Gaming historians got pumped when Rare announced an anthology comprising many of their best games at E3 this year. The Rare Replay Collection has arrived and offers something of an industry time capsule, cataloguing the rise and fall of one of gaming history’s most celebrated developers.
Reviewing a collection of games, some of which are over thirty years old, presents an interesting dilemma. Do you attempt to review them all, even the oldest ones, on their own merits against today’s game design standards or do you critique the omnibus as a single package? With this review, I’m going to attempt to do a little bit of both.
The Rare Replay Collection is a surprisingly comprehensive arrangement of games made by a developer who were, at their peak, as revered as Blizzard, Valve or Nintendo. For the curious, here is the full list of titles in the Rare Replay Collection:
- Lunar Jetman
- Atic Atac
- Sabre Wulf
- Knight Lore
- R.C. Pro Am
- Cobra Triangle
- Snake Rattle & Roll
- Solar Jetman
- Digger T. Rock
- R.C. Pro Am 2
- Battletoads Arcade
- Killer Instinct Gold
- Blast Corps
- Jet Force Gemini
- Perfect Dark
- Conker’s Bad Fur Day
- Grabbed by the Ghoulies
- Kameo: Elements of Power
- Perfect Dark Zero
- Viva Pinata
- Jetpac Refuelled
- Viva Pinata 2
- Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts
There’s a whole lot of gold in there. Jetpac, despite it’s age, is still a blast to play. It’s just got this really smart, timeless design that keeps it fast and fun even at 32 years of age. Other games from the 80’s era don’t fare quite as well. Atic Atac was revolutionary at the time of its 1983 release, surprising critics with its haunted maze and tough enemies. Today it is a bewildering experience that flatly refuses to explain itself. Later in the 80’s, games like Slalom, Digger T. Rock, R.C. Pro Am and Cobra Triangle all present different, clever takes on a number of genres. R.C. Pro Am went on to inform games like Rock n’ Roll Racing while Slalom put a winter sports vibe on the scrolling racers of the time.
Then, in 1991, Battletoads. One of the most controller-snappingly difficult beat-em-up’s ever made continues to live up to its legendary reputation. I never finished Battletoads as a child and, with my roommate, I vowed to finally remove it from my Pile of Shame. It pains me to report that, as of this writing, victory still eludes us both. Indeed, even with the save functionality and rewind feature the Rare Replay Collection provides, we may never feel the warm glow of the credit roll.
The Nintendo 64 era is littered with jewels, from the motion puzzles of Blast Corps (now free of that save-file corrupting bug that plagued the N64 version!), the note-perfect platforming of Banjo-Kazooie and the still-engaging third-person shooting of Jet Force Gemini. The latter N64 years saw the hits keep coming. Rare found a way to improve upon perfection with Banjo-Tooie, attempted to recapture the essence of GoldenEye in Perfect Dark (the Xbox Live Arcade remaster in this case, as are the Banjo’s) and unleash their most infamous title, the profane Conker’s Bad Fur Day (presented here in it’s original Nintendo 64 incarnation, not the Conker: Live & Reloaded remake that appeared on the original Xbox). It turns out after all these years I am still addicted to the Beach multiplayer mode. I’ll have your scalps, you filthy French squirrels. I got a whole bunch of Teddy sniper rounds with your names on them.
With that, we move into the Xbox era and it’s here that Rare’s output became erratic at best. Starting with the forgettable Grabbed by the Ghoulies for the original Xbox – the only other game Rare ever released for the original Xbox aside from Conker – we move on to the Xbox 360. Both launch titles, Perfect Dark Zero and Kameo: Elements of Power are present and accounted for and both are actually quite a bit better than I remember. Perfect Dark Zero definitely shows its age in a world of nimble shooters like Titanfall and Call of Duty but it’s also able to channel some of the old-school charm that made the original so enjoyable. Kameo feels now like it might have gotten really short shrift at the time. There’s a lot of really interesting ideas at play there, and a successful twist on the Zelda: Majora’s Mask shapeshifting mechanic. I’d really like to see Rare take another run at Kameo someday.
This is followed by, hands down, my favourite Rare title of the Xbox era – Viva Pinata. This is a strategy/management sim par excellence. Don’t let the pre-schooler graphics fool you – this game is hard. Like really, really hard. It’s also incredibly addictive and is well worth sinking some time into. Criminally overlooked. Rare have also included their HD remaster, Jetpac: Refuelled and like its forebear, it is extremely good (if, it feels, slightly slower paced). Finally, we have Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Rare’s abortive attempt at turning the Banjo franchise into something like (their own) Diddy Kong Racing. It was then, and remains now, an insult to the Banjo-Kazooie franchise.
There are actually three things in particular that this collection does very well that I think are worth calling attention to right off the bat. First, it excels at translating every game on offer from its original format and control scheme onto the Xbox One controller. Everything – particularly games from the Nintendo 64 era with its thumb-mangler of a controller – feels like it’s been gently tweaked so that it plays perfectly on the modern pad without sacrificing the feel of the original.
Second, the games on offer allow the player to experience thirty years of growth and expansion in game design over the course of a few hours. It’s amazing to play a title like Jetpac, made in 1983 when designers were quite literally making shit up as they went, and then jump into something from the last console generation like Perfect Dark Zero or Viva Piñata and see just how varied and incredibly complicated design has become. They even include a wonderful feature for the older 2D games where clicking the right stick puts a CRT filter over the screen. It perfectly emulates the look of those graphics on the kinds of TV’s they were built for and adds an even thicker layer of nostalgia to the proceedings. My pixel art connoisseur roommate was very appreciative of this touch.
Third, the Rare Replay Collection isn’t content to be a litany of the developer’s greatest hits. Not every game in this collection is a great one and it’s this that really sets the collection apart. You don’t see a developer confront their back catalogue, warts and all, like this very often. I mean, they took a system already that had Super Mario 64 on it and made three of the greatest adventure platformers in the history of the medium. Then again, they also made Grabbed by the Ghoulies. If nothing else it helps create a true appreciation for what a varied career Rare have had. Very few developers working today have a resume this broad – shooters, platformers, racers, fighters, strategy, brawlers – Rare have tried it all. Not every experiment was a rousing success, of course, but you certainly can’t say they have a shortage of creative ideas.
It’s also far from every game Rare have ever released. There are a number of glaring omissions but most have been left out for obvious, Nintendo-shaped reasons. Plenty of lip service is paid to all of the games that were released on Microsoft’s consoles, however, and to my mind it creates a degree of historical cognitive dissonance.
As I mentioned earlier, the Rare Replay Collection paints itself as not just a greatest hits collection but as an exhaustively compiled history of Rare Ltd. from its founding by the Stamper Brothers in 1985, both of whom built Rare on the success of their first company Ultimate Play the Game. It does this by providing in-depth behind-the-scenes and making-of videos that are unlocked during the course of play. These special features focus solely on the games at hand but seem to either lightly skim or else skip right over Rare’s relationship with Nintendo.
It feels incredibly weird to honour the history of Rare like this and not have some tip of the hat to two of the studio’s most celebrated titles – Donkey Kong Country and GoldenEye 007. Obviously, DK is owned by Nintendo so the likelihood of him featuring in a compilation like this was always going to be zero. GoldenEye remains in copyright hell. I’m not asking for a miracle here. I just think, given the magnitude of that relationship and the sheer number of instant classics Rare produced under Nintendo’s roof, that we should give them a shout out. It seems beyond crazy that any history of the company would omit or gloss over this period – especially when several of the best games from said period are included in the collection.
But that’s just me having a whine. This really is a great collection and it allowed me to appreciate Rare’s games from a different perspective than the one I had when I was growing up. Not only did I learn a lot about the developer I’d come to love as a teenager but I was also given a really lovely trip down memory lane. It’s hard to overstate how important and influential Rare’s back catalogue has been. To some, that might seem excessive praise but those people probably don’t know or don’t remember what owning a Nintendo 64 was like. The onslaught of seriously incredible games from Rare never seemed to end. The look on my smug, PlayStation-owning friend’s face when they saw screens for Perfect Dark was delicious to me. Excited at first, followed by the dawning realisation they’d never be able to play it. I remember it clearly even now.
Thanks for the memories, Rare. I’ll always love you.
Review Score: 8.5/10
Highlights: 30 games!; Refreshingly honest; Some true masterpieces
Lowlights: Some games don’t hold up as well; Still can’t beat Battletoads 🙁
Developer: Rare Ltd.
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Released: August 4, 2015
Platform: Xbox One
Reviewed on Xbox One