Rare Vintage: Part One

Rare Vintage: Part One

Not all company names are so apt. You could point to Rare’s very survival as proof – there are few studios formed in the ’80s to make it this far, and fewer still which remain at the forefront of the medium. You could point to its legacy, too – not many companies can lay claim to such a wellspring of nostalgia, nor to the lasting impression that games such as GoldenEye 007 left on the industry as a whole.
Not all company names are so apt. You could point to Rare’s very survival as proof – there are few studios formed in the ’80s to make it this far, and fewer still which remain at the forefront of the medium. You could point to its legacy, too – not many companies can lay claim to such a wellspring of nostalgia, nor to the lasting impression that games such as GoldenEye 007 left on the industry as a whole.

 

But Rare was rare from the very outset: founded 25 years ago in Ashby, its very conception was to set it apart from western developers of the time, intended as it was to take advantage of Nintendo’s new console. Studio head Mark Betteridge calls it the “big, grey, boxy beauty”, and it’s clear that the company owes much to the NES. Betteridge estimates that for a period of 18 months, Rare was the only English-speaking company making NES titles, establishing it as the go-to developer for publishers and licensors across the western world.

The company’s reputation with Nintendo blossomed into a full partnership that would see the creation of Rare’s best-loved games – Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie and Perfect Dark. With its acquisition by Microsoft, Rare has found itself once again in a pioneering role, an essential player in Microsoft’s plan to transform Xbox 360 via its Kinect peripheral.

To mark Rare’s 25th birthday, we visited the company’s sprawling estate in Twycross, barely ten miles from where it first began, the house that Banjo built now residing in a green and pleasant land of duck ponds and well-tended gardens, hemmed in by a high-security fence. Over the next six pages, Rare’s long-serving Betteridge, along with creative director George Andreas and head of design Gregg Mayles, trawl through the untold stories of its 25 years. The recurring theme is ambition, albeit disguised by googly eyes, puns and collectibles – offset by self-effacing humour.

“If Rare were to be hit by a milk-float tomorrow,” we ask, finally, “what would you put on its tombstone?” Mayles is quick with his reply: “Two big eyes on the top.” Cheers, Rare. We’ll see you at 50.

Wizards & Warriors
Format: NES Publisher: Acclaim Release: 1987

Mark Betteridge: This was the game that started Acclaim in the entertainment business. It’s also the game with the worst jump animation ever – I know exactly why that is. Ghosts ’N Goblins was out on coin-op at the same time, and I remember looking at it and saying: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a jump like that – that spread-eagled jump?” Wizards & Warriors was quite a precise jumping game, so that would be one of the reasons we didn’t go for it, but one of the other reasons was that the characters were eight-by-eight sprites – that was the maximum size which would display on a line on that hardware. Otherwise they’d just disappear after eight. If you drew the character any wider then any other characters that were near would disappear when you jumped. That’s why he jumped with straight legs.

Battletoads
Format: NES Publisher: Tradewest Release: 1991

MB: For me, Battletoads was a swansong on the NES in the same way that Donkey Kong Country was a swansong on the Super NES – what can we squeeze out of the hardware for one last hurrah? So that’s why you had the different scroll levels, the parallax levels, the vertical rotating tube. It looked like you were doing things you shouldn’t be able to do on that hardware. The end of that first level where you get the boss character, you only see its leg because we couldn’t draw anything bigger, and then it switches to the view from the boss itself, and it’s firing at you. And that comes from us asking: how can we make this thing look bigger than it actually is? We get a lot of letters about that game. In hindsight, we wish we’d made the third level easier.

Killer Instinct
Format: Coin-op, SNES Publisher: Midway, Nintendo Release: 1994, 1995

MB: I was working on Killer Instinct as the engineer. It was a dual approach with the new technology – doing a coin-op as well as a console game. It was a time when successful games were film licences and tie-ins and sequels, and we thought if we could establish something with its quality through the coin-op, then we could bring it to the home market without spending millions of dollars on a product we didn’t own. Killer Instinct’s hardware had only a single processor. There was no graphics hardware, so all the rendering had to be done in software. It was a scary process, that. The whole game was written in assembler with no debugging – we couldn’t communicate back from the board to find out why it had crashed.

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