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History Lesson: Rare

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 15th Dec 2013 at 10:30 AM UTC

Despite what some younger gamers think, Rare didn't come fully formed into this world with the release of Donkey Kong Country.

Before its spectacularly good run on SNES and N64, the company had already developed nearly 100 games for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad, MSX, BBC Micro and the NES.

You'll probably be aware of some of its early stuff already - Battletoads, Jetpac - but there are a great number of surprises stuffed in its extensive back catalogue, and more than a few hidden gems.

Brothers Tim and Chris Stamper founded the company back in 1982, but it wasn't until years later that it would become the Rare we know and love(d). As Ultimate Play The Game it released a number of titles for primordial computers such as the ZX Spectrum, including arcade shooter Jetpac, Sabre Wulf, Underwurlde and Blackwyche.

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The first ever ad for a Rare game, printed in CVG issue 20, June 1983

Although its games shared a tendency to put 'E's on the end of words for no good reason, Rare's early output covers an impressive range of genres, from shoot-'em-ups to platformers to proto-adventure game Dragon Skulle. Despite the relative absence of foul-mouthed squirrels or nappy-wearing simians, it's easy to ID them as Rare games.

The studio's first NES title was 1987 skiing game Slalom. It was followed in the same year by Wizards & Warriors, a title that studio head Mark Betteridge remembered in an interview with Edge magazine as having "the worst jump animation ever".

Video game versions of Wheel Of Fortune and Jeopardy! didn't do a lot to make up for this, but Rare's NES port of California Games is responsible for some of our fondest memories of 8-bit gaming.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, meanwhile, offered another mixture of platforming and adventure gaming, but it could easily have just been a non-interactive gallery of Jessica Rabbit pictures, and nobody would have minded (it's okay, she's not actually a rabbit. Or, er, real). It was Rare's first foray into the troubled waters of games based on movies, but as GoldenEye 007 would illustrate eight years later, it could be trusted on that front more than any other developer.

But it was 1990's Battletoads that would come to be its most memorable NES title (yes, even more than Super Glove Ball). As it was released late in the console's lifespan, Rare was now an old hand with the NES and the amphibious beat-'em-up pushed the console to its limits.

Numerous ports followed, but also a few sequels - Battletoads & Double Dragon, Battletoads In Battlemaniacs and Battletoads Vs Predator. Okay, we made that last one up. Battletoads was Rare's biggest franchise before Nintendo entrusted them with the keys to Donkey Kong.

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Looking back at the SNES and N64, it's surprising just how many of their biggest and best games were developed by Rare. From 1994 to 2002 it was essentially a first-party company, crafting titles with the polish, invention and charm of Nintendo, but with more western sensibilities and a defiantly British sense of humour. Donkey Kong Country and GoldenEye 007 may be the titles constantly cited as classics, but many of its other games deserve their fair share of attention too.

Killer Instinct, Rare's sole addition to the fighting genre, may not have had the impact of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, but on SNES and N64 it was technologically way ahead of them both.

Conker's Bad Fur Day, on the other hand, was a razor-sharp parody of everything Rare had achieved with Banjo-Kazooie, with added Matrix bits and toilet humour. And before you think we've left Blast Corps out, have a look through the gallery at the bottom of the page.

Like all good things, however, it had to come to an end. In 2002, Rare was bought by Microsoft and, although it made a few interesting games for Xbox and Xbox 360, it's fair to say it's yet to recapture its SNES and Nintendo 64 heyday. Today, Rare is a very different beast - Tim and Chris Stamper have both left, while the company mainly focuses on Kinect titles these days (its last two games developed in-house were Kinect Sports titles, with a third in development).

While its future may be in the hands of Microsoft, then, there's no forgetting the legacy Rare will always leave behind it, a collection of hundreds of fantastic games that dates back 30 years.

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GoldenEye. Donkey Kong Country. Perfect Dark. Banjo Kazooie. We all know the classics Rare's been responsible for, and we can rhyme them all off without much thought.

There have been plenty of other Rare games that may not be wedged as firmly into the modern gamer's lexicon, though. Some of the games below are forgotten gems, others are cult favourites, and others are just worth mentioning again because, at the time, they were amazing.

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