The Rise and Fall of Rare Ltd.

The Stamper brothers may not be familiar to most new generation gamers, but to those who grew up during the 80s and 90s when the Super Nintendo, Game Boy classic, and Nintendo 64 were among the pinnacle of consoles, the Stampers were on top with their once famous game company, Rare Ltd.

Famous for developing such classics like Battletoads, Donkey Kong 64, the Banjo Kazooie series, Perfect Dark, Diddy Kong Racing, Goldeneye 007, and Wizards and Warriors, Rare Ltd. could be seen all across the Nintendo label and was a major powerhouse video game company. So what happened to the once great video game company, and where is it now?

The Stamper brothers (Tim and Chris) have been around for three decades, originally under the foundation of Ashby Computers and Graphics, better known as “Ultimate Play the Game”, where they developed their first game, Jetpac, selling about 300,000 units in the United Kingdom.

In 1986, Chris and Tim teamed up with Joel Hochberg and formed Rare Ltd. Rare began developing many games for the NES, and later the N64, Game Boy, and Xbox 360.

Rare developed many games for the 8-bit NES, including Wizards and Warriors, R.C Pro-Am, and Skyhawk. The change to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was one that Rare was not ready for, and limited their releases to some Battletoads games in those years. Rare teamed with Silicon Graphics, and that eventually placed Rare as a highly advanced developer in the industry.

In 1993, they went to Nintendo, showing them how to compress graphics information into a game cartridge, which impressed the company. Nintendo decided to invest in Rare, owning 25 percent of the company and selling them their first trademark game, Donkey Kong. Rare went on to create Donkey Kong Country, which became a smash hit worldwide. It became the first Donkey Kong game outside of Japan to utilize pre-rendered 3D graphics on a console, eventually selling over nine million units, becoming the second best selling game in the SNES catalogue, behind Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario World.

Box art for Donkey Kong Country on the SNES.

While its reputation has faded somewhat in retrospect, Donkey Kong Country took several Game of the Year honors and put Rareware front and center once again as a top development house. Two sequels would spawn over the years for the series, including Diddy Kong’s Quest, and Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble.

In 1995, the company made a small shift, acquiring film rights to Goldeneye, releasing Goldeneye 007 in 1997, which would become a staple in the James Bond game series, receiving the company numerous awards including BAFTA’s “Best UK Developer”. Other famous titles were released over the following years during their success on the N64, including Banjo-Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini, and Donkey Kong 64.

Goldeneye 007, released two years after the film.

On the forefront, it seemed that nothing but good riches were coming to the rising stars of Rare, but deep within the company, new troubles were arrising. Public layoffs were being made, and in 1997, a small group of employees left and formed a new studio known as Eighth Wonder, that signed with Sony Computer Entertainment Europe to develop a new PlayStation game. By 1999, Eighth Wonder ceased to exist.

Rare Ltd. would see success on the Nintendo 64 in a few more games during the turn of the century, including Perfect Dark in 2000, Banjo Tooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day in 2001. When the turn of the century finally hit, Rare would be faced with a new journey ahead of them.

Activision and Microsoft approached Rare, and in September 2002, the Stampers made their move towards the Xbox console, selling their 51 percent interest in Rare to Microsoft. Nintendo sold their 49 percent stake in the company as well. Microsoft paid a total of $375 million to own 100 percent of the company. Rare would cease to make any more games for the Microsoft, and with this came their final release for the Nintendo next-gen console, the Nintendo Gamecube, Star Fox Adventures.

Star Fox Adventures was the final Rare game developed for a home Nintendo console. Released in 2002

The company was able to squeeze one title out onto the Nintendo DS console in 2005, under the noses of Microsoft, with the remake of Diddy Kong Racing DS.

The only two trademarks that carried over with Rare to Microsoft were Conker and Banjo’s characters, which would see a re-imaging in Conker: Live and Reloaded, and a sequel in 2008 for Banjo known as Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts for the Xbox 360.

Top games sold by Rare during the Microsoft era include a new IP title known as Kameo: Elements of Power, and Perfect Dark: Zero.

In 2007 however, the Stamper brothers decided to leave Rare to “pursue other opportunities”, a year before the release of Nuts and Bolts. The two were ultimately replaced by previous lead designer Gregg Mayles, now Creative Director, and Mark Betteridge, now Studio Director at the company.

Microsoft decided to restructure the studio during the end of the decade as a result of poor sales for the company, and in March 2010, the company opened a new facility in Fazeley Studios, located in Digbeth, Birmingham.  Later that year, Microsoft confirmed that Scott Henson, a developer who previously worked on the hardware and software design of the new Xbox 360 console and Kinect for Xbox 360, replaced Mark Betteridge as Studio Manager and that their main focus will be on Kinect. According to Henson: “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.”

Rare’s first Kinect project was Kinect Sports, released in November 2010. Despite average reviews, the game was a commercial success, selling three million units as of May 2011. In March 2011, Scott announced that Craig Duncan, who has previously worked on Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing and the Colin McRae Rally series, was hired on as Senior Studio Director. Rare release Kinect Sports: Season Two in 2011.

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts developed by Rare for the Xbox 360. Released in 2008

So what’s next for the once great developer? Rare has definitely seen its share of both successes and failures, but what it should be most remembered for is its catalogue of great games, especially during its years developing under Nintendo’s wing. Rare hasn’t seen as much success under Microsoft’s control, but has been a major powerhouse for Kinect. Will we be seeing Rare return to the limelight with games?

According to an article on Eurogamer back in October 2011, it was rumored that Rare was prototyping ideas for a “mature” title to launch on the next Xbox console. Around this same time, rumors that Lionhead Studios and Turn 10 studios, famous for the Fable and Forza series, were also developing for the next gen console, according to an article in Xbox World Magazine.

As for any plans to return to its roots with classic characters and genres, Rare boss Craig Duncan stated in an interview with Eurogamer that its not a priority, and adds that working with the Kinect is their top priority. “It’s about creating fun innovative games that can be hugely successful,” said Duncan. “Not necessarily about genre and characters.”

Kind of a sad reality, yes, but we must not exclude the great titles of the past. So in memory of a once great company that developed titles we grew up with and are proud of, we should move forward and hope for the best with Rare. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll see a return to the classics once again.

With files from IGNEurogamer, 1UP and MobyGames

2 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Rare Ltd.

  1. Pingback: “Project Dream”, an unfinished project living on through Banjo-Kazooie |

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