A Rare Breed

Irresistible weaponry...

I’ve always enjoyed the occasional bit of gaming and, even [Warning generic nostalgic bit approaching] from a young age, a special bond was present between myself, Blue Hedgehog and Italian Plumber.  However, it wasn’t until much later on in life that gaming really began to be my ‘thing’ and, although a bit of a late bloomer, I only have one developer to really thank for that.

It all started when I first received a Nintendo 64 for Christmas one year and, with it, everything I knew about gaming changed forever (Disclaimer: I am not the N64 kid of You Tube fame). Family being family, they didn’t really know much about gaming; the sheer fact I got a Nintendo 64 and not some dodgy Chinese import from a car boot was amazing in itself so, as you can imagine, my choice of games come Christmas morning was rather limited, with Mario Kart 64 the only one on offer.

Everything was ok though, as gift vouchers were the name of the game back then and I had managed to gather myself quite a horde so, come the boxing day sales, I was rummaging in bargain bins in my local game shops hunting for a game that screamed “purchase me you impressionable youth”.

Back then the internet was rather rubbish – and not rubbish where I complain that my 10mb connection has dropped down to 6mb – I’m talking less than 56kb/s rubbish.  I didn’t read gaming magazines (apart from off the shelf in WH Smith) and the notion of reviews was just absurd.  For me, the only way to determine if a game was worth purchasing was down to its box art – if it was cool looking, it would have me sold.

Rare's gorgeous racer...

I was in a shop, a small independent retailer back in my home town, and after a few minutes of dithering (Read: Playing the display pods) I started to get down to business and look for some new games.  It didn’t take long before I had my first purchase of the day in the form of Diddy Kong Racing.

I had previous Donkey Kong experience from my SNES days so to find a namesake now on my new console of choice was a huge bonus.  It didn’t really matter at this that time the only two games I owned for the console were racers, in those days stuff like that didn’t matter -  Diddy Kong had an aeroplane and hovercraft on the box – that was enough to sell me the game back in those days and probably still would today in all honesty.

As was my habit those days (and still is now) I searched every shop in town with the hope of sniffing out a bargain; a couple of hours later my work was done: “I like James Bond” I said…little did I know how much impact Goldeneye would have on my gaming life.   It not only gave birth to the first person shooter genre (for me personally) but it also brought with it the social side of gaming.  More often than not I, accompanied by a few friends, would be crowded in my room, all huddled around a tiny portable TV with makeshift barriers created from old cereal boxes acting like some form of ‘wall’ so we couldn’t see where each other was in relation to the map, and much fun was had; it was split screen multiplayer in its most primitive form.  It was the first and only FPS that I was insanely good at, the fun I had with friends was immense and it helped spark something inside that would literally explode soon after.

You don't need to see my identification...move along

Christmas was always awesome when you were young, but then the holidays would end and the forlorn January trudge back to school would be in full effect.  In the cold winter months gaming was an attractive outlet to spend my time on and so I did.  As time went on so did my gaming habit and, come the summer holidays, it was ready to get re-fuelled by some much needed new games; a couple of years earlier it would have been football boots I wanted – a sign then of how things change.  Thankfully it coexisted with my Birthday and, as a result, a couple of new games found their way into my meagre collection, most notable an interesting title named Banjo Kazooie.

Banjo was the game for me that turned that earlier spark into a Catherine wheel that had been doused in petrol; it made me realise something -I didn’t just want to spend my life playing quality games but I wanted to make them too.  I was approaching my last year of secondary school, the big wide world was waiting for me and the careers woman inevitably asked: “What do you want to do when you finish school”.

“I want to design games” was my reply

“Oh, what sort of company do you want to work for?” was her retort, as if trying to catch me out and prove I knew little of what I was talking about.

“Someone like Rare.”  The look on her face was clearly indicative that I was living in a fantasy world.

The eagle-eyed among you will have probably twigged by now that the three games I’ve mentioned so far have all been developed by Rare, if you have, well done – you’ve earned yourself a gold jiggy piece.  For me, Rare was one of the defining developers during my childhood; the games they created during the Nintendo 64 era are testament to the skill and quality of the teams they had working within their Twycross studio.  This was a developer that created some of my favourite games of that generation and a developer whom I can place as having played a huge role in me wanting to walk the path into game development myself.

Looking back through the Nintendo 64 era you’ve got titles such as:

  • Killer Instinct Gold
  • Blast Corps
  • Goldeneye 007
  • Diddy Kong Racing
  • Banjo-Kazooie
  • Jet Force Gemini
  • Donkey Kong 64
  • Perfect Dark
  • Banjo Tooie
  • Conkers Bad Fur Day

That was ‘my’ generation of gaming right there, such quality and all released within the space of five years; some developers these days take five years to make a single game, but of course gaming has very much changed since the late 90s.

Back in 2002 Rare was acquired by Microsoft for a rather tasty $375 million so, as you can imagine, big things were expected but did they deliver?  I suppose in many people’s eyes that answer would be no.  Sure, there was a Conker remake, Perfect Dark Zero was a launch title for the Xbox 360, Viva Pinata was born (as was Kameo), and more recently a brave new take on Banjo and a re-release of Perfect Dark hit Xbox live Arcade, but nothing really packed a punch as much as releases in that previous generation did.

Rare also went on to do work on the Xbox 360’s Avatar system – a fact that many of its fans didn’t really take kindly to and, quite vocally, blamed Microsoft for what they saw as effectively taking away the creative licence of the studio.  Further sentiments were echoed when it was recently announced that the company would be rebranding and, with it, a new logo (or 4 new ones for that matter).  Gone was the golden R and with it emerged screams from the internet from fans claiming the studio was turning into an insurance broker.

Is it all justified? Probably not, no.  Recent releases have not been as bad as people make out, Viva Pinata is a rather excellent title but won’t be touched by many because of its art style and lack of AK47’s.  The change to Banjo Kazooie’s gameplay in Nuts & Bolts was shunned by many, yet most will probably not have tried it out – if they had they’d have realised there is a good game to be played – it’s not as good as the original Banjo but it’s still a fairly decent game.

It may not have been standard Banjo fare, but a decent game lurked underneath...

It’s a case of fans shunning the future simply because they don’t like change, moreso that their thoughts are clouded with memories of pure, exquisite gaming experiences.  The greatest problem the studio has is living up to its reputation; that golden era of development will no doubt plague the company until the doors to its [rather gorgeous – Google it] Leicestershire HQ close.  It was over ten years now that the golden era started so you can only imagine that staff leaving would surely have an impact on development.

The Rare of today is not the Rare of yester year; people need to remember that.  While I’d be the first to fist pump at the revelation of a new Conker game or old school Banjo, sometimes these things happen for a reason, times as they say – change.

While there is cause for perhaps anger and despair, it shouldn’t be directed at Rare themselves, after all I’m sure that they too would love for more quality games to emerge through their doors.  It doesn’t matter if they’ve gone from Goldeneye and Banjo Kazooie to creating an Avatar system; maybe they did it because Microsoft didn’t trust anyone else to – after all, failure on that front would have been catastrophic for the New Xbox Experience when it launched late last year.  This is, after all, the avatar system that received a ton of flak from the gaming public, but even friends who were staunchly opposed to it have warmed up, many even buying accessories for their digital personas;  if that’s not a measure of success then I don’t know what is.

You know he doesn't want to borrow a cup of sugar...

It’s new generation of Rare now and as we approach the Kinect stage of the Xbox 360 life cycle it’ll be interesting to see if they stay primarily on Kinect based titles or, once again, move back into mainstream gaming.  We’ve all seen the amount of absolute rubbish that gets released for the Wii, the word ‘gimmick’ often bandied about, and I’m sure Microsoft doesn’t want that but, with that said, that rubbish sells by the bucket load so maybe they do.

Rare have found a new calling now, a new direction if you will and, as one of the UK’s senior game developers, perhaps the gaming world shouldn’t be as quick to jump on the bandwagon in calling for their heads.  It’s something I’m more than guilty of myself, I still do it now, but it’s the nostalgia talking, and if there’s one thing gamers are, it’s nostalgic.  I owe a lot to Rare – without them I’d probably want a real career that involved wearing a suit all day while words such as “market penetration” and “economic state” frequently made their way into my vocabulary.

Is it sad to see where they are now, compared to then? Of course it is, but that’s only because the bar was set so damn high that I imagine it would be nigh on impossible to ever replicate it.  They are very much a victim of their own success but that doesn’t mean we should just ignore them, even turn our backs on them.  Even if it’s in a changed state, Rare still lives on so there’s always hope that one day our desires will be met and who knows…this Kinect gimmick they’re working alongside may actually turn out to be rather good.

That said, give me a new Conker game please, you know it makes sense ;)

Last five articles by Ben



  1. Lorna Lorna says:

    I really enjoyed reading this piece…Rare have always made great games. Diddy Kong Racing was the game that finally enticed me into buying an N64, though sadly, gaming apathy hit me and I never did play that console anywhere near close to what it deserved. I loved the boats and planes though and thought it made a great change from the usual Mario Kart bandwagon.

    I’m actually pretty fucking gutted that I missed out on Conker’s Bad Fur Day. This was a gutsy move and soemthing that I would never have believed possible on a Nintendo console. If anything deserves a sequel it is Conker…I only hope that I can pick up the first game at a car boot somewhere because second hand copies are extortionate at the moment.

    I agre that people seem to be giving Rare a rough ride. Okay, so they seemed to trail off a little when MS snapped them up but I think that a lot of folk unfairly dismissed Viva Pinata….it was actually a great game. The same people are probably jizzing over Mario which has equally cutesy primary colours and simplistic gameplay…pffft.

    Great read, Ben.

  2. Robert says:

    I couldn’t agree more with everything said above. Rare were and are still a great developer and set the benchmark for playability in games and that reason to want to keep playing them. Banjo was fantastic, Conkers was unreal, Diddy Kong was so much fun and Perfect Dark was one of the best games I ever played and Perfect Dark Zero was the first 360 game I bought.

    I love Rare for what they were and what they still are and maybe they’ve lost their way but I’m sure they’re more than capable of finding it again. They may have been slagged for the avatar system but it blows the socks off the Mii stuff.

  3. Kat says:

    The Banjo thing passed me by but I have fab memories of drunken exploits on Goldeneye as a student. Viva Pinata is twisted genius also. Rare have my stamp of approval ^_^

  4. Richie richie says:

    Not a fan of Rare but that goes back to when they were Ultimate: Play The Game. They did very flashy, very colourful games for the Spectrum as well as about a million isometric 3D adventures and nearly all of it was style over substance. Knightlore, their most celebrated game, was particularly dull.

    I did like Viva Pinata but it was pitched at a wierd level. Aimed at kids but requiring a ton of patience to complete legitimately (an FAQ is most people’s choice). VP2 was a dull rehash. Oh and I hated Nuts and Bolts.

    So, not for me unfortuately.

    Good read tho, Ben!

  5. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    I have to admit that I’ve not played that many Rare games, which is quite surprising when you see the HUGE list that they’re credited with! I remember sitting playing PSSST, Sabre Wulf and Marble Madness with my mate Graham on his speccy and although I own Kameo and Perfect Dark Zero… I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never even opened them. I was really bad with games for a while though, I’d get them and end up playing just one game for a year!! One thing I did notice is that they were responsible for the NES port of Narc from the arcade and I absolutely ADORED that game in the arcades. Didn’t even know it had ever reached consoles, so that’s my lesson for today then.

  6. Richie richie says:

    I had NARC for the Speccy. It wasn’t great.

  7. Edward Edward says:

    I loved this. I used to be a massive RARE fan back in the days of the N64, and it gave me some of my favourite times on the N64, so it’s nice to see such a good retrospect and such a well reasoned look as to their recent turns :)

  8. Adam Adam says:

    I really got a kick out of the intro to this Ben. I can remember very fondly the magic of having 10, maybe 15 pounds and being stood in an old 2 hand games shop and not knowing what to buy. It would be really tough to go through all of those games, find one you think you’ll enjoy but only really being able to base that on the box art and the tiny pictures.

    It was always damned good when you stumbled across those gems that really sucked you in to the game, knowing that you were playing something that someone else was probably happy to leave on the shelf and opt for the big name games.

    I missed out on Rare having been on the Sony side of affairs during the golden years of their production. I think i’ve waggled the stick on Goldeneye but never really enjoyed the freedom to play it myself. My first adventure into console FPS games was Timesplitters and I fell for that big time. I loved the campaign despite it making no sense whatsoever but I sank litterally months of my life into my save file in the multiplayer and the challenges. I think between my friends, we never did manage to finish THAT final challenge before TS2 was released.

    Whilst I can’t relate to Rare directly, the studio behind TS (Free Radical) were a similiar influence to me but my visual creativity was never up to par to have had such a drive that you did to get involved. It’s sad that much of Free Radical has been lostwith the studios closure and recent re-start as Crytek UK. They were a fantastic studio and I’d hate for Rare to go the same way too. Whilst I’m sure the core talent is still present at both Rare today and Crytek UK, you do mourn for the spirit that has floated off.

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