Nestled in the heart of the tranquil English countryside, Ashby-de-la-Zouch is a sleepy market town soaked in history. Along its narrow streets and alleyways you'll find a romantic ruined castle and timber-framed buildings older than the United States, but what might pass you by is a unassuming row of quaint shops that hardly warrant a second glance. But these seemingly insignificant buildings hold an intriguing secret: three decades ago, one of the world’s most celebrated video game studios was founded on this very spot.
Originally called Ultimate Play the Game, the company would find global fame under the name Rare, and would go on to create million-selling titles such as Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, Banjo Kazooie, Viva Piñata and Kinect Sports. Although Ultimate was founded in 1982, its first game - Jetpac - didn't see the light of day until November 1983; 30 years ago this winter. Given the chaotic nature of the video game business, that's quite an achievement.
Founded by siblings Tim and Chris Stamper, Ultimate was based in a small office above the drugstore owned by their father. At the time, the video game development scene was dominated by the likes of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro - personal computers designed for more sedate tasks - and Ultimate's output was the cream of the crop.
Titles like Sabre Wulf, Lunar Jetman and the iconic Knight Lore were in a different league to their contemporaries, and Ultimate quickly became one of the most popular developers of the period, earning itself legions of loyal fans. "Ultimate stood out as being the best studio, full stop," Paul Machacek, who joined the company back in the '80s and today is Rare's Test & User Research Manager, tells Red Bull. "After I came on board, Tim Stamper told me that they’d been receiving letters from people with £10 notes inside and a return address asking for the next unannounced Ultimate game to be sent to them as soon as it was ready."
Even bigger things were in store. The Stampers were quick to spot upcoming trends and knew full well that the home computers on which they had built their company's lofty reputation were slowly but surely become obsolete - a new breed of gaming hardware was emerging from Japan, and they wanted to be part of this console revolution.
The brothers had experience of working with hardware as well as software, and made the jump to consoles much sooner than other western developers. Using their experience of arcade circuitry to overcome the lack of technical guides or information, the Stampers managed to reverse-engineer the newly-launched Nintendo Famicom console - better known as the NES in the west - and thereby secure the licence to develop software for the machine.
Although the video game industry in the West was still smarting from the crash of 1983, the Stampers' intuition told them that that consoles would once again have their moment in the limelight. With this in mind, the brothers formed Rare Limited in 1985 and sold the Ultimate name to UK publisher U.S. Gold. "The move from Ultimate to Rare had been about switching focus from UK home computers to foreign consoles and arcade boards," Machacek explains. Abandoning the brand name was a risky plan, but it gave the Stampers the clean start they wanted.
Tinkering with Nintendo's console wasn't the only hardware venture the company embarked on during this exciting period of experimentation. It's a little known fact that Rare even developed its own handheld gaming system, based on the unreleased RAZZ arcade board. "The RAZZ board was Chris Stampers’ project," Machacek tells Red Bull. "It was entirely home grown, but he and Tim had an arcade hardware background so it wasn’t completely out of the blue. I don’t remember whose idea it was to try and turn it into a handheld device running on a few small batteries, but we did it anyway, undaunted by the short running time or bulky form-factor produced.” The company even shelled out for an expensive vacuum forming machine just to build the case for it.
The prototype of this very system still resides within the walls of Rare's HQ, a reminder of how the tiny firm almost took on the might of Nintendo, the Japanese giant which would later enjoy an intimate relationship with the studio. Machacek still vividly recalls the project. "It was a loose collection of chips suspended in thin air, squashed together carefully so that it fit inside the casing without shorting out anything," he remembers. "Tim was responsible for the exterior styling and I did the software demo. It ran on some AA batteries and used a color LCD screen ripped from a little portable TV that Tim had brought back from Japan. Then, just to ensure that we’d never be able to actually release it, we called it the Playboy.”
No, really. “It was taken to a trade show to pitch as a possible product, only to find out that at the same show Nintendo was pragmatically - and wildly successfully - launching the Game Boy."
The dubiously-named Playboy was shelved, but Rare's fascination with technology remained undiminished. In fact, former Rare staffer Chris Seavor feels that the studio - and the Stampers in general - perhaps don't get enough credit for their adventures in hardware. "The first game I worked on was Killer Instinct, which was pretty much built from the ground up by Rare." Seavor says. "The board was designed and hand built by Chris Stamper. My office was next to his for a short while and I used to see him like some mad scientist, soldering away like crazy. Less well known is the incredible number of patents Rare took out over the years - things that never saw the light of day. Tim and Chris would best be described as inventors who happened to specialize in games."
By the time the '90s arrived Rare had committed fully to console development, creating software for the commercially popular NES and Game Boy. Some of these games were original outings, but the harsh realities of running a business meant that many were produced on behalf of other publishers, such as WWF WrestleMania for Acclaim and The Amazing Spider-Man for LJN.
"The company needed to earn money, so a lot of games were started because a deal to write something for an IP had been struck," says Machacek. "This contractual work was mixed with some original content, but there was a desire to get away from the contractual and be self-sufficient in creating our own IP.”
Their first attempt became the legendary beat’ em up Battletoads. Released when the Ninja Turtles were being exposed to a global audience for the first time, Battletoads was a masterstroke of creativity - and technology. "I remember programmer Mark Betteridge coming back from a trade show and saying that everyone had been asking what this Battletoads demo was running on," reveals Machacek with a smile. "Surely it was the next Nintendo console in disguise, or there was extra hardware in the cartridge? In fact, it was just clever software tricks running on a standard NES."
Battletoads was just one of Rare's titles released during this period. Others such as Snake, Rattle 'n' Roll, Captain Skyhawk, Lunar Jetman and Wizards & Warriors gained positive reviews and sold well.
These ventures undoubtedly helped Rare gain the attention and respect of Nintendo itself: in 1994 it purchased a 49 percent stake in the company, making Rare a second-party Nintendo studio. Again, much of this is down to the forward-thinking Stampers: they saw the rapid emergence of CGI visuals in the early '90s and invested heavily in this area. "Ironically, pretty much all the bigger companies were hiring 3D artists to work on cinematics for games," remembers Seavor. "But it was Rare that very early on spotted the potential for these techniques to make in-game assets, as well."
In fact, Rare had impressed Nintendo enough to be entrusted with one of its most famous and valuable franchises. "The value and respect afforded to Rare by Nintendo can be summed very simply: the Japanese gaming giant gave a western company the keys to one of its golden eggs, Donkey Kong. I think it’s safe to say it was no light decision.”
The result - Donkey Kong Country - is one of the most important in the entire history of the studio. It sold 9 million copies worldwide making it the second best-selling SNES title ever.
"I think there was a lot of mutual respect and benefit for both parties," says Rare game designer Gregg Mayles, who joined the studio as a tester in 1990. "Rare as a company - and me as an individual - gained a lot from working with Nintendo luminaries such as Shigeru Miyamoto and Genyo Takeda, and we saw their games as the benchmark for our experiences to aim at. But I also like to think that we impressed Nintendo with our technical prowess and desire to create experiences that could sit alongside those from Kyoto."
Many developers hold Miyamoto - the creator of stars including Mario, Zelda and Donkey Kong - in the kind of regard normally reserved for deities, and getting to rub shoulders with the great man was clearly inspirational for Rare's staff, more accustomed to the seclusion of the countryside.
"When Miyamoto-san visited Rare we took him out for a meal and he asked me about the English game of cricket," remembers Mayles with a smile. "I attempted to explain the rules to him by mocking up wickets with breadsticks, a napkin as the pitch and the salt and pepper pots as batsmen, but I’m not sure he left any the wiser!"
For many, 1994 marks the beginning of Rare's golden era. A string of hits across the SNES, Game Boy and N64 would cement the Rare's reputation as one of the world's premier developers, with titles such as Killer Instinct, GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, Diddy Kong Racing, Banjo-Kazooie and Jet Force Gemini creating a whole new generation of fans. "We were in a position where the audience was craving the next release, and Nintendo was backing them," Machacek adds. "It just all sort of worked."
However, not every project went as smoothly as planned. Conker's Bad Fur Day began life as a cute platformer but eventually morphed into a foul-mouthed and hilariously crude adventure - largely due to Seavor's influence. As outrageous as the game was - and still is - it didn't fit with Nintendo's family-friendly portfolio, and received little marketing help in North America. In Europe, Nintendo shunned the game completely, and the now-defunct THQ stepped up to handle publishing duties.
"I remember being accosted by a drunken executive at one of Nintendo’s E3 parties," remembers Seavor, who wrote, directed and designed the game, as well as providing voices for many of the characters. "They really didn’t like Conker and told me so. Within Nintendo of America, I got the feeling Conker wasn’t all that appreciated." Seavor would encounter similar confusion when the game was later remade for the Xbox. "I demoed Conker Live & Reloaded to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer once and his main comment was ‘How are we gonna market this?’" Conker may have baffled Nintendo and Microsoft, but it's the perfect example of how Rare has bravely defied conventions in the past and created classic titles in the process.
At the turn of the new millennium, the relationship with Nintendo's was starting to wind down and word spread that Rare was potentially up for sale. Approaches were made by both Activision and Microsoft, the latter eventually paying $375 million to acquire the entire company. Since then, Rare has been part of the Microsoft Games Studios network, and has worked on the Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and played an integral part in developing the Kinect motion-sensing camera.
It's tempting to ask how this has changed the company. "I think there is a level of professionalism and project management that has ingressed here that we didn’t have so much before," says Machacek. "The industry has changed - it really is an industry now, and there is so much more to developing a hit title than simply writing something that you thought was cool. I think we’ve grown up."
Mayles agrees. "It’s a bit like comparing the Wild West to a more civilized modern city. The creative wildness has been balanced with a more measured approach to ensure continued success. I firmly believe the Rare of pre-Microsoft would no longer be in business if we had continued as we were.” It’s hard to argue when you consider the award winning Kinect Sports has been the studio’s best selling original IP.
Since the acquisition, Rare’s proven to be a vital part of the Microsoft stable, creating best-selling games and working closely on both Kinect and the Xbox 360's popular avatar system. It says a lot that when asked which title sums up Rare the best, both Machacek and Mayles cite Xbox 360 "life simulation" Viva Piñata rather than one of the more famous classics from the Nintendo era. "It was the last game Tim Stamper had a hand in and it was guided by a core team of long serving Rare-ites who had learnt the ‘Rare’ way over many years," Mayles tells Red Bull. "It had soul. I believe soul is such an important element in a game."
Rare's phenomenal success and longevity is all the more striking considering how many of its rivals have long since gone bust or been gobbled up by other companies and swiftly disbanded. "Rare has been here for 28 years now, and there’s no one thing that has ensured that," Machacek replies when asked the secret of the firm's long life. "One thing is key though: you always have to strive to produce the best content you can, and need to put yourself in the position that allows you to do that time and time again, regardless of how hard it is. People will only remember the products where the team went the extra mile."
Although Rare is no longer based in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, the studio hasn't moved far in the three decades since its inception. In the late '80s it relocated to a 300 year-old mansion called Manor Farmhouse in the nearby village of Twycross, and eleven years later it would move to its current residence - a sprawling, purpose-built HQ just a short distance down the road. Surrounded by 100 acres of lush green fields, it's a unique place in which to work. "It’s quiet and there’s no hustle and bustle," Machacek explains. "It gives people thinking time. I guess you don’t get distractions."
The studio has even survived the departure of its founders. The famously secretive Stampers left the company - and the industry - in 2007, but their influence continues to be felt even today. Working under them was an experience, as Seavor recalls. "They expected everyone to have the same passion and commitment as they did and didn’t suffer anyone who didn’t for very long." After 15 years, Seavor left Rare himself in 2012 to found his own studio, Gory Detail, where he is currently working with fellow ex-Rare developer Shawn Pile on The Unlikely Legend of Rusty Pup for iOS and Wii U.
Rare has a pedigree that is the envy of its rivals, and has managed to remain at the forefront of the games industry while its contemporaries have fallen by the wayside. As it prepares to fully embrace the next generation with the recently-released Xbox One, what does the future hold for the veteran studio?
"Change," replies Machacek. "Video games are led by fashion and technology, and Rare needs to continue to adapt - as it has so many times for so long - to continue to be a creative and successful studio within that framework. We’re investing and expanding and we’ll have a stable base to work from again with the launch of Xbox One. Change is good."
As one of Rare's longest-serving employees, we'll let Machacek have the final word on this remarkable story. "I think it’s amazing to be part of something that has had such a long history of producing high quality titles," he says. "Sitting here today, we’re trying to be daring and audacious on a new platform and reinvent again."
Here’s to another thirty years.