Put the Rare Replay compilation disc into the Xbox One and you’ll be greeted by a song and dance routine.
Classic Rare characters – from Banjo Kazooie to the Great Mighty Poo – have been recreated in 2D puppet form, and they all start singing a self-referential ditty.
It’s daft, it’s funny… it’s exactly what you’d expect from Rare.
And to some fans, that was a pleasant surprise.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, Rare had attracted a loyal following thanks to hits such as Donkey Kong Country, Battletoads, Banjo Kazooie, GoldenEye and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. It had become famous for pushing games technically and for their irreverent humour.
Fan sites dedicated to the studio were formed, with players obsessively trying to gain a sneak look behind the gate of the firm’s reclusive Twycross campus.
Yet over the past seven years, Rare’s focus had shifted towards making Kinect games (namely the Kinect Sports series), and the firm’s loyal fanbase – at least the vocal ones amongst them – were feeling let down. Staff left and fan sites closed. It appeared that the iconic Rare of the 1990s was no more.
The idea that Rare isn’t what it was a few years ago… to me, I grew up near Rare,” begins Adam Park, lead producer at the Microsoft-owned company.
It was like Willy Wonka’s factory. I didn’t quite believe that this place that made all these things that I loved was local to me. Now I work at Rare, and there are people here that have been here since the very beginning. Yes the industry has changed. Games are bigger, budgets are obviously a lot bigger and games take longer to develop. But this thing that Rare has that I’ve never found at any other company… it still has that sense of being a small group of people with the freedom to work independently.”
"Rare still has that sense of being a
small group with the freedom to
Adam Park, Rare
Over the last few months, I’ve learnt a lot about how Rare treats its fans. Develop editor James Batchelor and I were fans of the studio when we were younger, and so we’ve been playing Rare Replay and talking about each game on a podcast.
It is just a fan project, but the support we’ve had from Rare has been surprising. Not just in promoting our podcast, but also in supplying guests for the show.
If Rare had abandoned its fans a few years ago – as some of its critics have insisted – it doesn’t appear to be the case anymore.
In fact, after revealing Rare Replay and the upcoming Sea of Thieves at E3, the firm proceeded to meet some of its more loyal fans.
We had these fan fests,” says Park. Some of our most dedicated fans were at E3. Some guys from a website called DK Vine who have always been there from the early days of the internet – we got to meet them. It has been wonderful. The studio is buzzing with the reception we have been getting.”
He adds: We have seen new Rare fan sites popping up. It is something we really welcome and we try to give them as much as we can in terms of new information, but also giveaways and feeling included as part of the studio.”
Doing new things is in the culture of the studio.
A lot of developers can end up focusing on one
type of game or franchise. But if you look at the
Xbox 360 era, on one end of the spectrum you
have a first person shooter [Perfect Dark Zero]
and at the other end you have a garden simulator
[Viva Pinata], with aesthetics and games that are so
different. We don’t like to stay looking at the same
thing for too long."
Adam Park, Rare
Rare’s fandom stems from the studio’s particularly unique flare. The developer has tried a plethora of genres from violent beat ‘em ups to cute platformers. Yet each title feels distinctly ‘Rare’.
A lot of that comes from the humour, the staff and the studio’s rather unusual location in the middle of nowhere, says Park. Yet another big part of Rare’s heritage is its desire to try different genres.
Doing new things is in the culture of the studio,” says Park. A lot of developers can end up focusing on one type of game or franchise. But if you look at the Xbox 360 era, on one end of the spectrum you have a first person shooter [Perfect Dark Zero] and at the other end you have a garden simulator [Viva Pinata], with aesthetics and games that are so different. We don’t like to stay looking at the same thing for too long.”
Rare’s reluctance to do many sequels may frustrate fans, but if it wasn’t for its willingness to give up on Battletoads and Killer Instinct, we would never have seen Banjo-Kazooie and Perfect Dark. And the teams are continually encouraged to dream up new concepts.
Anybody in the studio can put forward and idea and suggest something,” says Park.
And we have a dedicated team to help with this. If you are an engineer that isn’t necessarily any good at art and can’t articulate yourself well, we have a team that helps you get that into a pitch. Which is a really lovely thing.”
2015 is the 30th anniversary of Rare, and this milestone has been celebrated via Rare Replay, the appearance of Rare icons in other games (see Rare Everywhere) a clothing range from Insert Coin and even some limited edition vinyls.
It’s clear in speaking to Park that Rare is relishing this attention. It is a studio that has continually evolved, and although it may not be exactly the same as it was in the 1990s, there’s a sense of renewed confidence about the studio.
And with Kinect left in the past, and mysterious adventure title Sea of Thieves in development, there are reasons for Rare’s loyal fans to feel excited about its future and not just its past.
Rare launched a number of hit franchises that continued to exist to this day in varying form. Including:
Donkey Kong Country
Rare debuted the Donkey Kong Country series in 1994, and it continues today under the guidance of Taxas-based Retro Studios. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on Wii U arrived in 2014.
The bear and bird duo last appeared in 2008 on Xbox 360. Yet the idea behind the IP lives on in Yooka-Laylee, a 3D platformer featuring a lizard and bat and being built by former Rare alumni.
The action platform stars haven’t appeared in their own game since the 1990s. But this year they showed up in the Xbox One version of Shovel Knight and are now fighters in the latest Killer Instinct.