Ah, Rare. Anyone who grew up in the 90s will stress to you that this plucky British company was a golden and untouchable videogame studio. Banjo Kazooie, Goldeneye, Diddy Kong Racing, Perfect Dark: Rare was responsible for a huge chunk of enjoyment that makes up every adult gamer’s childhood nostalgia. The studio helped to define a number of genres in the industry; even now, for every platformer, shooter or beat ‘em up it is perfectly relevant to compare it to the early standard set by this legendary company.
Founded in 1985 by Tim and Chris Stamper, founders of Ultimate Play the Game, a prominent developer for Amstrad, Spectrum and Commodore 64, for many years Rare focused on developing for Nintendo. In fact it’s intriguing, looking back across their catalogue, to see just how central this company’s output was for the Nintendo 64 in particular. Indeed it wouldn’t be a stretch to say they helped to define the platform, making Nintendo’s call to invest 49% of the company in 1994 (effectively making them a second party developer) one of their best ever decisions.
In 2002, however, Microsoft footed the $350 million bill to fully acquire Rare, absorbing it as a first party. Kameo and Perfect Dark Zero were launch games for the new Xbox 360, but poor sales led to Microsoft restructuring the studio in 2010 to focus on the Kinect, condemning Rare to work in the bowels of the corporation on Kinect Sports games and the system’s avatars. With the Kinect now fully in the grave, it felt like Rare was all but gone for good, but this E3 saw them unexpectedly bounce back with the announcement of the Rare Replay collection and a forthcoming new IP in the form of pirate MMO Sea of Thieves, designed by Gregg Mayles, who’s been at the company for 29 years. It seems there’s life in the old dog yet.
Also recently, some of Rare’s more well-known developers launched a crowd funding campaign for an entirely new game which is viewed by many as a spiritual successor to Banjo Kazooie. The first big project for Playtonic Games, Yooka Laylee appears to represent everything we always enjoyed about Rare during our childhood. The charm, the gameplay and the focus on enjoyment for the player appear to all be there for us to look forward to.
The fact that these former Rare developers could get such monumental support for their project within such a small amount of time speaks volumes about the company’s continuing legacy and the place they hold in the hearts of so many 30+ gamers. With that in mind, and with the Rare Replay collection imminent, it seemed more than appropriate to celebrate this series of video games that gave fun and enjoyment to an entire generation. Pay attention as we review our personal favourites!
Digger T. Rock: Legend of the Lost City (NES, 1991)
Chosen by Scott Cameron
It’s no secret that Spelunky is one of my favourite indie titles of the last gaming generation. But while that game took its name – if not its gameplay systems – from the 1983 computer classic, Spleunker, I associate my immediate fondness for it with my love for a long-forgotten NES platformer from Rare: Digger T. Rock.
Like Spelunky, Digger stars an intrepid explorer on a quest for treasure, as he aims to find the titular Lost City. Unlike Spelunky, the level design is pre-set; each cavern is intentionally designed to force the player to be disciplined with their limited resources in order to succeed. Notably, the exit door to each cavern is controlled by a pressure pillar that when triggered gives the player only 60 seconds to make it out. This, combined with the small inventory, pushes the game more into puzzle-platformer territory than anything else, something that’s still a bit of novelty to this day.
Its killer feature, though, is the soundtrack by Rare veteran David Wise, which combines atmospheric beats with an immediacy suiting the game’s pace. As you would expect, it’s also – no pun intended – rock hard, equipping the player with only three lives and no continues at the outset. Despite this, I do recall eventually beating the game as a lad, only to be crushed when it ended on a cliffhanger, teasing a sequel… one that never surfaced. But at least it lives on in the Rare Replay Collection.
WWF Wrestlemania Challenge (NES, 1991)
Chosen by Jason Potter
Surprised? Bet you didn’t expect to see a WWF game on a list celebrating Rare’s history, huh?
This is one of two WWF games developed by Rare and by far the better one. The WWF was lacking a really good wrestling game and this game filled that void by a long way for many a NES-owning Hulkamaniac. Boasting a roster of Nine WWF wrestlers, all the big names are there from Hulk Hogan to “Macho King” Randy Savage, it even blazed a trail by allowing you to pick a wrestler named “Yourself,” an avatar for the player of course. This idea has evolved to become the popular create a wrestler feature in today’s WWE games.
The presentation of the game was also a high point, each wrestler having their own entrance theme music as the soundtrack. The match was viewed from an isometric view point of the ring with the life gauges for each wrestler displayed along the ring apron instead of a separate on HUD, which if you think about it was really ahead of its time as the idea of a HUD-less game has only really come into vogue since the last generation of consoles.
Battletoads (NES, 1991)
Chosen by Scott Cameron
While not quite as beloved here in PAL territories as it is in the States, Battletoads remains one of Rare’s early enduring classics with fans. At first glance your standard Double Dragon-esque brawler (which is appropriate, considering the ‘toads would later team up with Billy and Jimmy in a sequel), Battletoads actually breaks out of the common traps of the beat ’em up genre by mixing up its core gameplay. Whether you’re descending a vertical cavern via rope, racing over massive pits of death (the infamous “Turbo Tunnel”), or climbing a rotating, 3D tower, the game entices players to keep playing just to find out what it will throw at them next, difficulty be damned.
Battletoads also features an abundance of the kind of playfulness that would go on to characterise later Rare; from the way your attacks transform into physical objects (such as boots and weights), to the cheesy dialogue between levels, to the space invaders on level three which attempt to steal your health directly from the game HUD (seriously!), it’s hard not to find something charming within Rare’s madness.
The game is technically impressive, too, pushing the NES near its limits (check out the many cartoony frames of animation on attacks, or the pseudo-3D graphical effects on bosses and backgrounds). Of course, no discussion of Battletoads can be complete without highlighting its funky soundtrack, one of David Wise’s most memorable on the NES.
Donkey Kong Country (SNES, 1994)
Chosen by Adam Gulliver
In recent years there’s been a bit of a backlash towards the Donkey Kong Country series, with some saying it was never as good as people claimed. Having recently revisited the game on the Virtual Console, all I say is, BAH! Yes, it may not be Super Mario World levels of brilliance, but in my eyes it comes damn close.
After a lengthy hiatus, Rare managed to really bring Donkey Kong back in style with some of the best looking art on the SNES. When I first saw it many years ago I was just blown away. And then when you start to move Donkey and his new sidekick Diddy everything just controlled beautifully. And then there’s the music, the track from the first level still gets stuck in my head all these years later.
I think what I really enjoyed about DKC was the challenge. The mine cart level, the rotating barrels, it’s a difficult game but one that doesn’t feel unfair. Overall, you could maybe say the sequel is the better game, but seeing as this started the DK platformers that are still going on today (seriously, play Tropical Freeze, it is amazing), it deserves to be mentioned alongside the best Rare has to offer.
Killer Instinct: Gold (Nintendo 64, 1997)
Chosen by Verity Hartley
Oh boy, the Killer Instinct series! I have so many memories of rushing home from college to boot the first one up on my SNES and repeatedly roundhouse kick my house-mates into washing-up duty.
So when Killer Instinct Gold (which was really a port of Killer Instinct 2) came onto the Nintendo 64, I was all over it. It turned out it was essentially the same game (not a bad thing), but came with several new Team Battle modes and four new characters, including one who I always thought looked a bit like a red headed Janet Jackson.
Killer Instinct introduced me to the world of beat-em ups as well as teaching me all about cheesing people to death with easy combos (thanks Black Orchid!) and the inevitable rage quit. It had some great features such as double continuous health bars which meant knocking out your opponent once did not reset your health during the fight, the ULTRA COMBOOOO finishers where you could casually pummel your opponent into oblivion and of course the now legendary C-C-C-Combo Breakers which if executed properly can stop a combo dead in its tracks and save you from a nasty humiliation.
The big winner for me though will always be the game sound. Not only did it have a funky 90s soundtrack which was released as an actual album, Killer Instinct Gold Cuts (no really), but also the greatest adrenaline-inducing fight announcer voice clips ever shouted at players through a Nintendo. ULTRAAAAA!
GoldenEye (Nintendo 64, 1997)
Chosen by Dean Bowman
First an admission. I never played through this game’s single player mode (though from what I saw it very ably translated the action of what must be one of the very best Bond films to the videogame medium). GoldenEye was a game I solely played at the houses of my Nintendo owning friends, and came to define the high water mark for multi-player mayhem for me from then on. The medium has only just started, through indie games, to regain that sense unfettered joy to be had by four players sitting together and playing a match of GoldenEye with ‘Licence to Kill’ mode turned on, which turned it into a kind of high stakes game of tag.
I don’t think the importance of this game could be overstated. Not only did it introduce the console crowd (and, most importantly, me) to First Person Shooters at a level of quality that still seems incredible to this day, but it demonstrated that film to game adaptations didn’t need to be rubbish cash grabs, and that Rare could succeed at whatever genre they decided to try their hand at. I have so many fond memories of playing this game: trying to make it to the toilets in the facility when you realised your opponent had spawned there; seeding an entire level with proximity mines and causing everyone to die in the ensuing firestorm, playing ‘slappers only’ as Oddjob; or frantically trying to kill someone with a Klobb.
Diddy Kong Racing (Nintendo 64, 1997)
Chosen by Sarah-Lou Costley
I loved playing Donkey Kong as a kid on the SNES and Donkey Kong 64, so being able to see these characters in a driving game, I was like “hell yeah!” So, why is Diddy Kong Racing my favourite Rare game? I’m going to give you five reasons. First of all, it’s a great driving game. In my eyes, it was able to rival Mario Kart without appearing to copy the franchise. Second, the variety of vehicles you get to use are just awesome. Who wants to just drive a cart, when you can fly a plane and use a hovercraft? Third, there’s adventure mode. And battle mode, boss battles and vehicle challenges. It’s great that there’s so much to keep you occupied. Fourth, the soundtrack is just so rad and upbeat. Seriously, go and find the soundtrack, listen to it and you can thank me later. And fifth reason, the characters. I get to drive as Pipsy. That’s right, I liked that cute little mouse and her pink car. But what I loved is that you can drive as some of the cool Rare characters, like Banjo & Kazooie and Conker.
Banjo Kazooie (Nintendo 64, 1998)
Chosen by Philip Gallagher
Out of all the things memorable about Banjo Kazooie, for me it has to be the sheer character of every aspect of the game. Every NPC, every mission, and every crate: there was always a great distinctiveness that separated the game from its contemporaries, such as Super Mario 64.
Let us briefly consider character motivation as an example. The villain, Gruntilda, wants to use Banjo’s little sister to become beautiful again, and the game does a lot to facilitate the necessity of saving her, such as showing you what happens if you fail EVERY TIME YOU EXIT THE GAME. Then there are our two heroes: the good natured Banjo and his breegul buddy, the adorably abrasive Kazooie. Their hilarious team dynamic is conveyed not only in dialogue but also in the game’s animation. Stop moving Banjo for a while, and the mischievous Kazooie will give him a good impatient pecking, and boy is her laughter precious! It makes the entire game a joy to play, even if the consequences of turning it off are a bit scary.
The general structure of the game was quite similar to Super Mario 64, in that the hub consists of a larger castle from which you can access each world. The difference with Banjo Kazooie was the variety in castle design. There was a lot more differentiation between areas, and the platforming and puzzle solving elements of the castle presented more of a challenge. The aesthetics were also much darker. You could actually feel yourself getting further into the witch’s lair as you kept ascending.
Perfect Dark (Nintendo 64, 2000)
Chosen by Shaun Greenhaff
The N64 was home to one of the best first person shooters of all time. It had a fantastic single player campaign that allowed for multiple paths through missions, with alternate endpoints resulting in alternate starts to the following mission. It had numerous difficulty settings that didn’t just make things harder, but changed the game by changing locations of things and adding more objectives to complete. And the multiplayer, my lord the multiplayer. 4 player split screen, a whole host of alternate settings that allowed any and all variations depending on your mood. Slaps only. Rocket Rumble. X-Ray auto locking sniper rifle quick draw fights.
The X-Ray rifle gave it away that I wasn’t talking about GoldenEye didn’t it?
Perfect Dark, let’s be honest, is the better game though. James Bond never infiltrated Area 51, befriended an alien named Elvis, fought off a UFO attack from Air Force One, then assaulted an alien home world. Super spies are cool, but sci-fi super spies are even cooler.
Even mechanically the game was a step up, with weapons having multiple fire modes that could be toggled, as well as a sort of central hub area that you could return to at any time to explore or train your skills on the shooting range. I could go on well past my word limit here, but I imagine I would get in trouble if I did, so just know that Perfect Dark was Rare taking what they learned in GoldenEye, and evolving it into something special.
Something special with lots of hidden cheese.
Conkers Bad Fur Day (Nintendo 64, 2001)
Chosen by Fran Shergold
Great. Mighty. Poo. Those are three words that sum up why I love Conker’s Bad Fur Day on N64 (not the weak assed, sanitised, ‘won’t someone think of the children’ version on XBox). You really don’t understand how important it was to see an animated poo saying that he was going to throw his shit at a squirrel in a Nintendo game. It is actually the greatest thing I have ever experienced. Nintendo just didn’t do adult. That was for other companies like Sony who promptly stole their market share.
So, how about some scat you little twat? No, I am not insulting you… today, that’s just one of the Great Mighty Poo’s song lyrics. You know, Conker wasn’t even meant to be a bad-mouthed, beer-drinking little bastard who woke up with a hangover and lost his girlfriend. He was a cute, big eyed character, driving right alongside Banjo and all the Kongs in Diddy Kong Racing.
He even had his own Game Boy Colour, top-down adventure, which was the total polar opposite of the glorious Conker’s Bad Fur Day, a game that was wonderfully unexpected, adult and of course, scatalogical.
Kameo: Elements of Power (Xbox 360, 2005)
Chosen by Kirsten Kearney
Poor old launch titles, eh? They never get a fair shake. They do well commercially, of course and Rare will have been privileged with a huge amount of early access to the Xbox 360’s development features. Launch titles rarely go down in the annuls of history as good games though. Hampered by their fixation with showing off technical features and doing a very uncomfortable splits across the chasm of old and new systems doesn’t produce memorable titles.
In Kameo you are a shapeshifter. Your character, an eleven year old girl, can take on the forms of Elemental Sprites, inside which you can still see the girl at the centre, controlling them and their varied powers. Kameo was a clear forerunner to hugely successful series like Skylanders and Disney Infinity. The mechanics, art style and transformation between characters is such a part of the gaming lexicon now it’s hard to imagine it ever being an innovation, but it was. Likewise, the standardising of character event skins and downloadable game modes is woven into the gaming experience now, but it was Rare who grappled with establishing these ideas. Kameo may not be the greatest game, or even the greatest Rare game but it is an important one and deserves to be remembered.
Viva Piñata (Xbox 360, 2006)
Chosen by Susan Marmito
Viva Piñata was Rare’s life sim, a colourful title that took place within the confines of a garden, in a world populated by piñata creatures. As gardener, it was your job to make the garden lovely and attractive to various piñatas, to create an ecosystem by planting the right flowers, building houses for piñatas and carrying out landscaping.
The game wasn’t all cute fuzzy piñatas though – in order to climb up the ranks and attract rarer and more valuable piñatas, you have to take advantage of the food chain. Not all piñatas are herbivores, after all, and if you think about it, it is pretty dark to sacrifice a species of piñata for the sake of attracting another one, and watch it break its prey open for its candy. It’s also balanced out by the hilarity of helping piñatas mate by navigating through a maze, and then watching their little romance dance, complete with disco lights and a mirror ball.
Viva Pinata is a lovely game. The piñata creatures are all combinations of sweets and animals – Macaraccoons, Profitamoles, Sparrowmints and don’t forget the legendary Chewnicorn. The game’s spectrum of colours are enhanced by a hazy sheen, almost as if it’s some kind of candy-induced dream. What starts as a nice little gardening and life game can also become wonderfully deep as you try to make the garden the best that it can be, but just don’t think about it too hard and simply immerse yourself in the pleasure of piñata gardening.
Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts (Xbox 360, 2008)
Chosen by James Hamblin
Before Nuts and Bolts came along, I always liked, but never loved, the Banjo games. With their bright pallets and bear-meets-bird backpacking protagonists, the series’ first two outings were undeniably charming, just never more than able understudies to Mario 64.
In shedding much of its platforming load, however, Nuts and Bolts gained a freedom of movement. Running and jumping were replaced by revving and crashing as Rare sent B&K on a detour through the Lord of Games’ compendium of vehicle-based challenges. A final race against Gruntilda for the keys to Spiral Mountain.
From assembling your creations in the workshop and taking them out for their first skittish test drives to modifying their designs and, eventually, mastering their mechanics, Nuts and Bolts was a riot of planes, cranes and automobiles. A Meccano set for maniacs that egged you on to keep adding oversized wheels, unorthodox wings and infeasible amounts of rocket boosters.
By their very definition, spin-offs rarely make for inventive, original entertainment, but Rare has always been at its best when driven by child-like imagination and fun. Nuts and Bolts is fuelled by the stuff and finally provided the blueprint for tuning Banjo and Kazooie to perfection.