Why selling Rare was more than just losing some great games

What makes us choose a particular video game console? However much other factors such as controller, user interface, and brand identity play into our purchasing decision, the simple answer is games. Although we make our decisions based on the sum of all parts, the biggest differentiators between competing platforms are the games that are available on the platform. In the case of Nintendo we are basically talking about first and second party games because major third party releases such as Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider, and GTA tend to be released on PlayStation and Xbox and not on Nintendo consoles. In the case of PlayStation and Xbox, since the third party releases are pretty uniform, it is again the console exclusives that make the compelling purchasing case. They fall into two broad groups: existing IP and new IP. By their very nature existing IP are known quantities and knowing you are going to be getting a new Mario, Zelda, or Smash Bros., Uncharted, Gran Turismo, or God of War, Halo, Gears of War, or Fable can be enough to seal the deal. While these games are staples of a healthy gaming diet, new IP are what really excite many gamers and a big part of their console choice.

Banjo knew there was a reason he kept such a mouthy bird in his backpack

If we were to reflect on the most exciting present day developers we’d be sure to mention studios such as Naughty Dog, Bethesda Studios, and Rockstar, I’d even namedrop Quantic Dream or Telltale who together, for me, define the storytelling genre that I so associate with modern gaming. If I were to reflect similarly in my formative gaming years from the mid to late 90s, without hesitation I would have cited Rare. Their games showcased the best that technology had to offer paired with unrivalled gameplay innovation all interspersed with a unique brand of humour. Through that golden period at Rare they just kept on churning out great games with not a bad game in the bunch: Blast Corps (1997), GoldenEye (1997), Diddy Kong Racing (1997), Banjo-Kazooie (1998), Jet Force Gemini (1999), Donkey Kong 64 (1999), Perfect Dark (2000), Mickey’s Speedway USA (2000), Banjo-Tooie (2000), and Conker’s Bad Fur Day (2001). Ok, I left Mickey’s Speedway in there, but still that’s a pretty impressive line-up. 1997 alone could be the best year’s worth of releases from one studio.

He won did ‘e? Who, Diddy? Yeah, he did.

Coming from such a position of strength it might be difficult to square the context with what happened next. For those with a fuzzy memory, what happened next was that in 2002 Nintendo sold their stake in Rare and Microsoft bought Rare outright. Superficially this seems like a cynical case of Nintendo cashing in on the value of a studio at the height of its prestige at a time when a money-rich software company was attempting to muscle their way into the console business. Purely from the viewpoint of the balance sheet this was a great deal for Nintendo, but in the long term selling Rare was ultimately a bad thing for Nintendo’s stable of developers. Personally, along with Nintendo, but actually even more so, Rare was the developer whose every move I monitored and every game I anticipated and was basically guaranteed to buy. Often Rare would give their take on a genre that Nintendo defined and redefine the genre from a different angle. Whilst Mario 64 is an undoubted masterpiece, Banjo defined the buddy platformer and was a landmark game in terms of its humour. Mario Kart 64 was an undoubted classic, but Diddy Kong Racing surpassed Mario Kart 64 in terms of the single player ingeniously applying the hub world mechanic from Mario 64 and including boss races. Blastcorps was an underrated but incredibly inventive game with a great gameplay loop. GoldenEye was a genre and platform defining game and a killer app console seller. At the time it felt like a personal betrayal for Nintendo to take Rare and all of their output away from me. It was tough enough showing my face on the playground as an N64 owner in the face of the way cooler PlayStation, thankfully for me I had finished high school by the time the GameCube had come out without Rare games to use as my trump card. To me and many others, Rare games were a major reason for buying a Nintendo console and undoubtedly selling Rare had a significantly negative effect on the standing of Nintendo’s home consoles in general.

Those character models were very advanced for the time

Contrary to the happy picture of the N64 Rare/Nintendo partnership I painted through my rose-tinted glasses, not all was well with the relationship, which was at times a little strained. Essentially the working relationship was a successful one built on trust and respect. Rare was entrusted with the Donkey Kong franchise, and yet Nintendo only ever bought a 49% share of Rare. Some tension was evident to see in the parent/teenager like relationship where Rare were looking to explore more adult themes. Nintendo is well known for being a family friendly company and have shied away from being associated with violence over the years. It isn’t that cut and dried as Nintendo didn’t forbid any violence and they even provided Rare with the GoldenEye licence to work on. On that very same project the game director Martin Hollis stated that Shigeru Miyamoto “suggested that it might be nice if, at the end of the game, you got to shake hands with all your enemies in the hospital.”, which demonstrates the constraints that Rare were working under yet they were still given the latitude to create a new IP Perfect Dark, which had a pretty violent premise and to release Conker’s Bad Fur Day which had very adult themes, even though it was pretty childish at times. The last game that Rare would develop before being bought by Microsoft must have undoubtedly left a bad taste in the mouth. Rare debuted Dinosaur Planet, a Zelda-like adventure game at E3 2000 to great excitement amongst the gaming community. Ultimately Miyamoto’s observation that the lead character closely resembled Fox McCloud led to the order to mutate the game to Starfox Adventures set in the same world as Dinosaur Planet, but with most of the character ripped out. It must have been frustrating to watch a creative vision being redirected away from the interesting initial concept especially after announcing the game to the world, but this was a different time when amongst their peers Rare was remarkably free to pursue their creative vision, so it was always unlikely that the grass would be as green somewhere else even if it did seem incredibly lustrous.

Little did we know at the time why Conker was cutting the N64 logo

Ultimately Rare went from one troubled relationship to another. Working with Microsoft was simultaneously a reckless gamble and an exciting prospect. Microsoft had the funds to back Rare’s artistic vision and were in need of an established and admired studio ready to produce AAA games that would attract people to the Xbox brand. With the Xbox Microsoft was firmly targeting the same demographic as Sony with the PlayStation, and this allowed Rare the opportunity to grow as a company and develop more adult-themed games. Moving over development to a totally different platform and with some changes of creative direction for games already in development was a tumultuous backdrop to the start of the collaboration. The first games that Rare released and their only games for the original Xbox were Grabbed by the Ghoulies (2003) which was an uninspiring concept in the first place, had to be reworked, and was rushed out and Conker: Live & Reloaded (2005) which was a remastered version of Conker’s Bad Fur Day with multiplayer added in. Both sold poorly and didn’t do anything to entice the loyal fans of Rare over to the Xbox. Still, Microsoft had at least made sure that Nintendo fans were denied Rare games therefore making the GameCube less of an enticing proposition. First impressions can only be made once, and in retrospect it would have been better to cancel Grabbed by the Ghoulies and go with a more inspiring concept or a tried and tested franchise like a third entry in the Banjo-Kazooie series.

Joanna didn’t look that good in the N64 days

Initially the Xbox 360 era of the partnership seemed to be working out pretty well for Rare who were given the freedom to make the games they wanted. They finished off development of Kameo: Elements of Power (2005) and Perfect Dark Zero (2005) which had both started as games for Nintendo ready for the launch of the Xbox 360. Both were well received by the critics, but were none the less considered relative failures in terms of sales. Next came Viva Piñata (2006) which was squarely aimed at the younger audience. Although Rare is well known for games based in realistic worlds, they are probably best known for colourful games with bright and cheerful graphics such as Banjo-Kazooie. Perhaps this is why they were encouraged to produce Viva Piñata. It was a solid game targeted at kids and was a sign of things to come. Whereas Rare’s peers such as Naughty Dog were maturing in terms of the themes and content of their games, Rare seemed to be regressing. They seemed stuck working on the Viva Piñata series with Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts (2008), an inexplicably vehicle-themed entry in the franchise. All the while sales were not exactly stellar.

Jinjo party!

Organizational changes, the challenge of scaling up production due to the increasing size of games, the leaving of the founders (the Stamper brothers), and loss of the guiding influence of Nintendo all seemed to have taken its toll and took the sheen off of the Rare magic. Depending on how you look at it, the advent of the Kinect was either a great opportunity or dead end where creativity is totally stifled. What may have started off as the former surely became the latter. Contrary to the popular narrative that evil Microsoft relegated the great Rare to an eternity of toil on Kinect, it was in fact the Rare management who decided to go all in on the Kinect. History can be a bit revisionist, but actually the general mood of gamers at the time of the announcement of Kinect was that it was an exciting new peripheral. Only in hindsight can we be so clear in our judgement that focusing on Kinect was a creative mistake. Plenty of talented people left Rare in that era, but at the same time the Kinect games sold well so Rare was successful in that era. The only thing was, Rare were not the exciting draw they once were.

Just be thankful I didn’t put up a Kinect Sports picture

In a way Nintendo’s choice not to buy Rare outright was validated by the lack of truly great games coming out from the developer. I can’t help dreaming of what Rare might have produced if they had been bought by Nintendo. Undoubtedly for me my attachment to Nintendo and loyalty to their consoles was severely damaged and although I stuck around for the GameCube and Wii eras, not having the often more grown up titles from Rare as companions to the innocent brilliance of Nintendo games of the era chipped away at my resolve to stick with Nintendo and in the end the pull towards Sony who are the best in the industry at nurturing the excellent portfolio of studios that they have put together over the years. Last year’s release of Rare Replay (2015) which was a celebration of the best of Rare over the 30 years the studio was around and the announcement of Sea of Thieves, an open world pirate-themed multiplayer experience, to be released this year could be said to signal a resurgence of Rare and a new understanding from Microsoft that they have a studio that could once again be a jewel in the crown, but for me that ship has sailed. One of the hardest things in life to accept is when a period of your life that was so integral to you as a person is over and that it is time to move on, and so similarly to my feelings on Nintendo, I will resolve to leave Rare in my attic with my N64 magazines and in my memory as a pleasant recollection of my past, as a big part of the Rare magic lay in the close-knit small-scale team that Rare no longer are. In place of Rare I will indulge in the spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie from Playtonic, a new developer made up of ex-Rare devs, to get my fix of the Rare magic from the late 90s with a modern reimagining.

Hopefully this is the first of many trips down memory lane with a modern twist from Playtonic

Further reading:

Background reading: http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-02-08-who-killed-rare

Martin Hollis GoldenEye interview: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/oct/26/goldeneye-james-bond-n64-nintendo-shigeru-miyamoto-gamecity

Tim Stamper interview: http://www.develop-online.net/interview/return-of-a-legend-rare-co-founder-tim-stamper-on-the-past-present-and-future/0209651

A Banjo-Kazooie parody just for fun: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59-hXXTb6Hs

For sales stats: http://www.vgchartz.com/gamedb/

For more on Dinosaur Planet: http://www.ign.com/blogs/gameguy523/2012/04/03/the-story-of-dinosaur-planet-and-what-could-have-been

Playtonic Interview: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/13/playtonic-rare-banjo-kazooie-project-ukelele

Charlie Milroy is a writer for The Game Bolt who lives life without continues savouring every moment of his gaming life and most of his real one.