All About Rare, LTD
By Brian Penaloza
When one thinks about the best games on the Nintendo 64, it is a virtual guarantee that at least one Rare developed game pops into their heads. With such titles as GoldenEye 007, Donkey Kong Country, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Banjo-Kazooie, and Jet Force Gemini (to name but a few) one could argue that Rare helped make the Nintendo 64 the successful console that it was. So, one could be forgiven for asking why that partnership ended and what happened to the high quality, console defining games that Rare was so known for. To find present day answers, once again one only need look back to the past at the heyday of Rare.
A company named Ultimate Play The Game was founded in 1982. The studio was founded in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire England by Tim and Chris Stamper. The studio made a quick name for itself in the industry making critically and commercially successful games such as Sabre Wulf, Jetpac, and Atic Atac. Unfortunately, the studio was only making games for the ZX Spectrum Home Computer that was only popular in the UK, which drastically limited their audience. After importing a Famicom and thoroughly inspecting it, the studio believed that they had in their possession the future of gaming due to its level of sophistication, access to a worldwide market, and lack of load times in the Famicom cartridges. In 1985, Rare itself was formed and Ultimate Play The Game was sold to another British company named U.S. Gold. Rare’s goal was to reverse engineer the Famicom and learn what made it tick.
During this time, Nintendo was convinced that it was impossible to decode the Famicom. The team from Ultimate Play The Game learned much from Rare about the Famicom and as a result was able to prepare several tech demos to present to Nintendo executive Minoru Arakawa. Arakawa was so impressed at what they put together that Nintendo granted the team an unlimited budget to work on games for Famicom. This was the beginning of what would be a great relationship with Nintendo. The team moved from Ashby-de-la-Zouch to Twycross and established a new studio through Rare.
With the unlimited budget that Nintendo had granted them, Rare began work on a number of different titles. They included Slalom, R.C. Pro Am, and Battletoads. Rare also began to work on licensed projects such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, and ports including Sid Meier’s Pirates. They started to outsource games to a company named Zippo Games before ultimately buying them and renaming them Rare Manchester. The sky seemed to be the limit for Rare, but things would only get better for the studio in 1994.
Nintendo was so impressed with Rare that in 1994 they purchased a 25% stake in the company, which ultimately became 49%. This made Rare a second party developer for Nintendo. As such, Nintendo began to offer Rare the opportunity to work with their coveted IP. Rare decided upon Donkey Kong and created Donkey Kong Country. Donkey Kong Country sold 8 million copies worldwide and was a runaway success, both critically and commercially. Rare would go on to make two sequels for the game, as well as some handheld spin-offs. With such success Rare expanded their team and began working on even more games. Ultimately, Rare would be responsible for creating some of the most defining games of the Nintendo 64. Goldeneye 007 is still considered one of the best multiplayer games of all time. Originally conceived as an on-rail shooter in the vein of Virtua Cop, Goldeneye saw a drastic change in direction. It became a free-roaming first-person shooter with reloading, stealth mechanics, and headshot detection. Split-Screen multiplayer was tacked on last, and is arguably the feature that made the game the huge success that it was. It is conceivably Rare’s best-selling game, more than even Donkey Kong, at an estimated over 8 million units worldwide. Rare would go on to also create hugely successful games as the Banjo-Kazooie series, Perfect Dark, and Jet Force Gemini.
The one game that was not a huge success was Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Originally named Conker’s Quest, it was renamed to 12 Tales: Conker 64. The game was considered to be too close to what Banjo-Kazooie was, another family friendly platforming game for the Nintendo 64. As such, the team shifted focus to make it a mature rated game with violence, profanity, and gross humor. It received great reviews, but Nintendo did not actively market the game--likely due to Nintendo’s family friendly image and not wanting to promote a game that included a giant poop monster.
Eventually, with rising costs of developing games and with Nintendo not increasing their stake in Rare or offering any more capital, Rare had to look for potential buyers. Rare began to talk with Activision and Microsoft. Talks with Activision ended up breaking down, despite Rare’s interest in the offer and so, in 2002, Microsoft purchased Rare and turned them into a first-party developer, all but ending almost a decade long relationship with Nintendo. Under Microsoft, Rare seemed to lose its way. They retained any original IP they made, such as Banjo-Kazooie, Conker, and Perfect Dark. However, they also lost the IP they made using Nintendo characters such as Donkey Kong, Diddy Kong Racing, and so on. In 2005, Rare re-released Conker’s Bad Fur Day as Conker: Live and Reloaded which met a similar fate as the original game, deemed a commercial failure. Also in 2005, Microsoft released the Xbox 360 along with Kameo: Elements of Power Perfect Dark Zero as launch titles. Both games received good reviews but at only a million copies sold each, both were considered failures by Rare. Rare would go on to create Viva Pinata in 2006, but that game released around the time Gears of War was releasing and Microsoft focused all of their marketing on that game. Rare would also release Banjo-Kazooie Nuts and Bolts—which, while a solid game, was maligned by players for its focus on vehicle creation rather than the platforming the game was famous for.
Eventually, Microsoft would have Rare shift their focus to Microsoft Avatars and Kinect. Around this time, a major brain drain was happening at Rare due to much of their talent was splitting off to form companies of their own to make games. In 2007, Chris and Tim Stamper would leave the studio. From 2009 to as late as 2014, Rare would focus on the Kinect, making the Kinect Sports series. However, the Kinect would never end up being the revolutionary product that Microsoft had hoped for and, as a result, the sports titles were commercial failures.
Finally, in 2015 Rare refocused back to games, and released Rare Replay, a collection of 30 games released on Rare’s 30th anniversary. The game did very well and, in 2018, Rare release Sea of Thieves--an open world multiplayer pirate game--to mixed reviews. Rare viewed the game as “The Best Game That Rare Has Ever Made,” and commercially it has done well, yet it isn’t exactly the game people were hoping for from Rare.
Rare is a notoriously secretive company. Very few people actually have any idea as to what Rare might be working on. However, speculation is fun so let’s think about what would be interesting to see Rare do with the rich library of IP they have. Arguably the game that people wish to see most from Rare is a new Banjo-Kazooie game. With Rare getting Banjo-Kazooie into Super Smash Bros on Switch, the timing is perfect to get a new Banjo-Kazooie game. It can still be done. Platformers are still viable games. Look at Super Mario Odyssey, for instance. Take a classic concept, and spice it up with new abilities while creating interesting worlds to explore. There is so much that a modern-day Banjo-Kazooie could work with in that vein and there is enough talent at Rare to make that happen. The team may be discouraged by what happened with Nuts and Bolts, but that was not the Banjo-Kazooie game that fans wanted. If the remastered Spyro and Crash Bandicoot series are any indication, there is a market for well-made 3D platformers even now, and a veritable drought of such games. There is no better time to bring back Banjo-Kazooie. To that end, it is time to bring Conker back as well. The market wasn’t right for Conker when it was first released, but the game itself was very good. Solid platforming, ridiculous humor, and crazy violence in a coat of cutesy, family friendly graphics. Right now could be prime time for a new Conker game. Again, there is a dearth of 3D platformers and if the game was made in a parody style of various other games it could do really well. Even a new Viva Pinata would be great to see. With the popularity of games like Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley, and Harvest Moon, a cute farming game where you encourage pinata animals to come live on your farm would be a breath of fresh air on Microsoft’s console.
These are just a few of the games that would be great to see Rare working on. That said, it is anyone’s guess as to what they are actually working on these days. Ultimately though, there is still enough talent at Rare to make something special. Perhaps it is time for the company to get back to its roots and re-discover what made the games they made before so special. Sea of Thieves is ambitious, and a cool idea, but it doesn’t feel like Rare. While a new Battletoads is looming on the horizon from Rare, they have more than enough teams to be working on something in secret.
What would you like to see Rare do next? Feel free to comment at the bottom of the article!