Of the numerous companies Nintendo brought together to form their Ultra 64 Dream Team, many were surprising, but some were just plain obvious. And when it comes to Rareware, or just Rare if you prefer, the only ones more obvious would have to be Silicon Graphics, Inc. and, of course, Nintendo themselves.
Unlike some of the companies covered thus far in this series, Rare remains pretty well known for where it came from and where it’s going. They began as Ultimate Play the Game, founded by English brothers Chris and Tim Stamper in order to develop games for computer platforms such as the Spectrum, BBC Micro, and Commodore VIC-10. The Ultimate brand saw a short-lived sale to US Gold, wherein a series of games that did not perform well with the gaming press were released before the Stampers bought the name back. By this point, they’d already begun a new company called Rare, whose rise coincided with the surge in popularity the Nintendo Entertainment System was seeing in 1988.
Rare would go on to develop a number of titles for the platform, ranging from the Nintendo-published Black Box title Slalom and Cobra Triangle to numerous titles published by their third-parties, including Wizards & Warriors via Acclaim and Battletoads via Tradewest. In between original creations, they also lent their touch to a number of licensed titles published through Acclaim subsidiary LJN (such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and A Nightmare on Elm Street) and ports of other titles (such as Atari’s Marble Madness via Milton Bradley and Midway’s NARC through Acclaim).
It would be during the era of the Super NES that Rare would get far more cozy with Nintendo, however. After impressing the company with their Advanced Computer Modeling (ACM) techniques using Silicon Graphics workstations to create graphics that could be ported to the 16-bit hardware, Rare was granted the license to create a new take on one of Nintendo’s most legendary characters. And thus, Donkey Kong Country was born.
Donkey Kong Country would go on to sell nine million units worldwide, making it the platform’s best-selling game behind the pack-in Super Mario World. From there, numerous sequels and spin-offs were developed, leading to two trilogies on both the Super NES and the much weaker Game Boy. Nintendo would initially invest into 25 percent of the company, but that number ballooned to 49 percent before all was said and done, making Rare a second-party developer.
As such, Rareware was brought on board as a member of the Nintendo Ultra 64 Dream Team, all while still developing titles for Nintendo’s other platforms over the coming years. Their first title for the rechristened Nintendo 64 was to be a port of their arcade collaboration with Midway, Killer Instinct, but the delays in the new console’s release would see it downgraded to a black cartridge Super NES release. Instead, their first title for the 64-bit machine would be Killer Instinct Gold, a port of the arcade sequel, Killer Instinct 2.
Rare would prove to be a major contributor to the Nintendo 64’s popularity; any conversation regarding the system’s best games is bound to include discussion of Diddy Kong Racing, Banjo-Kazooie (or its sequel), Conker’s Bad Fur Day, or GoldenEye 007, among potential others. It’s enough to make those who would otherwise be excited by the prospect of a Nintendo 64 Classic Edition a little nervous.
You see, though their partnership with Nintendo was fruitful, their reach exceeded their grasp, and they wound up coming up short of needed funds for continued development. Nintendo wasn’t interested in providing more capital, nor were they interested in an offer for them to purchase the company lock, stock, and rolling barrel. As a result, Rare entertained other offers from Activision and Microsoft; the former deal fell through, leaving Microsoft free and clear to purchase the company and make Rare a first-party developer for their new platform, the Xbox.
With the parting of ways, Nintendo retained the rights to Rare games which incorporated their intellectual property, such as Donkey Kong Country and Star Fox Adventures (their last release as a part of Nintendo), while Rare — and thus Microsoft — retained the rights to their own homegrown properties, including Battletoads, Banjo-Kazooie, Conker, Killer Instinct, and Perfect Dark, among others. And unless Nintendo reaches some sort of plum deal with Microsoft, those are probably not likely to be a part of any Classic Edition release. (And let’s not even get into the rights quagmire that is GoldenEye 007.)
Rare wasn’t done with Nintendo yet, however. Since Microsoft had no stake in the portable gaming market, Rare was clear to release games for Nintendo’s handhelds, the Game Boy Advance (and later the Nintendo DS). They usually partnered with THQ for these ventures, but would join up with Nintendo again for ports of games such as the Donkey Kong Country series. This crossover development would eventually cease, with Rare working on projects such as Xbox Avatars and titles for the Xbox 360’s motion-sensing apparatus, the Kinect.
Though Tim and Chris Stamper left the company in 2006, Rare would celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2015 with the release of Rare Replay, a collection of 30 games from across the company’s three-decade history — that aren’t owned by Nintendo, of course. Most recently, they released Sea of Thieves on the Xbox One, which received a mix of largely average reviews from critics, despite being nominated for several awards.
While some would argue that Rare was never the same after leaving Nintendo’s side, their output leading up to and throughout the Nintendo 64’s life makes it abundantly clear why they were welcomed as a part of the console’s Dream Team.