When Rare was working with Nintendo in the 1990s, the company was held in the same regard that developers like Blizzard Entertainment, Bethesda, or Naughty Dog are today. A Rare game usually achieved financial success, sure, but there was also something else at work. Games like Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye, and Perfect Dark released with an extra layer of polish. When you saw the Rare label, you knew you were getting something truly amazing, an experience above and beyond just a game. Rare played a large role in keeping the Nintendo 64 competitive as gamers started leaving cartridges behind for the better graphics on disc-based systems like Sony’s PlayStation.
So it makes sense that Rare looked quite attractive to other publishers besides Nintendo. Activision and Microsoft both reportedly visited Rare’s studios at the turn of the century, but it was Microsoft that eventually won out, purchasing the studio and bringing them in as a first-party developer for $375 million in 2002.
The early years after the acquisition by Microsoft were successful enough, with the company remaking Conker’s Bad Fur Day for the Xbox and leading the charge with two titles for the Xbox 360 launch with the mostly well-received Perfect Dark Zero and Kameo: Elements of Power.
But for whatever reason, a lot of fans felt that some of Rare’s efforts with Microsoft did not live up to the company name. Even some of the better reviewed games did not meet sales expectations. The company’s two founders ended up leaving in 2007, and in recent years, Rare was used as a studio for Kinect games. That’s glossing over a lot of the details, but the point is that the Rare of today is a far cry from the company that basically printed money in the 1990s with Nintendo. The name “Rare” still has prestige to it, but it’s based mostly on the company history, and not so much their recent work.
But that could change in the next two weeks.
Xbox head Phil Spencer has made it a point to let fans know that Rare is currently working on at least one new title and that it is a “uniquely Rare game.”
Add in the fact that Microsoft has pretty much killed off the Kinect, and a lot of fans are now hoping that the Rare of old, the one that created a long streak of popular, polished best sellers, might finally be making its comeback.
It’s with that in mind that we decided to sit down and come up with a list of what we could potentially see from Rare at this year’s E3, or maybe in the years ahead:
We might as well start with the franchise that Phil Spencer couldn’t resist teasing. Spencer stirred the pot when he wore a Battletoads t-shirt to Microsoft’s press conference for Windows 10 earlier this year. Battletoads is a classic Rare franchise that originally launched on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991.
Battletoads stars three anthropomorphic toads named after their skin conditions: Rash, Zitz, and Pimple. It was created to serve as a competitor to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games, which were quite popular in the early 90s. Battletoads is a beat em up that became known for its intense difficulty. It’s that difficulty that has helped it maintain a cult following of fans, even today. A number of sequels followed both in the arcade and on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Those who played indie hit Shovel Knight on Xbox One were treated to an appearance by the toads as a bonus boss.
The franchise was recently mentioned by name by Microsoft Studios’ Ken Lobb who said Microsoft has plans to bring Battletoads and other Rare classics back “someday.”
The Shovel Knight appearance along with the multiple instances of Microsoft executives name-dropping the franchise seem to imply that this is the most likely of the games on this list to show up at this year’s E3.
Banjo-Kazooie was released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64 as a platforming action-adventure title. The game was an instant hit and spawned a sequel, Banjo-Tooie, in 2000. But the franchise hasn’t really been heard from since, other than getting ported to Xbox Live Arcade.
Actually, scratch that, Banjo-Kazooie did make headlines recently, but it did so as an influence for another game. A team of former Rare developers who had worked on Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country put their campaign for what they called a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie on Kickstarter. The proposed game is called Yooka-Laylee. The Kickstarter is still active as of publication of this article, and has already been funded many times over, currently sitting at $2.6 million and counting.
It’s doubtful that well connected former Rare employees would create a game like this if they knew that an actual Banjo-Kazooie was coming soon from Rare. With that said, the massive success of Yooka-Laylee‘s Kickstarter surely caught the attention of Microsoft executives. The people clearly want more Banjo-Kazooie. Even if this game does not get announced at this year’s E3, it should be on the shortlist going forward when Rare is trying to decide what they want to make next.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day was an incredibly unique but controversial title when it released on the Nintendo 64 in 2001, just one year before Microsoft swooped in to purchase Rare.The action-platformer was crass but hilarious, and it was a perfect fit for the more mature audience that Microsoft was going after with the original Xbox, thus leading to the remake, Conker: Live & Reloaded in 2005.
Actually, that’s not entirely true, as Microsoft saw fit to shoehorn Conker into their Project Spark title, allowing fans to essentially build their own Conker levels, Little Big Planet style. There’s also the new episodic campaign called Conker’s Big Reunion for Project Spark, set 10 years after Big Fur Day. But it’s still been 10 years since the last full release of a new standalone Conker, and that’s just unacceptable. If Rare wants to announce to the world in a firm, loud voice that they are officially back, there might be no better way to do so than with a little help from everyone’s favorite obscene squirrel.
Some hardcore gamers might point to the release of Viva Piñata in 2006 as the point in time that things started going wrong for Rare. The game was well-reviewed, but its graphics were colorful and kid-friendly, and its gameplay was Animal Crossing meets The Sims. Not the kind of title, in other words, that long-time Rare fans had come to expect from the company. It eventually did move 1.5 million copies, but initial sales were disappointing when compared to Rare’s past titles.
With all of that said, Viva Piñata might be a good fit for today’s market. Today’s gaming industry is far more friendly to casual gamers, and this would be an excellent way to bring some of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing fans over to Microsoft’s console. What’s key is that this game get announced in addition to a more hardcore-friendly title like Battletoads or Conker. If Rare’s big comeback is another life-sim, you’re going to see some long faces in the audience at Microsoft’s press conference.
So this one is a little out of left field, but hear me out. Rare already created a new Perfect Dark with Perfect Dark Zero on the Xbox 360, so if the company was eager to make another first person shooter, PD might not be the obvious choice at this point. What would be really interesting, and guaranteed to bring the house down at Microsoft’s press conference is a surprise announcement that Rare had been tapped to create a spiritual successor to GoldenEye 007 for the new James Bond movie that comes out later this year.
Perfect Dark gets a lot of credit for being a finely-tuned FPS, but Rare built that game using the innovations and lessons it learned from GoldenEye 007. Golden-Eye, more so than Perfect Dark, is still looked back on as one of the greatest FPS games of all-time. Other James Bond-based games have come out since then, of course, but none have managed to catch the lightning in a bottle that Rare accomplished with its title.
Imagine this scenario: Phil Spencer gets on stage at E3. He begins to tease a new Xbox One exclusive. The crowd is excited. It’s based on a popular licensed franchise. The crowd is intrigued. The James Bond trailer plays, yeah, ok, another Bond game, no big deal, right? But then the trailer ends with the Rare logo popping up on the screen. Phil Spencer drops the mic, Microsoft wins E3.
What do you think of our predictions? What games do you think will be announced? Let us know in the comments.
Follow Jason Gallagher on Twitter @MuckrakerJG.