A Short History of Rare

A Short History of Rare

In continuation of our "Short History of…" series, Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh recounts Rare’s journey from a ZX Spectrum developer to an icon of innovation–and to a company searching for its next big hit.

1982 seems like a sort of holy nexus for the game industry; it’s the year of EA, the year of Lucasfilm Games, and the year the Stamper brothers, then in their early twenties, began to tackle the ZX Spectrum. The Spectrum was an odd system, a phenomenon in Europe (especially the UK) yet completely unheard of here. The best analogy I can come up with is that it served as a parallel for our Apple II – except even more mainstream. Therefore, where we got Sierra and Origin the Brits got the Stampers, buried under two levels of pseudonym ("Ashby Computer Graphics" for the company, "Ultimate: Play the Game" for the public brand).

A curious phenomenon of the Spectrum market is that whereas Apple software tended to stem from Dungeons & Dragons (through one path or another), the UK stuff tended to be based more in an arcade sensibility. The Stampers, coming themselves from an arcade background, were right at home with the hardware and the UK development scene. They digested the hardware, found exploits that made for interesting game concepts or visual approaches, and over three years proceeded to put out a nearly unbroken strain of mega-hit releases (by British standards) – fourteen, by the end of 1986. And that’s not even counting their experiments with the Commodore.

Over that period the Stampers worked eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, supposedly taking only two Christmas mornings away from their screens. Indicating a Lamborghini, in a famed late ’80s interview, Tim Stamper explained "If you want that, you have to work to get it. I don’t feel it’s any good having engineers who only work nine to five, because you get a nine-to-five game. You need real input." The result of that hard work, and the ridiculous release schedule of original, well-designed software that came out of it, was something of a Beatles-scale fandom. Yet the Stampers’ work schedule was such that they simply had no time for interviews or public appearances, adding to their mystique and – if anything – helping to make them the most in-demand development team in Britain.

And then the Stampers did something nobody quite understood – they sold off their "Ultimate" brand, and dropped the Spectrum like an old shoe. Even when the Stampers laid it bare, years after the fact, still no one back home really understood what they were on about. The thing is, back around early 1984 the Stampers got ahold of Nintendo’s new Famicom hardware, and were completely taken aback by it. They were convinced that, before long, it would become a sensation both in Japan and in the US, where Nintendo was planning to market it. In a burst of enthusiasm, they bought all the software available for it, and immediately set to reverse-engineering the system. They formed a secret subdivision of ACG called "Rare" to focus on Nintendo development, while Ultimate held up the public front, continuing its diligent Spectrum output.

By early 1985 the Stampers had hacked out the Famicom and had begun to write software for it; they brought some of that work to Nintendo, as a proof of concept – the first Western developers to do so. Nintendo was sufficiently impressed to hand over the official documentation that the Stampers didn’t even need at this point, and an official license to produce for the system – albeit under a unique "freelance" scheme. Whereas traditional publishers, under Nintendo of America’s "quality assurance" standards, were only allowed a certain number of releases per year, Rare was allowed an unlimited budget, provided they could find a publisher. And indeed, by the late ’80s Rare – by now the official company name, as it was in the Nintendo business for good – was publishing more games per year than anyone in his right mind would suggest: from six to fifteen to seventeen separate releases.

The curious issue here is that, whereas the Spectrum was a smash only in the Stampers’ corner of the world, that corner is also one of the few places left largely unaffected by the Nintendomania. So around the time Super Mario 2 was hitting shelves (alongside Rare’s own R.C. Pro-Am and Cobra Command), British magazines were starting to wonder what happened to their wonder children, and why they were wasting time on this strange Japanese box that nobody had ever heard of. When Tim Stamper explained that the Spectrum was over, that it was a dead end and that Nintendo was the future, his peers thought of Donkey Kong and scratched their heads. When he explained that there were ten million Nintendo consoles in Japan, and that the system was also a runaway success in America, people took the statement much as you’d take statistics on Aibo sales. It just didn’t register, or make any sense.

moscallout"There’s nothing wrong with moving one step at a time."/moscalloutStill, the Stampers knew true appreciation lay in the sales numbers – and through a ridiculous five years of productivity, sales are what they got – albeit spread across dozens of small, experimental games and ports, rather than through any one or two smash hits. From 1987 through 1991, Rare released forty-four games; two for the newfangled Game Boy, the rest for the NES. Of those, four (including sequels to such Rare staples as the Wizards & Warriors and Jetman series) were actually produced by the Pickford Brothers, of Zippo Games – the only British studio Rare chose to work with. Twelve were wholly original; fifteen were sports or film, TV, or comic licenses; eleven were ports of arcade, PC, or even pinball games. Even the ports and licensed games, however, come off as carefully-chosen experiments; games like Marble Madness allowed the Stampers to show off their command of physics and isometric graphics (two of their trademark proficiencies). Pin Bot let them employ unprecedented split-screen graphical tricks.

At the time, the Stampers didn’t seem to much distinguish between original and licensed projects; they were fans of videogames in general, happy to see games that were made well and were successful – in part because then they could break down those games to study what made them so entertaining. The results of this research are pretty obvious; see their port of Marble Madness, then see Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll. Far from resent the grunt work, they put their own stamp of identity on it then took what they could for their own use. "There’s nothing wrong with moving one step at a time," Tim Stamper has said. "And that’s exactly what we did: we paid our dues by producing a lot of conversions in the early days."

In particular, Tim and Chris Stamper were impressed with Japanese games – with which they felt some common roots, taking arcade action then making it deeper, longer-lasting for play at home. At the time, Chris Stamper expressed some frustration that none of their peers in the UK seemed to "get it"; that there was a bigger world out there, that nobody was bothering to study. It was almost like, despite all the obvious talent around him, no one was even trying to break out of the ghetto. "Britain’s got the best talent without a doubt. We should be producing the number one games, and it’s not happening." To that end, the Stampers tried to serve as sort of a role model for the entire British game industry, drawing out the merits and appealing qualities of Nintendo’s games and trying to instill a rigid work ethic that they felt was necessary to compete on a world stage. As related in a 1988 Games Machine interview, "it is only through examining Japanese-made games and then putting the theory into practice through their painstakingly built contacts that they have reached the point they have."

Although this bootstrapping attitude has indeed been responsible for much of Rare’s success, it has also caused friction between the Stampers and their peers; after producing a couple of games for Rare (to little compensation), Zippo Games fell on hard times. Rare bought out the Pickford brothers and set up their studio as "Rare Manchester". Although their relationship had been amicable at arm’s length, the Pickfords soon found working directly under the Stampers more than they could bear. After the cancellation of a Game Boy wrestling game that one of the brothers was particularly proud of, the Pickfords picked up and left. And it was about then that life began to get a whole lot more complicated for Tim and Chris Stamper.