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.

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