“Rare has a different philosopy.”
That quote, from studio co-founder Tim Stamper in 2003, would sound like a boast coming from the mouths of most other studio heads. But after spending a week swimming in 30 years of video game history before coming up for air to write this review, it sounds modest.
Over its 30 year existence, the studio’s output has been remarkably diverse, straddling almost every genre you can think of. But even going back to Rare’s earliest games – many of which are included in this compilation – you can still somehow recognize that you’re playing a game made by the company responsible for some of the most-loved games of all time.
The Stamper brothers have long since departed the company they founded all the way back in 1982, of course; many gamers have claimed that Rare’s subsequent output hasn’t managed to match those giddy, halcyon days of the early nineties, when it seemed that studio couldn’t put a foot wrong. During those years, under the ownership of Nintendo during the SNES and N64 era, Rare pumped out classic game after classic game: Donkey Kong Country, Goldeneye, Blast Corps, Banjo-Kazooie… as one employee states in one of the many video featurettes squirrelled away as bonus content in Rare Replay, seeing the name Rare on the box growing up in the nineties meant that you knew you were about to find your next favorite game.
Many of those games are absent from this collection, of course. Anything featuring Nintendo characters is locked firmly away from view, though both the games and the big N itself are frequently referenced in the mini-documentaries that provide insight into the Rare’s history. So for the sake of completeness, here’s what you do get in this collection:
Jetpac (1983); Lunar Jetman (1983); Atic Atac (1983); Sabre Wulf (1984); Underworlde (1984); Knight Lore (1984); Gunfright (1985); Slalom (1986); R.C. Pro-Am (1987); Cobra Triangle (1989); Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll (1990); Solar Jetman (1990); Digger T. Rock (1990); Battletoads (1991); R.C. Pro-Am II (1992); Battletoads Arcade (1994); Killer Instinct Gold (1996); Blast Corps (1997); Banjo-Kazooie (1998); Jet Force Gemini (1999); Perfect Dark (2000); Banjo-Tooie (2000); Conker’s Bad Fur Day (2001); Grabbed by the Ghoulies (2003); Kameo (2005); Perfect Dark Zero (2005); Viva Piñata (2006); Jetpac Refuelled (2006); Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise (2008); Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts (2008).
Many of those games will be brand new to many of the people who pick up Rare Replay, particularly the games from the Rare’s formative years. American gamers in particular will likely never have played the likes of Jetpac or Atic Atac, as the ZX Spectrum was never released Stateside. Given the age of these titles, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they couldn’t possibly stand up to scrutiny when compared to more modern design principles.
You’d be wrong. In fact, some of the oldest games in this collection are the ones you’ll find yourself returning to time and time again. Jetpac in particular is remarkably good fun despite being released in 1983, a game that recalls the same one-more-go appeal as Space Invaders and Donkey Kong and provoking a feverish need to best your high score. R.C. Pro-AM and its sequel also have much fun to offer, playing like faster and twitchier versions of Micro Machines. And all of these older games can be played with a wonderful filter applied that perfectly replicates the experience of playing on an old, low-resolution CRT monitor.
Perhaps surprisingly, it’s actually the more recent games that don’t hold up so well in 2015. Grabbed by the Ghoulies wasn’t particularly impressive when it first came out on the original Xbox, and time has been even less kind to it. Repetitive and shallow gameplay means that you’re unlikely to spend much time on it before moving on to some of the more tantalizing games on offer, though to its credit the visuals – cutscenes aside – still hold up surprisingly well.
Jet Force Gemini in particular feels like a relic; even with the revised control scheme added in the most recent patch, aiming feels imprecise, meaning you’re as likely to miss your target as you are to hit it. There’s little fun to be found in running down muddy corridors and repeatedly dying because the control scheme means your character has all the target accuracy of a blind Stormtrooper from Star Wars.
Other games have lost none of their charm, however. Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel remain an absolute joy to play, even though Tooie falls victim to the excess of collectibles that plagued so many 3D platformers of the era.
Playing Blast Corps. will make you ask all over again just why Rare still hasn’t got around to making a sequel. Kameo remains a sorely underrated gem; and Viva Piñata… well, Viva Piñata remains one of the best strategy games of the last generation, bursting with charm and with a staggering amount of depth hidden beneath its family-friendly exterior.
And who can forget the wonderful Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts ‘n’ Bolts, a game unfairly lambasted upon release as not being a pure 3D platformer, but which displays a degree of imagination and creativity so rarely seen in an industry often content with churning out rehashed sequels? It’s as glorious as it ever was, rewarding experimentation and working just as well as a creative sandbox as a structured game.
As well as being able to play all 30 games in their entirety, Rare Replay also provides a list of challenges, called Snapshots, for many of the older games in the compilation. Each focuses on a specific mechanic, teaching you how to play and becoming progressively more difficult as you progress. It’s a neat way of introducing players to titles they may never have heard of, especially when so many of the games here came out before tutorials were an industry standard.
As I hinted at before, Rare Replay is more than a simple compilation of titles. Generous it may be, but merely slapping 30 games together on a disc – even as great as many of the ones here undoubtedly are – just wouldn’t have done justice to the legacy of such an esteemed developer. And so there’s a wealth of bonus material to be unlocked, with everything from previously unheard music, concept art and a series of featurettes focusing on the making of each game and the history and creative process at Rare itself.
Considering how famously secretive Rare is, many of the anecdotes and insights in this wealth of archived material and video commentary contain information never before disclosed. Not all of it is brand new – the story behind the making of Banjo-Kazooie has already been pored over elsewhere; but much of it is, and hearing it directly from the people involved, rather than a third party, adds to the sense that you’re getting to know the studio as much through the people who work there as the games that they create.
Particular highlights include material on games which never saw release. Some of these – there’s around half a dozen in all – were little more than concepts that ultimately went nowhere; others were in a fairly advanced stage of development before the axe fell. All of them sound intriguing however, and make you wonder what might have happened had fate taken a different turn.
A shame then that so much of this archived material is locked away. It’s understandable that Microsoft and Rare would want these goodies to be locked behind some form of gateway; but the method taken here feels a little heavy-handed. Each game in Rare Replay comes with a series of in-game achievements, or “milestones” as they’re called here. Completing one earns you a stamp, and after every 5 stamps you earn, you rank up and unlock an item in the archive.
This is fine in theory, but precisely what is unlocked at each rank up is predetermined, and inevitably the most interesting material is kept back for those who really devote time and energy into milking every last drop from each game here. A better system would have been to allow the player to decide for themselves what to unlock at each rank. Or, better still, to tie the archive material on each title to the milestones you unlock in that game.
Other disappointments exist, but are relatively minor considering the value on display. Games from the 360 era (and those that were re-released on Xbox Marketplace) exist not on the disc, but are instead downloaded as separate items running on Microsoft’s new Xbox 360 emulation software. For the most part they perform well, a few frame rate dips aside; more likely to irritate is how these games then exist as separate items in the Xbox file manager, rather than being counted as DLC – meaning that Rare Replay actually counts as 10 separate games, rather than one.
It’s also disappointing that in what is intended to be a celebration of Rare and its history, there’s no input from the brothers who started it all. That’s perhaps not surprising, given that Chris and Tim Stamper are known for their reclusive nature; but it still would have been nice to have heard more about the company’s history from the people at the top.
If I’m really going to nit-pick, the decision to use the original N64 version of Conker’s Bad Fur Day rather than its enhanced Xbox remake, Conker: Live and Reloaded feels like a missed opportunity; and some games are notable by their absence – particularly Goldeneye, which is supposedly absent because the studio doesn’t consider it “a Rare game”, despite it being arguably the title which for so long defined the studio in so many people’s eyes. One suspects that perhaps licensing issues have more to do with its absence, along with the absence of many of the other licensed games the studio developed.
That doesn’t quite explain the absence of the many handheld games Rare has worked on over the years though, such as the Game Boy Advance remake of Sabre Wulf. Still, a line had to be drawn somewhere, and while some obscure classics are absent, a good proportion of the games on the disc are iconic and hold up well today.
Rare Replay is more than a mere video game compilation. It’s a historical archive, charting three decades of development from one of the most revered studios in the industry and spanning a remarkably diverse portfolio. Gamers who grew up in the 80s will love the pixel-perfect recreations of Atic Atac, Jetpac and Lunar Jetman. Gamers who grew up in the 90s will appreciate having the likes of Blast Corps, Banjo-Kazooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day in one place; and everyone should appreciate the joy of Viva Piñata, so cruelly ignored by so many upon its initial release.
Rare Replay isn’t perhaps as exhaustive an archive as it could have been, but it still represents astonishing value for money and serves as an essential document of video game history. And who can blame Rare for choosing to overlook some aspects of their history?
History, after all, is written by the victors.