Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Rise and Fall of Rare

I was supposed to be updating this blog, wasn't I?  Oops!

Today, I'd like to talk about Rare, Ltd., the team of British developers which first found success on the humble ZX Spectrum and grew into an industry juggernaut... until a handful of ill-conceived projects and an acquisition by Microsoft cut it down to size.  The company has existed in some form for nearly thirty years, but each new console cycle brought with it a drastic change to Rare's style of game design.  Sometimes the new style would be so profoundly different from the one that came before it that Rare would rebrand itself to mark the occasion.  Here now, with a little help from Wikipedia, are the phases of the company's evolution...


Chris and Tim Stamper started this company in the early 1980s to publish games on the ZX Spectrum, a home computer held in fond regard by British Gen-Xers despite having all the horsepower of one of today's toasters. They also made a few arcade titles, most notably the frighteningly surreal Bally-Midway release Blueprint.  That's the maze game where a vaudeville actor must save his girlfriend from the clutches of a rampaging raisin by robbing homes and building a Rube Goldberg invention from the pilfered merchandise.

Full Spectrum

The Stampers published Spectrum titles under this grammatically odd brand name for a few years, before shifting development to the Nintendo Entertainment System.  Ultimate games like Sabrewulf, Jetpac, Underwurlde, and Knight Lore are all instantly recognizable to the thousands of British kids who pulled their hair out while playing them.  However, because the Spectrum was a massive flop on this side of the pond, Americans just think of Sabrewulf as that werewolf guy from Killer Instinct.

Nintendo Powered

After passing control of Ultimate to U.S. Gold (which was then gobbled up by Eidos, which itself was swallowed whole by Square-Enix), the Stamper brothers segued into home game consoles, especially the Nintendo Entertainment System.  They made their NES debut with the Nintendo-published Slalom, starring skiiers in way-too-tight spandex suits, then went on to develop dozens of games for the system.  Chances are, if it was designed in the West and you didn't want to smash it with a hammer after five minutes, Rare made it.

The Render Years

After a few installments of the traditionally illustrated (and infuriating!) beat 'em up Battletoads, Rare fell head over heels in love with computer rendering.  Most of the games Rare developed for the Super NES leaned heavily on this trendy art style, giving the cast of Donkey Kong Country and Killer Instinct a glossy, plasticine appearance far removed from the charming hand-drawn art of past releases.  This era also marked a brief return to arcades, with two Killer Instinct releases and arguably the best game in the Battletoads series.

Hoarders: The Video Game

Rare was even more crucial to the success of the Nintendo 64 than it had been the original NES, since all the other developers were off making games for its competitors.  They made a smooth transition from computer rendering to polygons (after all, the Nintendo 64 used the same technology as SGI workstations!), but also developed a packrat mentality that turned the bulk of their software into scavenger hunts for every loose bottle cap and piece of string in a five mile radius.  Some exceptions include a passable N64 conversion of Killer Instinct, the well-received first person shooter Goldeneye, and Blast Corps, a video game realization of all those violent fantasies you had with your Matchbox cars as a child.

Living in these Hard Times

Once Nintendo's secret weapon in the console wars of the late 1990s, Rare Ltd. was quietly left on Microsoft's doorstep after Conker's Bad Fur Day for the Nintendo 64 and Starfox Adventures for the GameCube withered on store shelves.   The Stamper brothers left the company shortly afterward, along with much of the talent responsible for Goldeneye, and it's all been downhill ever since.  Under Microsoft's leadership, the company has tried to create new properties and revive existing ones, without much success.  Grabbed by the Ghoulies is still considered one of the low points in the original Xbox library, and Kameo didn't get much attention from players after a little dust settled on its shiny next-generation graphics.  These days, Rare spends its time locked in Microsoft's basement, cranking out Kinect throwaways and subsisting on stale bread crusts.

There's still some debate over which generation of Rare was the best, with roughly half of gamers arguing for the render-happy Rare of the early 1990s and the other half making a case for the company's work on the Nintendo 64.  I'm going to go against the grain here and say that most of Rare's greatest moments were on the NES.  Naturally, that's when the smartasses bring up Taboo: The Sixth Sense, but as wrongheaded as that release was, it still carried the mark of quality that defined Rare's NES output. A large feathered quill scribbled out your fortunes and the artwork on the cards was ornately detailed.  They didn't HAVE to put so much effort into a tarot card simulation that couldn't have sold more than fifteen copies, but they did.  The same goes for Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, and the Sesame Street games, which Rare elevated from mere labor to labors of love.  Compare them to the later games made by other developers, and you'll notice a big, big difference in quality.

Now that we've got the duds out of the way, let's talk about Rare's best NES games, shall we? We've got R.C. Pro-Am, a fast and furious battle racing title with thirty two tracks, slick animation, and plenty of ways to turn your opponents into a rain of scrap metal.  Without this game, who knows if we'd have Super Mario Kart or Twisted Metal?  Then there's Wizards and Warriors, a charming (if admittedly flawed) medieval quest that achieves the perfect balance of arcade action and console-caliber adventure.  There's also Battletoads, which squeezed every ounce of power out of the NES hardware; Cobra Triangle, an aquatic spin-off of R.C. Pro-Am with gorgeous graphics and dozens of wildly different stages; and Snake, Rattle, and Roll, a wonderfully weird action game with ties to Rare's sterling NES conversion of Marble Madness.

Sure, Rare made some fine games for later systems.  Killer Instinct put a lot of meat on the bones of the still-young versus fighter, and Banjo-Kazooie kept players coming back to their Nintendo 64s after they'd wrung every last drop of fun out of Super Mario 64.  Nevertheless, there's a sense of craftsmanship in Rare's NES games that was lost in later console generations.  The company's software just feels more focused and watertight within the cramped confines of the NES hardware.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Fear Factor

This isn't necessarily related to electronic games, but I think it's worth discussing regardless.

Earlier today, while digging through one of the many garage sales in the area (it's May; this seems to trigger a Spring Cleaning instinct in Midwesterners), I came across a stack of Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks, including a bestiary filled with the monsters in the long-running franchise. I considered picking all of them up, but since that would have set me back a rather steep twenty-five dollars, I settled for the encyclopedia of monsters and went on my merry way. Some observations about this:

1. Garage sales aren't as cheap as they used to be! I recall from my childhood that the sales were used to clear out piles of useless junk first and foremost... now that they've become more popular, and everyone's wallets have gotten lighter, people have come to think of them as gold mines. Trust me, folks, if you don't want it, nobody else is going to pay that much for it.

2. The world of Dungeons and Dragons is a very scary place to be! With gelatinous cubes that can swallow you whole, Lovecraftian nightmares who treat your skull the way a schoolboy would treat a Capri-Sun, and five story tall monsters that just won't die, it's a wonder anyone ever leaves their hovels.

Between the constant dangers and complicated rules, D&D is a very intimidating game, and being a very easily intimidated guy, I can understand why I never got into it. However, that fear of failure has defined all of my game-playing habits... I don't play games outside my comfort zone, I rarely select the harder difficulty settings in the games I do enjoy, and I don't play to master any of my software. You're never going to see me take home any trophies or blast through a Dragonforce song in Rock Band.

Recently, I've thought about breaking that bad habit by topping the high score of Meta Fox, an old shooter developed by Seta way back in 1989. It seems like the right place to start, as the game is nowhere near as demanding as, say, Ikaruga, or the other bullet hell shooters from the 21st century. Beyond that, the current high score recorded on Twin Galaxies is a relatively modest 1,400,000 points, with a sadsack 27K posted for the actual arcade game. Twenty-seven thousand? You could get that for just dropping in a coin and picking your nose.

Problem is, you just can't find a Meta Fox machine anywhere these days. The last time I did was in a truck stop on the edge of Michigan twenty years ago. So I had to fall back on MAME and crack 1.4 mill. I actually managed this feat, and on the Droid I'm using to type this blog entry, no less! However, the folks at Twin Galaxies want more than your word and a fuzzy screenshot... this being the age of Photoshop, one could hardly blame them.

So I set out to repeat my high score, recording it all with the magic of FRAPS. Paradoxically, despite having a 32 inch screen, a Saturn controller, and a vastly more powerful machine, I couldn't come anywhere near my previous score, barely clearing 800K before watching my score steadily drop in repeated plays. Weird? Yes. Frustrating? Very!

So my quest to prove a modest victory over my gaming cowardice continues. Some day, Meta Fox, your high score will be mine! (Until a cyborg like Kiken catches wind of the game and rolls it, anyway.)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Hotblooded, Check It and See!

It's been about a year since I stopped publishing The Gameroom Blitz, my old gaming web site.  I've thought about reviving it from time to time, but I don't have enough to say these days to keep it clinging to life.  I do, however, get the occasional itch to talk about the hobby... what I'm playing and why it's significant to me.  I'll be doing just that with this blog, but don't expect much in the way of frequency or structure... this will be pure self-indulgent stream of consciousness.  Any entertainment or educational value this may have will be purely coincidental.

Damn right you should get it!
So!  After months of searching, I finally came across my Sega Saturn, hiding in the dusty corner of the breezeway bridging my parents' house and garage.  One could only guess how it got there, but I'm nevertheless relieved to have the old girl back.  The Saturn is one of my guilty pleasures; a console I love dearly in spite of what could only be described as a crash 'n burn performance here in the United States.  After being launched for a frightening $400, the Saturn horrified Western developers with its peculiar hardware, frustrated gamers who waited in vain for a fresh Sonic game (no, Sonic 3D Blast doesn't count, thank you very much), and was ultimately sabotaged by Sega of America CEO Bernie Stolar, who declared the machine dead after just two years on store shelves.

However, things were different in Japan.  While far from an industry leader, the Sega Saturn performed very well in that country because Nintendo stubbornly clung to the cartridge format that the Japanese were eager to leave in the past, and because small developers didn't feel like they had a home on Sony's Playstation.  (I'm also sure having a spokesman like Segata Sanshiro, whose enthusiasm for the Saturn bordered on the homicidal, didn't hurt.)

Yes, she's holding exactly what you
think she's holding.
Hundreds of Japanese exclusives were released for the Saturn, mostly by tiny crack-in-the-wall developers with odd names like Sai-Mate, Xing, and Athena.  Years before PS Minis, XBLIG, or Apple's iOS, this was the closest any game console had come to being a playground for independent developers.  (Sure, the Playstation had Yarouze, but how many of those games could you actually find in a store, online or otherwise?)  The releases themselves were as out of left field as their ragtag teams of developers... you could buy any game you couldn't possibly imagine on the Saturn, from homoerotic shooters to one-on-one fighters with the combatants riding dragons to battle royales with heavily armed vehicles, best described as Star Control on a much smaller scale.  If there were hipsters in the 1990s, the Saturn was almost certainly their console of choice.

After cleaning up my Saturn and connecting it to my television set, the first game I popped into it was Groove On Fight, one of those bizarre releases that just wouldn't have felt at home anywhere else.  When that wouldn't run, I fell back on a side-scrolling brawler known to Americans as Hot Blooded Fighting Family.  Well, to the few Americans who've actually played it, anyway.  This release by Thunder Force developers Technosoft was technically a cross-platform title, released for both the Playstation and Saturn.  However, with its quirky Japanese sense of humor and just-shy-of-professional design, I can scarcely imagine Hot Blooded Fighting Family on any console but Sega's black box.

Hey, a girl's got to have her limits.
With that said, let's meet the family, shall we?  There's Rio, the kid sister who lugs around an animated mallet.  Like Blaze Fielding and Guy before her, she's weak but tenacious, delivering more hits per second than either of her teammates.  She has no qualms about handling rifles, but draws the line at drinking beer, most likely because she saw that one episode of Tiny Toon Adventures.  Flanking our dancer on the sand is Tora, the Bogard-esque street tough who serves as the game's official Average Guy, and Rando, who looks like J. Jonah Jameson after ingesting a pharmacy's worth of steroids.  The tightly-knit trio lays the smackdown on everything from the expected beefy soldiers and street punks to boxing octopi and liquid foes with the word "H2O" helpfully printed on their chests.  (You may actually need that information; it's hard to tell for sure with the Saturn's typically dodgy transparency effects.)

Like many of the side-scrolling beat 'em ups released after Final Fight, Hot Blooded Fighting Family tries to top its ancestor with even more outrageous situations.  Pipes and bats are replaced with bombs and bazookas, and one stage ends with the heroes swallowed by a massive whale, with the next opening inside its belly.  Like the later Streets of Rage games, the characters all have special attacks triggered with a joystick command, but they also have an apocalyptic super move that drains their energy but hurts the poor saps standing near them a lot more.  It's all presented with the chunkiest sprites and the most saturated colors this side of a Neo-Geo.

Rando piledrives his opponent,
much like a certain wrestler-turned-
politician. No, not Jesse "The Body"
Try as it might, Hot Blooded Fighting Family can't quite hang with Final Fight, or other Saturn beat 'em ups like Guardian Heroes.  It's a little too eager to acknowledge its inspiration, and the bewildering sight gags lose their flavor after repeated plays.  Nevertheless, there's something honest about this game... something untainted by focus groups and marketing departments and crass product placement.  It's not afraid to go down its own, perhaps ill-advised, path when others would bend in the wind of public opinion.  Much like the Saturn itself, really.