Everything old is new again
Few developers have generated such an aura of mystique and reverence as Rare Software. Since the 1980s, it churned out a string of brilliant games, primarily for Nintendo consoles, becoming a great British institution in the process. Then, in 2002, Microsoft bought it for an eye-watering $375 million, and forced it to make dire Kinect games (although even then, the odd Xbox gem did shine through). The first step in atoning for that unforgivable sin is Rare Replay, a cornucopia of retro goodies for less than £20.
Rare Replay is, simply, a collection of 30 of the best games that Rare has developed since the 1980s. It’s pretty comprehensive, with only three glaring omissions: 1997’s GoldenEye for the Nintendo64, Diddy Kong Racing (also from 1997 and from the N64) and the Donkey Kong Country games it made between 1994 and 1999. The absence of all three can be explained by licensing issues – GoldenEye is a James Bond game, and Activision published a remake of it in 2011, while Nintendo still controls everything Donkey and Diddy Kong-related.
But otherwise, Rare Replay contains the best of the company’s formidable back-catalogue, so it constitutes perhaps the finest lesson on the history of videogames we will ever gratefully receive. Fire it up, and you can scroll through in chronological order, starting with a selection of old ZX Spectrum games which were actually developed by the company when it was known as Ultimate (it became Rare Software in 1985). Those Spectrum games, while undeniably basic, are in general surprisingly playable thanks to the purity of their gameplay. Of the early efforts, the rocket-assembling shooter Jetpac and the incredibly colourful jungle-exploration game Sabre Wulf are the highlights, although Knight Lore, an isometric action-adventure dungeon romp which was technologically way ahead of its peers in 1984 is an interesting curiosity, and 1985’s Wild West epic Gunfright is primitive but fun.
Those weaned on modern videogames will connect much better with the titles Rare made for the Nintendo Entertainment System and later consoles, though. RC Pro-Am was a huge hit that channels the spirit of Micro Machines, while Battletoads (the three eponymous heroes luxuriating in the names Rash, Zitz and Pimple) is genuinely hilarious, and puts every Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle game before or since to shame. Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll is also a surprisingly inventive platformer which was also cutting-edge at the time, although looks inevitably dated now.
However, Rare Replay really comes into its own with the advent of the Nintendo64: it contains a hatful of N64 games which are, simply, stone-cold classics. There’s Killer Instinct Gold, the first iteration of the arcade-honed beat-em-up to be ported onto a console. Blast Corps, in which you must use a JCB to clear a path for a runaway missile-carrier, still plays quite unlike anything else you will have come across. But Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie remain two of the best platform games ever released, and it beggars belief that the Banjo franchise has never been resurrected.
For us, the clincher is the presence of Conker’s Bad Fur Day, a game which justifies Rare Replay’s £20 price-tag single-handedly. Although deliberately designed to look like an identikit cute, furry platformer, it’s one of the filthiest games ever. Conker is a red squirrel with a bad attitude and a raging hangover; in his quest to get home and get some sleep after an evil binge, he encounters a string of horrors that will have you crying with laughter, including an opera-singing boss monster made from excrement, at whom you must hurl toilet rolls. The game has a very unhealthy obsession with bodily functions – poor old Conker must, for example, swim through sewage and urinate on demons. Sure, it’s puerile, but it’s also genuinely funny, very dark and also satisfyingly hard to navigate.
And there are plenty more classics, including Perfect Dark – essentially a GoldenEye sequel, which hasn’t dated brilliantly – and Perfect Dark Zero, which does have more in common with modern first-person shooters. The inventive, pastoral Viva Pinata and its sequel Trouble In Paradise are included, along with the surprisingly good, long-forgotten third-person shooter Jet Force Gemini.
In other words, with Rare Replay, you get an awful lot of very inventive gameplay for precious little money. And it’s not just some irrelevant curiosity – it charts a large part of the history of videogames, through the lens of one of the greatest ever development houses. Even if you have no interest in nostalgia-trips, we guarantee you’ll find at least a couple of games inside it that blow your mind – especially when you consider how long ago they were made. Right, Microsoft: time to commission that Conker’s Bad Fur Day sequel…