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Published on July 13th, 2012 | by Queso

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What Happened?: Rare, Ltd.

If you thought What Happened? is solely for Hip-Hop artists, you were mistaken. Today, we are on a journey in search of Rare. Not artifacts, Rare Ltd.

Rare, Ltd. is a British video game developer founded by Tim and Chris Stamper. The Stamper brothers conceived the company after their previous venture, Ultimate Play the Game, also known as Ashby Computers & Graphics Ltd. (ACG), was bought by U.S. Gold and subsequently ran into the ground. The creation of Rare allowed the Stampers to develop for Ultimate and not give up everything to an Ultimate takeover.

Rare, Ltd. became a popular video game developer–popular or prolific. After forming an agreement with Nintendo in 1986, Rare began pumping out as many games as they could for the Japanese company.Within five years of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s (NES) release in Europe, Rare produced over 40 games for the system, as well as titles for the Game Boy and Sega Genesis. After the announcement of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Rare figured they’d better step their game up. With a few Battletoads releases, Rare invested much of their NES profit into Silicon Graphics workstations, making the company the most technologically advanced developer in the UK. Now, Rare was ready to move beyond bitmapping into full CGI rendering. This caught the eye of Nintendo who bought a 49% stake in the company and granted them access to nearly any character in their catalog.

The renamed Rareware released Donkey Kong Country in November of 1994. Donkey Kong Country was the first Donkey Kong game developed outside of Japan (without Shigeru Miyamoto), the first to use pre-rendered 3D graphics on a console, and the second-best selling game for the SNES (behind Myamoto’s Super Mario World), at over 9 million copies. With this, Rare solidified itself as one of the world’s top video game developers. They went on to revolutionize the first-person shooter genre (FPS) in 1997 with GoldenEye 007, established two more critically successful platformers with Banjo-Kazooie and Conker, and give us two of my favorites, Perfect Dark and Killer Instinct. Rare also won several awards including BAFTA Interactive Entertainment Awards’ “UK Developer of the Year” in 1998 and 1999, and the Academy of Interactive Arts and Science’s “Game of the Year” for Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, as well as “Console Game of the Year” for GoldenEye 007.

So what happened to the Rare that brought us Perfect Dark, Donkey Kong, and Golden Eye? Microsoft had it’s eyes on Rare since 2000, before the Xbox (original) was announced. In September of 2002, the Stampers sold their 51% of the company to Microsoft, followed by Nintendo selling their 49% to the company as well. This made Rare a first-party developer of Microsoft. The first two games Rare released for their new parent company were Grabbed by the Ghoulies and Conker: Live and Reloaded, neither of which faired well. These two games also happened to be the only games they developed for the Xbox. While Rare continued to develop for the Game Boy Advance, but the last game developed for a Nintendo “set-top box” was Star Fox Adventures, released in September of 2002 for the Gamecube. (I happen to be watching a RingRush speedrun of Donkey Kong 64 as I’m typing this and he says I should mention that “fortunately, Rare left breaks/glitches in the game so that even poor games can be fun to play.”)

Microsoft’s Xbox 360 brought better fortune for Rare–at least, in the beginning. Rare developed two titles to accompany the November 2005 Xbox 360 launch, Kameo: Elements of Power and Perfect Dark Zero. Reception for both games was mostly positive. Interestingly, both Kameo and Perfect Dark Zero were originally intended for the Gamecube, but became Xbox products after Rare became a Microsoft entity, THEN were pushed to the 360 as launch titles. Not long after the Xbox 360 launched, Viva Piñata was released. The game had its own TV series (with good ratings), made an appearance at Six Flags Parks and won several BAFTA awards (equal to GoldenEye). Rare’s early Xbox 360 releases were well-received…critically.

Well, it seems they bounced back, so…what happened? I would say that we could take Viva Piñata as a sign of the direction the company was going, but Rare, from the beginning, developed a wide variety of games in large quantities. Like any smart investor, they took the advice of Wu-Tang Financial and diversified their portfolio. So, the idea of Rare developing Viva Piñata was not absurd. Besides, it’s reception was good. But, with all the awards and critical acclaim, there was one (probably most important) problem–sales.

These early Rare titles sold less than Microsoft expected. This led to Microsoft restructuring Rare during 2009 and opening a new facility in Fazeley Studios in Digbeth, Birmingham. Two years prior (January 2nd, 2007) Tim and Chris Stamper left the company they built to “pursue other opportunities.”  I don’t know what you think, but when the founder(s)/key figure(s) of a company leaves, it often doesn’t mean great things (see, Apple 1985). Maybe they saw the direction Rare was being sent. After the restructuring, Rare became an essential part of Microsoft’s Kinect development. New studio manager, Scott Henson said, “Kinect will be the main focus for Rare going forwards as it’s a very rich canvas. This is just the beginning of an experience that will touch millions of people.”

Now, if you visit Rare.net, you are greeted by a list of titles that include previously mentioned sub-par (or sub-Rare) 360 games and Kinect titles such as Kinect Sports…actually, just Kinect Sports and Kinect Sports: Season 2. It’s sad to see a company that was once so prolific while putting out quality games, become practically invisible in the industry and relegated to developing Xbox 360 avatars.

Some blame Rare for their utter lack of creativity and poor game design. Others may blame Microsoft for hindering Rare’s creativity and trying to capitalize on titles, such as Banjo-Kazooie and Conker, formerly big on Nintendo consoles, only to result in poor performing games that seem to be disconnected from their respective franchises. We don’t know the details of what was/is happening behind he scenes between Rare and Microsoft. Nintendo granted the British developer access to a huge cashflow and most of the Nintendo characters. Who could blame Microsoft if they were more wary in their spending, especially given the nature of the market? I will just say, I am willing to forgive and forget if we can get a Killer Instinct Platinum.

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About the Author

is co-founder and editor-in-chief of RapConQueso.com. If he's not fooling around on the website, you may be able to catch him listening to Prince, stream-monstering, or making pancakes. Follow him @theconqueso or email at queso@rapconqueso.com



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