A Generation That Could Have Been: The History and Murder of Rare Ltd.

A one-time industry leading developer and their fall from grace.

1994, Nintendo releases Donkey Kong Country on the Super Nintendo. To many it came as a surprise that Nintendo handed over their very first game character to a then little known British game studio called Rare.

Rare had been around since 1985, but their only real claim to fame was the notoriously difficult Battletoads games that leached off of that popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Donkey Kong Country would go on to be the second highest selling game on the SNES and skyrocket Rare into a high profile second-party developer for Nintendo. What followed was an amazing run of games like Killer Instinct, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day.  

GoldenEye 007 revolutionized first-person shooters on consoles long before that John Halo guy ever suited up. Killer Instinct carved out its own identity with a combo heavy system and a rock-paper-scissors based combo breaker to balance the game.

Then 2002 rolled around… and Microsoft purchased Rare for $375 million. With Microsoft entering the console market with their new Xbox system, this nabbed them both a talented first-party developer, but also disarmed their competitor Nintendo by robbing them of a studio they had come to rely on for quality games.  The first game Rare developed under Microsoft was Grabbed by the Ghoulies… I’m sure we all remember playing that one and how many awards it won right? This was the beginning of the downward spiral for Rare.

Rare was already somewhat of a splintered studio before the Microsoft acquisition. They had lost most of the GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark teams that left to form the studio Free Radical Design.  The level of quality in their games had noticeably dipped, but they pushed on with an Xbox remake of Conker’s Bad Fur Day called Conker: Live & Reloaded. They launched the Xbox 360 with two Rare games: Kameo: Elements of Power, and Perfect Dark Zero… both had started as Xbox games, and both were forgettable, underwhelming games. They rounded out the Xbox 360 generation at a failed attempt to revive Banjo Kazooie and a brief glimpse at the old Rare with the successful pet simulation series Viva Pinata.

Now at the end of this console cycle, this once great developer is relegated to making cheap knock offs of Nintendo’s ideas. Nintendo was successful with the Wii avatar system “Mii”… so Microsoft has Rare develop Xbox avatars. Nintendo had insane success with Wii Sports… so Microsoft has Rare make Kinect Sports.

What follows is evidence in the murder trial of the game studio once known as Rare Ltd. The culprit’s name is Microsoft.

So how did Rare get to such a pitiful state? Well for starters the two founders of Rare left the company in 2007 shortly after the release of Viva Pinata.

There are close to twenty known games that where either pitched by Rare to Microsoft and denied or cancelled. There’s likely countless others that have never been publicly acknowledged. Here is a list of some of the titles Rare was attempting to get made.

Kameo 2

A sequel to the Xbox 360 launch title Kameo: Elements of Power was in development with a more mature art style. It was canned by Microsoft in late 2007.

Cascade

A fantasy MMO that had taken several different forms as far back as the N64 days. Work on the game was cancelled 2007 when the team was reassigned to work on a port of GoldenEye for Xbox Live. Speaking of which…

GoldenEye 007 Remake

The blood of this dead game technically isn’t on Microsoft’s hands. The game was nearly complete when Nintendo of Japan decided to back out of the licensing agreement at the last minute.

Banjo-Karting

A working prototype that was made based around the driving elements of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. The game was rejected by Microsoft in order to focus on making Kinect Sports. The Banjo model from the prototype did find its way into the Xbox 360 version of Sonic & Sega Allstar Racing Transformed though.

Urchin

The game has only been seen in the concept art phase but was at least eight months into development before it was cancelled in 2006. Urchin was being made by the team that did Conker: Live and Reloaded and was speculated to be connected to the Conker universe… but with a more fantasy/horror style.

Sabreman Stampede

The 6 year development cycle of this doomed game can be followed fully in this article (with video of the game in action). Basically Donkey Kong Racing was pretty far into development for the GameCube when Microsoft bought Rare. Initially the game was going to be retooled using Rare’s own Sabreman character… but videos show it evolved into an open world hunting game.

Perfect Dark Core

A prototype game that started out in the Perfect Dark universe but shifted direction towards a more realistic mech FPS set in its own world. The game never made it past the last prototype in 2008.

Other games that have been mentioned but never had any assets revealed were the futuristic racing game Arc Angel, a survival horror game called Ordinary Joe, a first person adventure game called SoulCatcher, and a game called Savannah that was basically Viva Pinata with real animals. Former Rare employees have also referred to cancelled games on twitter only by the project's initials... so hard to say exactly what those games were.

It really makes you think about what could have been: what Nintendo could have been if Rare had been a developer for Gamecube, Wii, and WiiU… and what the library of the Xbox 360 could have been if Microsoft was willing to greenlight some of these games.

Rare, as we once knew it, is dead.

Rare without the Stamper brothers is totally neutered. It’s Infinity Ward without Vince Zampella and Jason West. It’s Capcom without Keiji Inafune. It’s Nintendo without Shigeru Miyamoto at the helm of any games.

Microsoft is set on letting the remnants of Rare just crap out casual Kinect games. There is a glimmer of hope with Killer Instinct being developed by Double Helix. Rather than just sit on the Rare library they purchased for $375 million, they might as well at least let some capable developers bring back some of these games. A lot will depend on how well Killer Instinct performs in sales… and given that it’s a free to play, partially finished launch title, that future is looking pretty shaky.

Images and info for this article came from Unseen64 and MundoRare. If you’d like to see more images, videos and interviews with the developers I highly recommend checking them out. 

Featured Columnist

Lifelong gamer, artist, writer, lurker, occasional troll, and 1994 Blockbuster Game Tournament Store Champion.

Published Nov. 10th 2013

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