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, who 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.
Still, 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.
1992 marked three years since the release of the Sega Genesis, one since the Super NES. As with the Spectrum before it, the Stampers had pretty much maxed out what they could do with the original NES. That meant it was time to, once again, start thinking hard about the future. Although they ported a few Battletoads games around, it was clear the Stampers had missed leading the charge this time. After a brief period of angst – they hadn't climbed so far to turn out "just another developer" – the Stampers decided the best way to stay ahead was simply to manufacture their own revolution.
Over the NES era Rare had accumulated a fair pool of cash, thanks to all of those silly ports and licensed games. Now it was time to invest those profits, in the most advanced computer technology around at the time: a bank of SGI workstations larger than any in Britain. Midway had recently made waves with Mortal Kombat, which used digitized footage of actors instead of hand-drawn art. The Stampers were paying attention, and – combined with the lush palette of the SNES, figured they knew their calling. All they had to do was make a simple platformer, then insert high-quality CG renders in place of bitmapped illustrations, and the entire game would look like a 3D-rendered cartoon. Bingo, massive hit – and one that, in Rare style – capitalized on the strengths of the target platform.
Nintendo loved the idea for a showcase title, and sent over Donkey Kong for rehabilitation (figuring, for one, that Donkey Kong was so underused that it didn't matter so much if someone screwed with him – for another, if Rare pulled through then the contrast with the original games would be particularly striking). At the same time, Rare set to work on one of its few real arcade games: a home-rendered answer to Mortal Kombat called Killer Instinct. It was pretty successful, and certainly a better game than Mortal Kombat ever was. Donkey Kong Country, though – well. It was both a stupid success, and kind of a stupid success.
Although the game was very shiny, and there wasn't any particular problem with its design, it was also extremely vapid – to that date, perhaps the closest thing to a platformer-by-numbers that Nintendo ever published. While working on Yoshi's Island, Miyamoto expressed distaste for the game and irritation that his superiors kept pressuring him to make his game more like Rare's. Furthermore, as time has moved on, the early CG rendering tends to give the game a tacky look. Still, it sold eight million copies – and that was enough to cause Nintendo to buy out 25 percent of Rare's stock, at that time an unheard-of gesture for the company. And practically on their own, sales of Donkey Kong Country were enough to set the Stampers back for life.
Indeed, It was around here that Rare started to dial back on its frenetic pace; gone were the years of a dozen releases, each containing a handful of new ideas, one or two maybe a rough classic. By this point the Stampers felt that they had pretty much sussed out the Nintendo formula, and as Tim Stamper put it at the time, "I'd rather see one single high-quality game than ten low-quality games."
Fast forward to 1997; Rare's progress to date has been two Donkey Kong sequels, one sequel to Killer Instinct, five Donkey Kong/Killer Instinct-related ports, a Mario Kart clone starring the Donkey Kong cast, and a baseball game. Then come two curious N64 games: Blast Corps, an experimental little game where a bulldozer has to clear the path for a truck loaded with nuclear missiles, calling to mind such NES experiments as Cobra Triangle and R.C. Pro-Am; and a stab at a first-person shooter, based on a James Bond movie that had been out of theaters for ages.
The Bond game was Nintendo's idea; Rare was hesitant to take it on, though eventually acceded, choosing to staff the game almost exclusively with people who had never designed a videogame before – almost as much to see what happened, as anything. This group of greenhorns plugged away for two and a half years, switching platforms once (from the SNES to the N64, explaining the huge delay), producing a game that frankly nobody outside the subgroup was very enthusiastic about. The broader Rare was supportive, though, as David Doak said, "no-one really thought [it] was going to be any good. The general feeling was we were a bunch of students wasting time." No one paid attention at trade shows. On release, it got rave reviews and it sold all right, though not spectacularly. And then over the years it just kept on selling. By the time the N64 was retired, GoldenEye 007 had sold eight million copies, making it – at least in the US – the biggest-selling game for the system.
It is also in 1997 that Rare first began to bleed staff; Sony lured away a bunch of background artists from Donkey Kong Country, and a few programmers from Killer Instinct; whatever they were up to never manifested itself. The following year, eight months into production on Perfect Dark, a bunch of the GoldenEye staff took off. Martin Hollis, who had been in charge of both projects (and indeed had convinced the Stampers to go forward with GoldenEye) left to advise Nintendo of America on the GameCube. David Doak, writer and designer on the games, chose to form his own studio – Free Radical – taking a bunch of his "B-team" staff with him. Meanwhile the main branch of Rare released Banjo-Kazooie, a 3D platformer that took Mario 64 and fleshed it out in ways that maybe it wasn't meant to be. It sold okay, too.
1999 brought a 3D entry to Rare's Donkey Kong series, often considered one of the worst things Rare ever produced; a curious cooperative shooter called Jet Force Gemini, and a couple of Game Boy Color releases. In 2000, Rare put out a Mario Kart clone with Mickey Mouse in it; a poorly-received sequel to Bano-Kazooie that, if anything, made the problems in the original game clearer; a Game Boy Color port of Donkey Kong Country, and – finally – Perfect Dark. Despite the staff turnover and many conceptual problems, the game was released to a solid, if not amazing, reception – usually blamed on how venerable the N64 was by then. As soon as the game was done, fifty more employees streamed out the doors.
2001 gave the foul-mouthed Conker his day out; the consensus seems to be that the profanity and violence wasn't really funny or interesting, and neither was it as shocking as it pretended to be. The game was pretty solid, though, if not very inspired. In 2002 Rare delivered its only GameCube game, a by-the-numbers Zelda clone with the Starfox characters shoehorned in at the last minute. It sort of sucked. And then... it was over.
Out what what seemed like nowhere, Microsoft came along and scooped up Rare for a boggle-worthy $377 million; Nintendo allowed Rare to keep all its own original properties, including games that Rare had been working on for the GameCube. Thirty more employees fled the ship. The Internet collectively wondered how Nintendo could survive without Rare. Microsoft cackled with glee, as it had claimed one of the biggest, most well-respected studios in the West. And then, over the course of three years, Rare released two Xbox games. Both were tremendous flops. Rare readied two of its biggest GameCube projects for the launch of Microsoft's next-gen console – after almost blind pre-release hype from every gaming publication, sold... okay. Kameo has mostly been ignored, and Perfect Dark Zero has been pretty thoroughly savaged. The bulk of Rare's output since its total buyout has been, ironically enough, for the Game Boy Advance – yet another set of Donkey Kong ports, plus a few mascot-driven games drawn from Rare's character vault.
Rare was a hard-working little company, based in the primal need to "make it" in the bigger world, to pull itself, and anyone else it could take with it, out of the morass of what its founders considered a complete lack of perspective or ambition, in its home market. They studied the hardware backwards and forwards; they pored over everyone else's games to see why they were successful. They approached the industry, and the medium, like scientists, or alchemists, looking for the secret formula that would explain the mysteries of the Cosmos – and all the while, as they looked and mimed and probed and created their own sloppy, strange monsters in the dapperest suits in the world, they were essentially tapped into that which they were trying to find. Or worst, they were only ever a step or two away from greatness, from completely "getting it"; at best, they pushed their hardware of choice to places where nobody else even dreamed it could go – and that was just before lunch.
And then somewhere along they got desperate; it had been so long, and they'd still not completely cracked the formula – so they started to lose confidence. The world was moving on, around them – and they had to stay on top, or their whole mission was a failure. In comes the devil. They saw a facile, if ritzy, solution, and they went for it. The result: fame and fortune beyond their dreams. Clearly they had found the answer, so there was no point in looking further. Even their role model, Nintendo, showed faith in them (albeit during one of Nintendo's wonkiest stages, creatively). They had made it – and it all came from filling in the blanks. Take basic 2D platformer, add rendered sprites. Take Mario 64, add more things to collect. Take Zelda, add more tasks and junk to collect. They knew what they were doing, so now all they had to do was do it.
Rare means well, it always has. Still, there you go: a prodigious little company that showers earnest little gem after gem, to the point where its British fans were flocking them like the Beatles, anxiously waiting for the next single, to a monolith that puts out one lame platformer every other year. The one thing they never really found is subtlety. Balanced out between a dozen bizarre experiments, you can sense it – in the network of their scrambled efforts. With all their energy focused on one huge game at a time, spent on following "correct" pattern of design to the scientific letter, that humanity's gone. There's no room for nuance when you've got all your eggs jammed in someone else's basket.