Best of ND 2013: The History of Rare

The story of two brothers who took Nintendo and the video game industry by storm!

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 01/02/2014 11:00 2 Comments     ShareThis

This story was selected as one of our best from 2013. It was originally published on November 13, during Issue 179.

Rare’s tale begins with two brothers in the early eighties who had grown weary of toiling away making video games for other people. In 1982, Tim and Eric Stamper set out on their own to form Ashby Computers and Graphics, Ltd. The Stampers lived in England and were smitten with a system popular in that part of the world called the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, which would become their first muse. Working with just each other, their first creation was called Jetpac and published under the pseudonym Ultimate Play the Game. It was a success. For the next couple years, the Stampers continued putting out titles that captured the interests of players and critics alike, but as suddenly as they’d hit the scene, the two men relinquished control of Ultimate Play the Game and abandoned the ZX Spectrum. The reason for this drastic move was an upstart new company from the East called Nintendo.

The Stampers were taken with Nintendo’s Famicom, which was seeing success in Japan, and knew that it was the future of the industry. The brothers wanted to be ahead of the curve and get aboard Nintendo’s ship before it made the move West. As prescient as their deduction was, the brothers didn’t yet have direct access to the actual inner-workings of the console. To be able to make games for Nintendo’s new system meant having to physically dismantle and analyze the thing, along with the games themselves. With no other recourse, the brothers dedicated an entire new subdivision of Ashby Computers and Graphics to breaking down and reverse engineering Famicom from the ground up. The new venture was christened with the name Rare. The idea behind all this quasi-subterfuge wasn’t just to learn what made Famicom tick, but how to make it tick better. By the time the Stampers had finished, they were Nintendo hardware and software experts and ready to hit the ground running. Unfortunately, there was one big, ironic obstacle in their path that still needed to be overcome: Nintendo itself.

The Japanese company was infamously insular and restrictive when it came to outside developers during its rise in the late eighties. Nintendo was uncompromising and had strict rules about publishing third-party software, and the Stamper brothers weren’t entirely sure that they’d have enough clout to sway the company to play ball. With their software samples in hand, the Stampers made their way into Nintendo’s corporate headquarters with an unknown future twisting overhead. The two were actually the first Western developers to make such a bold attempt to court Nintendo’s favor, and something about their zest and clear technical prowess won the company over. The gamble had worked. Nintendo was impressed by the Stampers’ presentation and not only brought them into the fold, but gave them a large budget to work with, as well. The hardest part of the brothers’ journey was behind them. Now, it was time for them to start making games again.

At first, Rare worked on porting popular games and making titles based on licensed characters. It didn’t take long for the Stampers’ prediction that Nintendo was going to catch fire to come true. When Famicom launched in the US, it was rebranded the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and became a phenomenon, kickstarting the dying video game industry back into overdrive. Pundits who had criticized the Stampers’ sale of Ultimate Play the Game were suddenly eating crow as Rare was now primed to take advantage of Nintendo’s windfall. As the proliferation of NES increased, Rare began making more original titles for the system. One was R.C. Pro-Am, an isometric racing game featuring R.C. cars, powerups, and hazards that clearly later helped inspire Super Mario Kart. Another was the brutally difficult brawler Battletoads. Even when being derivative (as Battletoads was heavily influenced by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles concept), Rare would add its own unique twist or touch to a game in order to make it unique.

The Stampers saw the most success for Rare on Nintendo’s console, but over a five year period in which their company produced 60 games (including occasional titles made for Sega’s Genesis and Game Gear systems), it was becoming clear that things were about to change. Nintendo was preparing to release the follow up to NES, called the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), and the Stampers weren’t prepared for the transition. Part of what made their strategy with NES work so well was that they’d spent a great deal of time and energy learning everything about it. The Stampers knew as much about how NES operated as potentially even Nintendo itself, but SNES was another story entirely and was leaving them feeling uneasy. The Stampers quickly got to work developing a plan.

Game creation was drastically cut back and the Stampers invested in cutting edge Silicon Graphics computer work stations. These computer rigs represented the best in game development technology that the industry had available, but would take some time to fully harness. While the Stampers made their adjustments, Nintendo was taking notice and found itself impressed yet again. Making such an investment as the Stampers were demonstrated an uncanny commitment to their craft that Nintendo simply couldn’t ignore. With a string of successes in the company’s past, Nintendo bought a majority stake in Rare. With the British developer officially part of the family, and after charting the progress the Stampers were making in utilizing the Silicon Graphics technology, Nintendo decided it was time to let them play with the real toys; the Stampers picked Donkey Kong.

To kick off this new era, the brothers rechristened the company Rareware and got to work on their new Donkey Kong game. Part of the reason Nintendo trusted Rare so much was that the company, both its owners and workers, were in tune with the Japanese idiosyncrasies of game design. The Stampers had spent much time learning the ins and outs of Eastern video game philosophy from years of translating Japanese games and studying Nintendo closely. If this new relationship was going to be beneficial to both parties, it only made sense for Nintendo to give Rare at least a couple keys to the kingdom to see what the developers could really do. The Stampers, well aware of why Nintendo had so sincerely embraced them, knew that if their new Donkey Kong game was going to be deemed worthy, it would have to cling to the principles that made Nintendo’s best titles so enduring.

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2 Responses to “Best of ND 2013: The History of Rare”

  • 192 points
    Robin Wilde says...

    I live very close to where these guys grew up. It’s a bit weird how they’ve disappeared off the radar.

  • 0 points

    Wonderful over-view and summary.

    One aspect of the N64 generation that this article misses however is the impact the PlayStation was having throughout it.

    When the N64 launched, Nintendo was still considered the king of the throne. Yet, as the next couple years went by, key franchises starting moving over to the Sony console (Final Fantasy being the major one). The promise of more creative control and storage space didn’t hurt either.

    Soon, as amazing as Nintendo’s past may have been, they clearly didn’t understand a gamer’s priorities when they would not only lose all Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and Mana properties – but then never even bother to fill the gap. Somehow, progress for Nintendo went from having several hundreds of titles available, with dozens of them being timeless (for the average gamer) on the SNES, to having around a hundred titles available, with a dozen or so being timeless (for the average gamer) on the N64.

    What I never see mentioned, anywhere, is the real reason why Nintendo got the “we just have collectable games” moniker. Because a great majority of the titles on the system were collect-a-thons. As much praise as you may heap upon Banjo-Kazooie, it wasn’t the really colourful world, or the intriguing story-time narrative that grabbed my attention, instead, it was the endless pile of notes, and combs, and jingos, and they probably had coins and balloons in there somewhere too that I had to endlessly vacuum up.

    Perhaps that wouldn’t have been that noticeable, but as the article stated, the majority of releases on the N64 came from both Nintendo and RARE. If you wanted a guarantee of a great game – you would look for the “N” or the “R.” So, people kept going to these games expecting the same breadth of diverse game-play as seen on the SNES – and found themselves collecting red coins in Super Mario 64, and bananas in Donkey Kong 64, and jingos in Banjo-Kazooie, and more jingos in Banjo-Twooie, and even in Conkers and Jet Force Gemini you had to pick up stuff – there was nary a three-dimensional environment to be found whose sole purpose wasn’t you collecting a bunch of useless crap.

    Also; advertising. With RARE and Nintendo being the safe bets, the majority of collect-a-thon games were the ones played loudest over the speaker. For every Banjo-Tooie game, you have at least one Body Harvest, Space Station: Silicon Valley, Super Smash. Bros., Conker’s Bad Fur Day, or Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. But those games never received any television attention, which was something people still watched back in the day.

    Added to that the more “Western” style elements of what the PlayStation was offering – zombies in Resident Evil – Escape From New York style spy-protagonist in Metal Gear Solid – alongside a huge heaping of everyone’s favourite Eastern RPGs – and the conversation Sony was having with the consumer was so much more broad in scope and daring than what Nintendo was offering. People who had PlayStations were busy answering their friend’s questions about all these bizarre, cool adventures they were having four to five years into the thing. People who had N64’s were busy telling their friends that their machine does more than play Super Mario 64 and Super Mario 64 type games with less than a year before the GameCube came out.

    Perhaps RARE was getting tired and fed-up of seeing their more creative and nuanced projects (Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Blast Corps) getting ignored, while their more straight-forward and been-here-done-this-before games (Banjo-Tooie, Donkey Kong 64) were being touted as the design-paradigm for the system. Back in the SNES days, RARE was all about introducing beautiful graphics and colourful worlds into their titles. But with the N64, and their desire to bring story-telling more distinctly into that fold (Perfect Dark, Conker’s Bad Fur Day), titles such as Donkey Kong and Banjo, which received the attention and Nintendo-backed fan-fare, relied heavier on the 2-dimensional character aesthetic (What you see is what you get). Watching the video-game world literally grow up on the competitors machine, while having your forward-thinking ideas and most brilliantly polished works end up swimming in obscurity, I could understand the “enthusiasm” and “motivation” for RARE and the Stamper Brothers not really being there any more.

    By the time the GameCube hit, they couldn’t even pretend to like the collect-a-thon format any more, as seen with the relatively forgettable Star Fox Adventures.

    RARE was brilliant – but I believe the direction and emphasis Nintendo wished to take their “brand” played in direct contrast to what RARE wanted to do with the new tools being presented to them. Unfortunately, being tied so close to one another, they couldn’t work with separate mission statements. Or, more realistically, Nintendo wouldn’t let them, especially with their increased stake in the company (and having lost so much 3rd party support so quickly).

    The Nintendo-RARE relationship benefited Nintendo throughout its entire life-time, but really benefited RARE the most during the SNES days. I couldn’t help but believe that as an independent company, or with a publisher that was willing to advertise some of their more risky and daring projects, the company might not have disbanded in the fashion it did. Having visited the local video-game store recently, I took a look at their selection of used games. A copy of Conker’s Bad Fur Day on the N64, with a scratched label, was selling for $240. That’s more than they were asking for a used Wii-U.

    Think about that for a moment.

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