Whatever Happened to Rare?

Donkey Kong Country. Killer Instinct. Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Banjo-Kazooie. These are some of the games that spring to mind when someone mentions Rare, the British developer whose name used to be–back in the days of Super Nintendo and the N64–more or less synonymous with superb quality.

Many of us have very fond memories of Rare’s heyday, whether it was the at-the-time insane graphical capabilities and hardcore challenges of DKC or the revolutionary mechanics of Goldeneye. But since Rare was bought by Microsoft in 2002, they’ve arguably gone into hiding, only releasing a new title or two with what seems like years apart and, even when commercial successes, fail to ignite all that much of a spark as far as worldwide recognition.

So what happened? It seems that Microsoft, as eager as they were to take Rare away from Nintendo, simply doesn’t know what to do with them. For starters, Rare has a history of making cutesy games and platformers, neither of which Microsoft has had much success with in the past (Blinx is probably about the closest thing Xbox has had to a first-party mascot game, and that series has been AWOL for some time now). Despite commercial successes from both Perfect Dark Zero and Kameo, there were no follow-up titles for either; though there was a pretty significant fan backlash after Joanna Dark’s second outing, it would have made some commercial sense for MS to perhaps mold the series into the action-oriented image they were cultivating with the Halo and Xbox Live culture. Granted, MS did use Rare to create their icon avatars, which are arguably as recognizable as Master Chief or Marcus Fenix. The avatars’ association with Rare, however, isn’t noticable unless you go looking for it, and it’s not like they have historically appeared as characters in all that many games on their own.

Although Perfect Dark wasn’t exactly what Rare was (arguably) most commonly known for, it seems a misstep to not have moved forward with another commercially viable franchise that seemed to fit in with the testosterone-fueled branding Microsoft was building at the time.

On the other hand, the direction that Rare did choose to go with from that point forward—crafting cute games that were like the Rare games of old—didn’t exactly work, either. Few people that played Viva Pinata would likely accuse the game (or its sequel) of being poorly made. It was a new twist on the kind of kiddie approach that Rare at one time did so well, but one that ultimately failed to catch on despite pretty positive reviews across the board.

Again, Microsoft’s use of Rare feels like a botched opportunity. Maybe Viva Pinata didn’t sell as well as it could have (though Rare themselves said that they didn’t expect the game to exactly fly off the shelves, instead anticipating slower but steady sales), but what was stopping Microsoft from promoting it more, putting more ad support behind it or starting a line of kid-friendly games that they could have placed Rare in charge of? Say what you want about Viva Pinata’s cutesy exterior, but the game still held a bit of challenge—something generally characteristic of Rare games in general.

But if there’s one tragedy in particular in Rare’s post-Nintendo years, it’s the commercial flop that was Nuts & Bolts, the newest Banjo-Kazooie game released for the 360 in 2008. Nuts & Bolts, which I would say ranks among one the most ingenious platformer (or racers) of this console generation, was all but ignored by Microsoft. Completely under-marketed, it was quietly released during the year’s holiday rush, where it was quickly and completely trampled to death by a slew of much higher profile games. (So few people played it, in fact, I would almost argue that it will ultimately prove the series’ sad death knell.)

In spite of the creativity needed to play the game, which basically had you building all manner of race-or-combat-centric cars, trucks, boats, planes, tanks and god knows what else, Microsoft completely overshadowed Nuts & Bolts, proof that Microsoft still was evidently not comfortable with either diversifying to let Rare get a spot in their company spotlight, or that they still just had no place for the developer.

Rare has popped up again recently in industry news (if you dig, anyway), having developed Kinect Sports and apparently committing to work on more Kinect projects. Opinions are still heavily indecisive on whether or not Kinect will be more than a gimmick, but relegating Rare to a position developing games for an add-on that seems to have little use outside of exercise and dancing games just feels like more wasted potential (but at least the motion sensor seems primed to get more milage out of the XBL avatars). But with the departure of company founders Chris and Tim Stamper in 2007, Rare’s future is uncertain. Given the companies legacy, Microsoft should prove they’re smart enough to bring Rare back into the spotlight—perhaps allowing them to create a new IP suited to their skills sensibilites. Hell, even let them strike out on their own, so to speak, and see what sort of new ideas they can come up with. Since Microsoft seems somewhat skewed towards the development of games that Rare historically would probably not have designed, it’s a tough position to call. But to underuse Rare anymore than they already have seems a surefire mistake.