rough learning curve, the game is rewarding once you start getting your hands dirty and get the hang of it. And that’s what Monster Hunter taps into. It balances real, basic human needs—hunting, gathering, preparation, survival—and disguises them with a lavish fantasy world and creatures out of dreams and nightmares. It strips gaming down to basic elements, and scratches a primal itch I didn’t even know I had.

Eventually, you’ll fell your first strong monster. And when you do, it will feel like you actually achieved something. You were responsible for its death; you hunted this beast, and now you have the armor or the spear or bow to prove it. Like the cannibal tribes who absorb the essences of their enemies, you make your foes’ strength your own. What was once your biggest fear is now your strongest asset.

Until you set your sights on the next monster, at least.

Willie Clark is a freelance writer, barrel-rider, and co-host of the 8 Bit Awesome gaming podcast. When he isn’t monster hunting, you can find him on Twitter…talking about hunting monsters.

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