Monster Rancher Explorer is yet another reinvention of the original 1986 Solomon’s Key, and yet another example of a popular license slapped on an unrelated property in order to sell more. Though, strangely, the original Japanese release is still called just “Solomon” with no mention of Monster Rancher. Then again, they’re both Tecmo franchises, so they can do whatever. The game is also actually a prequel to the main Monster Rancher series, being set 35 years before these games.
This time the protagonist is an adventurer/researcher named Cox, who comes from another related GBC game, Monster Rancher Battle Card. His mission is to climb the sixty floors of a tower, as the subtitle of the game says (“Cox’s adventure Quest of the White tower“), in order to discover the mystery of a powerful Phoenix that is said to inhabit it, and also to find all the people of the nearby village who entered the tower but never came back. This setup is visually kinda similar to the Korin’s Tower arc in Dragon Ball, up to the Native American-looking dude who guards the tower’s entrance.
Cox is able to conjure and destroy crates instead of stone blocks, has fireworks instead of fireballs, and creatures from Monster Rancher take the place of the usual enemies, but other than that the main gameplay stays exactly the same. The only real difference is the presence of bosses: every ten levels or so Cox will meet the followers of an evil priestess named Nada, who control some powerful monsters that need to be defeated by manipulating the environment through Cox’ ability.
Nada (which is “Dana” with inverted syllables, if you think about it) seized control of the tower, kidnapped the villagers, trained the monsters to attack the intruders and is obviously the final enemy residing in the top floor. Still, just like in the other titles, defeating her is not the end of everything: upon her monster’s defeat you will obtain a silver key, and there’s other nine of them hidden around the tower. Replaying the game and picking them all up unlocks the tower’s hidden Basement, ten tough levels that if completed will bring you to the Phoenix and the true ending. Completing the game once also unlocks the level editor and the ability to exchange these levels through the GBC’s Link Cable.
Of course fans of the Monster Rancher games and anime wouldn’t care about this game if Tecmo didn’t put the popular characters in it, like the cute duck-like Mocchi, mouthy eyeball Suezo, misnamed horned wolf Tiger etc. In fact they are put front-and-center on the cover, however their actual role is minimal. They’re being treated as if they were just another inventory item, with effects like making Cox faster, stopping time, destroying all the enemies in a level and so on.
They will be found in bonus stages that can be accessed by finding a “monster flame” and the way to use them is a bit convoluted: “stone discs” are needed to seal them in, so first you need to find the pieces of these discs. Then you need to rescue the priest in one stage to open up the shrine where you can free the monsters, and only then equip them as items when you go back to the tower. You also have to rescue another character later on to open up the “Monster Checkroom” where you can leave the critters that you don’t need at the moment.
It made sense to release this game at the time, year 2000, when the “monster collecting” craze swept the world thanks to Pokémon‘s success, however it really hasn’t anything to do with Monster Rancher outside of the superficial elements, and rehashing a (then-)15-year-old title before the retro gaming boom was kind of a cheap move. Still, there weren’t too many puzzle games for the Game Boy Color, so fans of the genre still enjoyed it.