The Rise and Fall of RARE

Rare is one of my favorite developers of all time. Their lineup of games puts them in the conversation with all the greats. A year or so ago, when they announced that “Kinect will be the main focus for Rare going forward,”  from a true gamer’s standpoint, the studio died. Their death was untimely and was partly the result of their own doing, but ultimately it was due to an unforgivable killer: The hardcore gamer. In other words, you and me.

A Quick History Lesson

Rare has been around forever, and frankly their history is too long for even this (too) long post to cover. They created a lot of games before the NES, but for the sake of brevity, I won’t describe them here. Feel free to check the Wikipedia list. We all got to know Rare with games like R.C.Pro-Am, Arch Rivals, Battletoads, and ports like Marble Madness. Those four games will appear on any self-respecting NES fan’s list of great games. [Note: I never played R.C.Pro-Am, but I hear it’s pretty amazing.] During this time, Rare operated as a third-party developer. In other words, they weren’t owned by anyone and they were free to make software for whomever they wanted. This all changed in 1994, when Nintendo bought a 49% stake in the company.


Super Nintendo

From this point on, Rare enjoyed their glory years, operating as a 2nd-party developer for Nintendo (think subsidiary). Their second game under this new arrangement, Donkey Kong Country, was a landmark title for the Super Nintendo. It was the first game to use pre-rendered 3D graphics on a console. I remember the visuals as absolutely blowing my 12-year-old’s mind. DKC went on to sell 8 million copies (the second best-selling game on the console) and lives on as one of the greatest games of all time. Donkey Kong Country 2 and Donkey Kong Country 3 would follow, and while they didn’t achieve the same level of innovation as the original, they were great games in their own right. While Donkey Kong Country was a runaway success, it was really just a warmup for what Rare would accomplish on Nintendo’s next console, the N64.

It Was the Best of Times…

In 1997, Rare released two of my favorite games of all time: Blast Corps and Diddy Kong Racing. Blast Corps is one of the most original and fun games I’ve ever played, and it represents the types of games Rare does best. Games like Blast Corps are original titles with unique gameplay that are critically acclaimed. These are the types of games that I feel we’re missing these days. Rare also proved that it could take a great idea developed by Nintendo and master it. Diddy Kong Racing best represents this. Where Donkey Kong Country borrows heavily from Mario and (in my opinion) comes close to matching its greatness, Diddy Kong Racing takes the formula that Mario Kart created and perfects it. The races and weapons are more varied and interesting, the additional vehicles (planes and boats) add a layer of depth, the unlockables create incentive to keep playing, and the multiplayer modes (see The Egg Game at the bottom of the post) are some of the best on the system.

Bond. James Bond.

Of course 1997 also brought us GoldenEye 007, the first great and widely played first person shooter on a home console. As usual, timing is everything. GoldenEye was originally designed for the SNES as an on-rails shooter. Enter the N64 and its ability to handle more complex games, and development was switched over to the new system. In addition, console players were eager to get their hands on an experience the PC crowd had already had for years. One very important feature of the N64 was that it included four controller ports built into the front of the system. Unlike its competition at the time, the Sony Playstation and, to a much lesser extent, the Sega Saturn, players didn’t need to buy a multi-tap to allow for additional players. With the ports built in, developers were more likely to make four-player experiences, as they were more likely to be played. All of this adds up to the fact that GoldenEye was a fantastic game from top to bottom. While the single player game was great (it included Rare’s unlockable system that encouraged players to play over levels again and again to get that perfect time), it was the multiplayer that made GoldenEye such a classic.

GoldenEye’s Impact on the Industry

GoldenEye can be looked at as a turning point in video game history. It was the moment when first person shooters began their run as the most popular games played. This run continues to this day, with Call of Duty consistently leading the charts as the best-selling game of the year. GoldenEye held the crown as the most played FPS on home consoles from the day it was released until Halo came out with the release of the Xbox in 2001. Halo took off, and as we moved into the era of online gaming, the biggest franchises across the board are first person shooters: Call of Duty, Halo, Gears of War, Battlefield, Left 4 Dead–the list goes on and on. While jumping online and shooting your friends can be fun, I’m ready to see something new and different. We are starved for new ideas and varied types of gameplay.

The N64: After Bond

The release of GoldenEye, Diddy Kong Racing, Blast Corps, and Killer Instinct Gold in 1997 cemented Rare as one of the best developers in the world. They continued to release great games over the next few years, but they’d never again be as successful as they were with GoldenEye. Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo Tootie were incredibly fun adventure games made in the vein of Mario 64. Perfect Dark was, in my opinion, a better game than GoldenEye, but it certainly didn’t have the impact or wide-reaching appeal of Bond. A game I never played, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, was roundly praised for its mature gameplay and incredible visuals. While I personally didn’t like a few of Rare’s releases from this period  (Jet Force Gemini and Donkey Kong 64, I’m looking at you), they were incredibly well reviewed. By the end of the N64’s life, Rare was still considered a great developer and an incredible asset for Nintendo. Because of this, everyone was shocked when it was announced in 2002 that they were selling the company to Microsoft.

Sale to Microsoft

When Rare was purchased by Microsoft in 2002 for $375 million, it became a first-party developer for the company. Surprisingly, however, during the first five years of this relationship (essentially, the Xbox era), Rare produced Game Boy and DS titles almost exclusively. Since Microsoft was not in the handheld market, it felt there was not a competitive disadvantage to Rare developing games for that platform. In fact Rare developed seven Game Boy games from 2002 to 2005 and only two for Microsoft’s home console. One final game was released on the GameCube, Star Fox Adventures, which to this day is one of my favorite games on the system. The reason for this is that it plays a lot like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, one of my top ten games of all time. Star Fox really had no place in the game, but if you can overlook that, the game’s graphics were amazing and the gameplay was top notch. Star Fox Adventures was a worthy farewell to Nintendo’s home systems from Rare. While it was bittersweet because that was the last Rare/Nintendo experience, I was looking forward to what Rare had in store with Microsoft.

It Was the Worst of Times…

A lot of hype and excitement surrounded Rare’s first project on the Xbox. The sale was big news in the industry, and people wanted to see what they could do on Microsoft’s new powerful machine. Unfortunately, what Rare had in store for us was Grabbed by the Ghoulies. The game is widely considered a flop and really stopped Rare’s momentum dead in its tracks. Full disclosure: I never played this game, but after reading the reviews, I didn’t feel like I needed to. The game was mediocre in every way and didn’t live up to the high standard Rare had set for itself in the N64 days. After the release, the studio concentrated mostly on the Game Boy and released Conker: Live & Reloaded for the Xbox, essentially an updated port of the successful N64 game. Besides that, however, they didn’t release a single game on Microsoft’s system, and news leaked that they were planning something big for the release of the Xbox 360.

A Fresh Start?

Sure enough, the release of 360 brought with it two new Rare games–Perfect Dark Zero and Kameo: Elements of Power. The release of Perfect Dark: Zero to coincide with the launch of the 360 was the death nail in the coffin of Rare in the hardcore gamer’s mind. Perfect Dark was fondly remembered as the spirtual successor to GoldenEye and had been in development for years. The focus of gamers had moved to first person shooters, and had Perfect Dark: Zero been up to the level of the original GoldenEye (an impossible standard), the sins of the Xbox era and most specifically Grabbed by the Ghoulies would have been forgiven. However, that didn’t happen. Perfect Dark wasn’t a bad game, but it completely failed to meet expectations. Fans waited years and years for a sequel and its release was met with a collective “This is it?” Even though the game went on to sell over a million copies, gamers no longer viewed Rare as a top-notch developer, and excitement over their games had certainly waned.

Completely overlooked by gamers was the other release title, Kameo: Elements of Power. The graphical detail presented in the game was among the first to completely wow me on the new high-definition system. The gameplay was inventive and varied, and the game was fun to play. In fact, I would describe all of Rare’s games on the Xbox 360 in that way. Viva Pinata, Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, and Kameo: Elements of Power are all gorgeous games that are incredibly fun to play and were excellently reviewed. None of them sold any copies.

FPS Overload

The current gaming landscape is littered with sequels and first-person shooters. The reason for this is obvious: sequels and first-person shooters sell. Frankly, I’m tired of both. I don’t mind good sequels, but I’d prefer to see something unique, interesting, or new. Rare’s last few games on the 360 were all three of these things. Unfortunately, the hard-core gaming community refused to give them a shot. I’m sure this is a result of their “kiddy” graphics and perceived easy gameplay, but all three of these games are very difficult. Viva Pinata is one of the best RTS games I’ve ever played. Banjo Kazooie was an old school-inspired game that was more fun, as a single-player experience, than any game of this generation without Mario in the title. I can’t stress enough how much these games pushed the system graphically as well. I hear all the time how gamers are sick of sequels and want to see new types of games developed, but when games that meet this definition are released, no one seems willing to give them a shot.

After the critical success but commercial failure of Kameo, Viva Pinata, and Banjo Kazooie, Rare was at a crossroads. Having used up its hard-core cache with a disappearing act during the Xbox days and the stink bomb that was Grabbed By the Ghoulies, they had to decide where to go next. Microsoft was also anxious to see some return on their investment. It is at this point that they decided to concentrate solely on Kinect software. Kinect Sports released with the launch of the Kinect in 2010 and it is a fairly fun concept. Rare was back to some of their old tricks in stealing from Nintendo, and the game is fun, but it’s fun in a completely casual way. Gone are the hard-core intricacies of games like Battletoads, Blast Corps, Diddy Kong Racing, and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts.

We did this to ourselves

I truly believe Rare could have seen a rise back to prominence on the Xbox 360. Hardcore gamers are strangely scared away by bright colors and gameplay they perceive as childish. We as a whole were not willing to look past that to discover the great gameplay in the recent Rare titles. We can’t complain when Call of Duty 8 and Madden 20xx come out yet again this year, as it’s our own fault by not embracing the unique titles and stressing gameplay over the desire to kill people online. I miss the unique gameplay that Rare’s best titles brought to table, and I hope there are other developers out there ready to pick up the slack.

The Egg Game

Rare was great at creating unlockables in their games. One such unlockable was a multiplayer mode in Diddy Kong Racing called Fire Mountain. The goal of the game is to pick up eggs from the middle of the map and bring them back to your base. The first player to get to three eggs wins. This game by itself is fun, but a simple user-generated rule pushes it over the top. Before the match, set up two teams.  Whichever teammate wins the match wins it for their team. What this does is open up the ability to play defense and the ability to score on either of two goals. Once you get the hang of the game,you’ll find you and your teammate stealing eggs from the other team, playing defense, and switching off on offense. The game has to be played to fully experience its greatness, and it lives on as one of my favorite user-generated tweaks of all time.  A big Thank You to Tyler for discovering this back in the day. The absolute KING of user-generated tweaks.

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