When morale in a team is low, a proven way to boost spirits is to organize a team building exercise. This is what Rare Replay feels like – a way to rally the troops and remind current Rare employees of just how cherished the studio once was.
With the Kinect pretty much dead and buried, Phil Spencer at the helm of the Xboxâ€™s future and Ken Lobb ready and willing to lend a hand, the time has come for Rare to revive their glory days. This 30-strong retro collection is the perfect starting point – a glorious reminder of what the British studio is capable of when they arenâ€™t forced to create whatever Microsoft believes will sell systems. Kinect Sports Rivals, weâ€™re looking at you here.
Rare Replay begins in the best possible fashion – with an all-singing, all-dancing intro featuring cut-outs of characters new and old leaping around on a stage. Youâ€™re then presented with a gallery filled with games – the presentation revolves around a theatre, with faux movie posters and a ticket book thatâ€™s stamped every time a milestone is reached. Think of it as an in-game achievement system. Reaching a new milestone unlocks â€˜making ofâ€™ movies, footage of cancelled projects and choice cuts of music.
The â€˜making ofâ€™ videos in particular are incredibly insightful. When Rare was a second-party developer for Nintendo they were just as secretive as the Kyoto giant themselves, yet here they are spilling the beans on such subjects as Banjo-Kazooieâ€™s fabled Stop ‘n’ Swop feature, how Blast Corps evolved from a concept first drafted in 1992, and Ken Lobbâ€™s involvement with the Killer Instinct franchise. Itâ€™s understandable that some gamers may be a little disgruntled that every single video is initially locked, but thereâ€™s no denying that they provide an excellent incentive to play through some of the harder games.
One of Rareâ€™s philosophies is to always go beyond what the player would expect – to go that extra mile. Rare Replayâ€™s â€˜Snapshotsâ€™ are the perfect example of this ethos – bite-sized challenges similar to the those seen in the NES Remix series, which can either be attempted in a themed playlist or on their lonesome. The majority of the 2D games each have five ‘Snapshots’ to complete, varying from shooting 30 bubbles in 45 seconds in Jetpac, to collecting tokens dotted around one of R.C Pro-Amâ€™s tracks. Generally the challenges are well thought out, with many set in later stages. Successful completion of all playlists takes time and skill, adding extra value to a package that was hardly short on content to begin with.
The list of games can be broken down thus: seven ZX Spectrum games from Rareâ€™s Ultimate days, eight NES games, seven N64 games (which is actually more than whatâ€™s available on the Wii U Virtual Console), seven Xbox 360 games, one original Xbox game (Grabbed by The Ghoulies) and one coin-op (1994â€™s Battletoads Arcade). The Xbox 360 games are downloaded to the Xbox Oneâ€™s library, and as such can be launched without loading Rare Replay, while the remainder can only be launched from the gallery menu. As you may be aware, a potential 10,000G is up for grabs. Achievements previously unlocked in the Xbox 360 games cannot be unlocked for a second time, so donâ€™t expect a bunch to instantly pop when loading up Banjo-Kazooie et al. You do however earn some milestone stamps for any achievements gained in Rareâ€™s previous releases.
We havenâ€™t even talked about the games themselves yet. The beginning of Rare is the best place to start, with 1983â€™s Jetpac – a simple yet elegant single-screen shooter. That went on to spawn the side-scrolling and slightly more complex Lunar Jetman (also from 1983), and 1990â€™s Solar Jetman – one of the NESâ€™s hidden gems, boasting tight controls and tidily drawn visuals. Itâ€™s possible to rewind and attempt to dodge death in all of the 2D games present. We have it easy these days, donâ€™t we?
Whereas Jetpac is instantly accessible due to its sheer simplicity, the ultimate goals in Atic Atac, Sabre Wulf, Underwurlde and Knight Lore may not be entirely clear to newcomers. These games were released long before tutorials were commonplace, and as such a brief description would have eliminated the need to load up the digital manuals. Theyâ€™re tucked away within the Xbox Oneâ€™s â€˜Helpâ€™ tab and – we kid you not – take upwards of 30 seconds to load. Thereâ€™s no manual inside the game box – the disc is literally all thatâ€™s inside. Rareâ€™s games usually have fanatically written manuals, filled with jokes and whatnot, so we were actually a little disheartened by this. Anyway, we digress – Atic Atac, Sabre Wulf, Underwurlde and Knight Lore hold up remarkably well when compared to other games from the era. Sabre Wulfâ€™s large chunky sprites remain alluring while Knight Loreâ€™s castle is still a pleasure to explore.
When playing these games it’s wise to bear in mind just how old they are: they were released before the legendary videogame crash; the likes of Super Mario Bros. and Zelda were still a few years away. At the time, the majority of ZX Spectrum games were blatant clones of Space Invaders and Pac-Man. In comparison, Rareâ€™s efforts were works of art. Thereâ€™s also GunFright from 1984, a pleasingly daft isometric sheriff sim in which itâ€™s possible to ride around the Wild West on a pantomime horse. Thereâ€™s even an achievement to be had for doing so.
Onto the NES era, starting with Slalom from 1986. Rare infamously reverse engineered the NES to get a better understanding of what it could achieve. It was an approach that paid off – Slalom featured impressively smooth scrolling, prompting Nintendo to pick up the publishing rights. You may be under the impression that a skiing game couldnâ€™t be anything other than po-faced, but thatâ€™s not the case – it remains a fun little game with such obstacles as snowmen and holiday makers. Fellow racers R.C. Pro-Am (1988) and R.C. Pro-Am II (1992) meanwhile impressed gamers with their isometric viewpoints and detailed visuals. Responsive controls and the presence of weapons make for a timeless experience.
Snake Rattle N Roll (1990) and Cobra Triangle (1989) share a similar isometric perspective. Snake Rattle N Roll is a little taxing in the control department due to some tricky platform jumping, but the originality and daftness (enemies include giant feet that stomp around) shine through. Cobra Triangle – a speedboat combat/racing hybrid – meanwhile features a surprising amount of variety. Digger T. Rock (1990) is another unexpected gem, in the sense that itâ€™s not the most renowned of Rare titles. It takes the concept of Boulder Dash and adds a few unique twists, as well as featuring smooth character animation. It compares favourably to similar modern day games such as Spelunky and SteamWorld Dig.
Then thereâ€™s Battletoads. Battletoads. Designed to freeload on the success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it simply oozes nostalgia. Indeed, this is Rareâ€™s very own Altered Beast – a scrolling brawler everybody has fond memories of playing despite it not being very good. Itâ€™s generally believed that the majority of gamers never got past the third level – the infamous Turbo Tunnel, a vehicular section that tests both memory and reflexes. With a second player itâ€™s no easier. Itâ€™s harder, in fact – players can accidentally cause harm to one another and are forced to share lives. If you could physically see Battletoadâ€™s difficulty level, it would resemble a forever ascending ski slope.
Fortunately Battletoads Arcade provides a far less frustrating way to experience some â€˜90s nostalgia. It takes around an hour to complete and like the NES original itâ€™s reasonably varied, including some platforming elements plus a scrolling shooter stage. We were surprised by how crass it is – gore, decapitations and toilet humour all feature heavily. Presentation is likeable enough; sprites are large and chunky and the boss battles are reasonably entertaining. The sound effects and speech samples do however irritate over time, so you might want to turn the volume down for this one.
Itâ€™s often said that the days of the N64 were Rareâ€™s finest and itâ€™s certainly hard to disagree with that statement. For the obvious reasons though, GoldenEye 007, Donkey Kong 64 and the oft-forgotten Mickeyâ€™s Speedway USA arenâ€™t present. This leaves us with Killer Instinct Gold (1996), Blast Corps (1997), Banjo-Kazooie (1998), Jet Force Gemini (1999), Perfect Dark (2000), Banjo-Tooie (2000) and Conkerâ€™s Bad Fur Day (2001). The two Banjo games and Perfect Dark need no introduction – the bird and bear almost gave Super Mario 64 a run for its money, while Perfect Dark expanded on GoldenEye 007â€™s sturdy foundations.
Like Digger T. Rock, Blast Corps is another forgotten gem – a unique title that never saw a sequel or even a handheld spin-off. For something with such a simple ultimate goal (clear a path for a runaway nuclear missile carrier) itâ€™s surprisingly varied, featuring a wide range of vehicles and mechs to get to grips with. And get to grips with them you must – the key to success is mastering their various nuisances, such as Backlashâ€™s backwards spin manoeuvre. The difficulty level is a little uneven but forgivable given the tight deadline Rare was up against. Even more so when bearing in mind that Blast Corps was the work of just seven people – a small team even for the time.
Jet Force Gemini is another we haven’t seen hide nor hair of since release. This was Rareâ€™s attempt at creating a sci-fi adventure, influenced by Star Wars and the Japanese anime series Battle of the Planets. An enticing prospect, especially for those who havenâ€™t played it before. Sadly, itâ€™s ruined by botched controls. The right analogue stick is used to jump, crouch, roll and strafe. Aiming is likewise finicky in the extreme, resulting in many unfair deaths. Thereâ€™s light at the end of the tunnel fortunately – Rare is already aware that fans are struggling with the controls and have promised a patch.
The inclusion of Conkerâ€™s Bad Fur Day is notable for a similar reason – this is the first time it has been re-released in its original form. It lacks some of Banjo-Kazooieâ€™s tact but itâ€™s a no less memorable experience, filled with movie references and good old British humour. Itâ€™s well worth a play despite the occasionally wayward camera. Killer Instinct Gold is also worthy of your time, although itâ€™s far from being the best way to experience the brutal beat â€™em up. Shoddy animation is the biggest downfall – Rare had to cut an untold amount of frames from each character just to fit it onto an N64 cartridge. Weâ€™re pretty miffed that they didnâ€™t include the arcade versions of Killer Instinct 1 and 2 instead – both have already been converted to Xbox One, available in the premium priced Killer Instinct bundle. Presumably Microsoft didnâ€™t want to anger those who paid out a vast sum just get their hands on them. Other omissions include Cookie on the ZX Spectrum and Captain Skyhawk on NES.
Letâ€™s get back to what is present. Grabbed by the Ghoulies was Rareâ€™s first Xbox-exclusive, and one that does have a whiff of a rush job about it. Unsurprising, considering it was both announced and released within a six month period. The heavily stylized visuals have served it well – coupled with a resolution boost, itâ€™s actually quite pleasing to the eye still. After just an hour or so of play though the novelty of the combat system – mapped onto the right analogue stick – begins to wear thin and later on the challenges start to frustrate. Itâ€™s far from being a terrible game – the Xbox certainly saw a lot worse – but itâ€™s still viewed as a rare misfire by many.
Xbox 360 launch title Perfect Dark Zero couldnâ€™t match the majesty of the original either while Kameo: Elements of Power was pretty yet vacuous. If Kameo was a person weâ€™d feel sorry for it – it was passed from GameCube to Xbox to Xbox 360, revamped and revised on every occasion. Every time a journalist reported that Kameo was a fairy, Microsoft had to step in and point out that she was in fact an elf. Although it had a rough development itâ€™s still worth a play, if only to see what it could have been. Just don’t use the F-word.
Viva PiÃ±ata fared immeasurably better – after Banjo-Kazooie and GoldenEye 007 this is our favourite Rare game, and one that we spent a ridiculous amount of time playing. The concept of building a garden and nurturing and breeding the animals it attracts is a simple yet compelling one, enriched with creative character design and Rareâ€™s trademark humour. Those who havenâ€™t played it before are in for a treat, an open mind permitting. Sequel Trouble in Paradise incorporated all the ideas that were left out of the original, including snow and desert environments. Thankfully it doesnâ€™t toy with the winning formula at all, although this does lead to a degree of over familiarity. It might be an idea to space out play-throughs of these two. Too much of a good thing and all that.
Then we have Jetpac Refuelled (2007) – a rejuvenation of the original with new visuals and a larger play area – and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts (2008). Nuts & Bolts wasnâ€™t the glorious return of Banjo-Kazooie we all hoped for. It looks like a Banjo-Kazooie game. It sounds like a Banjo-Kazooie game. But does it play like one? Not on your nelly. It entails creating vehicles and then using them to enter races and explore the vast (but empty) environments. Weâ€™ve always had the impression that Microsoft wanted it to be their answer to LittleBigPlanet, hence why the worlds have a handmade, paper-craft look to them. Vehicular action really wasnâ€™t the right direction for the series, and as such we can only recommend playing this one out of curiosity.
Thankfully there are no real bad apples here – just a few that werenâ€™t quite ripe, such as Killer Instinct Gold (a victim of cartridge constraints) and Perfect Dark Zero (rushed to launch alongside the Xbox 360). When viewed as a whole, Rare Replay is triumph – lovingly presented and crammed with content. The Xbox 360 and N64 games alone will take up weeks of your time, and chances are that youâ€™ll find a new favourite within the older games. For us it was Digger T. Rock, which weâ€™re eager to spend more time with. We may even put on a strong pot of coffee and slog through Battletoads one lazy Sunday afternoon – the unlockable extras are certainly a decent enough incentive to do so.
So enough of the HD remasters and remakes – itâ€™s time for the valiant return of retro collections. A chance for developers to explore their back catalogues and remind themselves how their fortunes were made, delivering us gamers value for money, variety and a side helping of nostalgia in the process.